The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down is toxic. According to Michael Pollan, “We are processed corn, walking.” Based on carbon-13 isotopes in our flesh and our hair, we North Americans “look like corn chips with legs.” Corn is the soylent yellow of our day; corn is people! The Franken-wheat we love to eat makes us fat and sick and diabetic; it’s only a matter of time before a Surgeon General’s Warning appears on healthy whole–wheat, whole-grain products. There is propane and butane in the cooking spray. “There is sh#t in the meat.”*
Up until last week, I packed my son’s lunch with a turkey sandwich on a Kaiser roll, apple juice, pretzels, yogurt and a granola bar. Sometimes I threw in sliced apples or strawberries or, as a rare treat, a bag of gummies. His lunchbox loaded with GMOs, HFCS, arsenic, sugar, numbered dyes in every color of the rainbow and a love note from Mom, he was ready for circle time.
I shouldn’t have admitted to packing lunches like this on Real Life Survival Guide—not right there with eminent Yale professor and nationally recognized nutrition and health expert Dr. Kelly Brownell and Claire Criscuolo listening—that’s the Claire of the legendary New Haven restaurant and healthy-food mecca, Claire’s Cornucopia. Also joining us: the precocious child eater who once asked for sea urchin and Rob the phenomenal home cook whose child’s pre-school teacher took him aside and told him, “You make the best lunches!” Nutritionally, this was the A-Team.
My confession raised a question for the group that’s had me itching in this hair shirt ever since: What do you want to do—take twenty minutes to prepare lunch or throw in three Lunchables?
I thought of my four kids, my husband working in another town four days a week, the never-ending activities and paperwork and laundry, the long minivan treks, the late nights alone with the dishes and school e-mails, the early mornings, the snooze button that I regularly hit for ten extra minutes of sleep, then hit again for ten more.
Twenty minutes. That cuts into sleep. I could do it though. I’ve done it before.
I thought of those by-gone conscientious days when I cared more, when I prepared nutritious meals a week in advance and bagged them into ready-to-go portions. Not for my kids, however.
They were for my dog.
* * *
As our black lab George grew old and his teeth wore down, he began rejecting those dry, crunchy nuggets—those vet-endorsed, nutrient-dense marbles in the fifty-pound bags—in favor of soft, canned meat. We bought him Alpo. He loved every flavor: Prime Cuts and Prime Slices in Gravy, Lamb and Rice or Beef Bacon and Cheese in Gravy . . . and then there was Filet Mignon Flavor, Top Sirloin Flavor, Ribeye Flavor and Roast Chicken Flavor all Cooked in Savory Juices. Alpo felt right, maybe because every time we picked up a case I’d recall from childhood that comforting voice of Lorne Greene, Bonanza star and Alpo-commercial spokesman whose old dogs ate Alpo because its “real beef” kept them “happy” and helped them live “long, healthy lives.”
Our vet, however, was horrified. Alpo had little to no nutritional value. George needed real food, home-cooked meats and vegetables. He was getting nothing out of the Alpo. Nothing. I could spend twenty minutes preparing his meal or . . . I could continue on along the ignorant and corporate-demented loser path and let poor George eat canned grains and fillers such as cornstarch, wheat gluten, meat by-products and added color.
Although those were easier days—back then only three of our four children had been born and juvenile diabetes meant a dollar donation in the Stop-and-Shop check-out line—I still didn’t have twenty minutes to prepare each of George’s custom meals. I planned ahead. Every few days I turned my kitchen into a charnel house of bone and raw meat and cooked it rare as the vet had directed. I chopped liver, knowing this must be the smell of cadavers because my doctor friend had told me that med-school anatomy lab smelled like liver. (It’s people!) I mixed it with the ground beef and steamed, pre- frozen carrots and peas and onions and spooned measured cups of meat-n-veggies into handy zip-lock baggies and froze them. (As this was also an ideal teachable moment, a perfect time for the children to learn about nutrition, I plugged them into The Wiggles singing “Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy.” It was that or Sweeney Todd.)
