Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

The more things change...

And other interesting Continental observations



2014, like any other year, saw changes — and a lot of things pretty much trucking along as usual. I'd say the French have it bang on: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose or, for those of you challenged by our second official language, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

At Whistler, looking back, the biggest changes happened back-to-back at two classics. Citta' closed after almost 30 years of staking claim to the best (and often the most fun) patio and watering hole in town. Then Jack Evrensel announced the sale of Araxi, the iconic resto named for his wife, to the Aquilini Group.

It will be hard to totally reinvent the Citta' vibe, but once that patio is rocking again, I bet it will feel just like old times. And who can say Araxi has missed a beat with new ownership?

Other changes on the local food scene this past year — like the revamped Whistler/Blackcomb food scene replete with a full-on vegetarian menu at Raven's Nest, and Nicolette and Pierre Richer's popular new organic food bar, The Green Moustache — are more reflections of a bigger trend that started, well, years back and came to their fullest head so far over the past year. Namely, our obsession with food.

Food as healing agent. Food as fashion. Food as iconic status symbol. Food as something to be loved; hated; or avoided, as in, I'm allergic to X, or I'm on a diet — again. Food as something that, for better or worse, is preoccupying us to an extent previously unseen in our omnivorous human history.

Planned a dinner party lately? It's nuts! This one can't eat wheat. Another, no seafood. That one can't digest milk products, including me, the Queen of Lactaid.

Those who are gluten- or lactose-intolerant really have no choice and can usually be accommodated. But when you add in the personal preferences du jour, as in this one is vegan, or that one eats no carbs, and yet another wants only protein and lots of it, something that seemed like a simple and simply good idea — a friendly dinner party — can feel crazy.

It's a kind of atomization around what was once a positive collective cultural and practical experience — the feast — that would do Alexis de Tocqueville proud. In his 1830s classic, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville argued how America's obsession with material wealth and the rise of an industrial aristocracy, along with its utter reverence for "The Individual" (caps mine), would be its Achilles tendon.

Lets look at food allergies alone: Parents can't put peanut butter sandwiches in their kids' school lunches, and for good reason. More and more kids are severely allergic to peanuts, which can be one of the most dangerous allergies around.

A study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine indicated peanut allergies there had more than tripled in children from 0.6 per cent in 1997 to 2.1 per cent in 2008. While the percentage remained low, it's still a remarkable trend, moreso given the proportion of adults allergic to peanuts during the same period remained constant, at 1.3 per cent.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control also report upswings in food and skin allergies in general in children under 18 for 1997-2011. Two things in the study stood out. For one, Hispanic children had a lower prevalence of food, skin and respiratory allergies than did children of other races or ethnicities.

As well, and I can't help but glance back again to de Tocqueville here, the prevalence of food and respiratory allergies increased with income levels, with children in families where the household income was equal to or greater than 200 per cent of the poverty level having the highest prevalence of food and respiratory allergies.

A 2010 study on allergy prevalence — the first of its kind in Canada and one I wrote about last summer — conducted by McGill University Health Centre showed that one in 13 Canadians has a serious food allergy. About 7.5 per cent of children and adults have at least one food allergy.

Several scientific studies summarized last year in Scientific American were ones that didn't get much media play, reflecting another interesting conclusion of de Tocqueville's, namely the negative influence that the domination of majority opinion, read, popular media, would have on American society. But together these studies demonstrated the negative impacts that C-sections and feeding babies formula rather than breast milk could be having on their increased susceptibility to allergies, asthma, eczema, celiac disease and obesity.

Could it be our growing unhealthy relationships with food are being kick-started by the upswings in preference for C-sections and formula feeding?

Add to that our food obsessions that are pure, well, obsessions. No sugar, no carbs, no meat; more fat, less fat. Eat raw. Eat like a caveman. Eat like a Mesopotamian. Eat, eat, and don't eat. And in between, make sure you try the latest dish your friend just Facebooked you on for the 11th million time. (Yes, I hear you screaming. Me too!) Our food obsessions that in 2014 had social media acolytes laughing at the poor teenager too fat to wedge in between tables at a fast-food restaurant. Our obsessions that had John Lanchester, another wise writer and social observer — this time from Britain — who often writes about food, basically toss in his membership card over all this foodism.

Writing in The New Yorker last November in a piece titled "Shut Up and Eat: A foodie repents" Lanchester sums up the culmination of our obsession with all things food in a, pardon the food-related pun, nutshell: "Most of the energy that we put into our thinking about food, I realized, isn't about food, it's about anxiety. Food makes us anxious."

Indeed. Anxious and obsessed.

And here, with more high-quality food more easily available than ever worldwide, but especially for most of us lucky ones in Europe and North America, you'd think we'd be just the opposite. Rather more laissez-faire about what we ingest now that we don't have to go out for supper and whack down a mastodon, which, by the way, likely died out in North America not because of over-hunting but because of climate change.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Have a Happy New Year, and a relaxed relationship with your food.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who prefers all things in moderation.

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