George didn’t like it. He tried some of my home cooking, ate a little here and there, but for the first time in his life he left food in his dish. Here was a dog infamous for tipping over garbage cans in Liberty Lake, Washington, and plundering their rotting contents; here was a coprophagous connoisseur of dead fish and deer legs and coyote dung—but now George wouldn’t eat, at least not enthusiastically, the meals I prepared for him week after week until finally I gave out, we gave up and gave him Alpo again until he died at the ripe old age of sixteen.
* * *
What do you want to do? Twenty minutes . . . or Lunchables?
Déjà vu. Was I ready to sell out again as I’d done for George, to feed my children Lunchables—call it Alpo for Humans—in order to make them and me happy? Twenty minutes! Sleep, sweet sleep . . .
No—and no. I needed help. Short on time and sleep and recognizing that my six-year-old son really needed to eat healthier, I opted for the third choice, the one he feared most: school lunches. He wouldn’t eat them. “Will you please just try?” I asked, having seen fresh fruit and vegetables on the menu. We talked. It turned out he wasn’t exactly afraid of the school lunches; he dreaded emptying his tray. He didn’t know how to throw his food out.
A little guidance and he has it down. Today, one week later, he tells me he prefers school lunches to his lunch-box lunch. At school he has chicken nuggets, popcorn chicken, pizza dunkers, mac and cheese and Macho Nachos.
“Do you ever eat the fruit or the vegetables?” I ask my son.
He says the broccoli doesn’t taste as good as mine—which is nothing more than broccoli steamed al dente with a little salt. There is a strawberry-ish-orange fruit that might be peaches or mangoes. He’s not sure exactly. He likes it.
Is his school lunch safer than his lunch-box food? No idea. At school, his food is out of my control. There are good things and bad things. In his lunch-box, there are things that are part good, part bad. It’s all processed mystery to me, all that sugar and rice and carbs that taste nice. How much is too much? What’s our tipping point for sugar, for corn, for wheat, for meat, the point when our bodies, like our oceans, deteriorate from pollution? Where is the real food and what makes it real and how do we know and who can prove it? What’s in a chicken nugget, a pizza dunker, a Macho Nacho? What’s in that stuff? Soylent.
Soylent (from Wiktionary and the Urban Dictionary): 1) an undesirable, lackluster, artificial foodstuff. 2) a corporate or government lie. Officially a noun but used as an adjective. Soylent green is people!
Call me crazy and paranoid, but it’s everywhere, that soylent, in school lunches and lunch boxes, in our crackers and our cookies, our breads and pancake mixes and pastas and meats and frozen pizzas and hors-d’oevres and canola spray and cannoli. Government-approved, corporate-sponsored, school-sanctioned: it’s out there and it’s after us.
And what’s worse, we like it. We like our Lunchables, our Alpo; for some of us, human and animal, they’re better than real! We’re the big-business-blessed Lotus eaters of our day and we’re happy with our soylent and if you’re not, well, then you’re a little too uptight—like that darn veterinarian!
Still, in the back of my mind is the vet’s voice, my acceptance that yes, I have been a loser parent when it comes to food and maybe someday my children’s illnesses will be my fault because of the lunchboxes I packed. Sometimes I go into the kitchen to look for what’s good, what’s safe, and I think of inviting you all over for a little party. I’ll set Pandora to the “Soylent Blues” station and we’ll salvage what’s still real and mix it up together in giant bowls and measure it into baggies and freeze it for the ages and send it off with our children as they travel into a world already past its tipping point. Because someday they’ll need to know that in the days before soylent, there were nine bean-rows and a hive for the honey bee and a bee-loud glade. And with each little baggie they open they’ll find a note: I made this for you, sweetheart. Have a wonderful day. I miss you and love you. Come home soon.
*First-paragraph references are to the following: Gary Taube, “Is Sugar Toxic?” NY Times Magazine April 13, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0; Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin 2006) pp. 21-3; William Davis, Wheat Belly (Rodale 2011); Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001).
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.