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November 29, 2013

Can We Reverse the Trend?

Right before I left school on Wednesday, I was helping a student with her classwork.  She’s only been in America two years–coming from China with her family for a better life.  As we were packing up I asked if her family would be celebrating Thanksgiving.

She brightened right up and happily exclaimed, “Oh yes! My mother will make the traditional turkey tomorrow and then we will join the traditional shopping on Friday!”  My heart cracked a little, but I had to go to another class.  I didn’t correct her. She seemed so happy that her family was being “American” for a few days.

Black Friday, a term from business turned against consumers to now whip them into a shopping frenzy. Taking advantage of Black Friday deals has become *the* thing to do the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, the masters of manipulation have brainwashed our society so well that we now start the madness on Thanksgiving night itself.  No more a day off for people to share with their families and friends. To feast, to gather, to rest. Now people must eat then go into work for a late night shift.

One friend in retail went in to work for 9PM last night then has to do a double shift today.  This retail job is her second job, too. The one she had to take to help meet expenses of college for her children.  Sure, she’s getting paid, but the company she works for is the one really making the killing.

Corporations have convinced us that Black Friday means great sales.  Take a look at prices and you’ll see that’s a lie. Oh sure, there may be one or two door buster specials, but that’s about it.  Google it. Consumer advocates publish articles every year saying this. It’s not just my anecdotal evidence.

And I know many people have to shop for holiday gifts, but does it all have to be done a month ahead? And why all today? How much of today’s frenzy is a manufactured need spurred on by clever manipulators, skilled in human psychology? My nine year old niece made a passing complaint yesterday about all the Black Friday advertising she’s been seeing, and she doesn’t even have a television in her home!

I rarely use my own television, but every time I open my email, there’s another “Black Friday Special” junk mail. Every site I visit with advertising has ads for today.  It’s revolting.

When I left America in 1995, Black Friday was just starting to be a “thing” that was being strongly marketed, but it was no where near “tradition” level.  And on Thanksgiving itself, hardly anything was open.  Forget something for the dinner table? Oh well, you’re probably going without unless you spotted it by 2PM. I remember spending 40 minutes one year looking for something my mother forgot. My grandmother liked it, so off I went only to find one lone deli open that was getting ready to close minutes after I left.

But when I came back to the US in 2007, it was to the land of Black Friday madness and instant gratification.  It’s horrendous.

When I lived in Europe, one of the things that drove me slightly batty at times was the store hours. Stores had certain hours, and when they were closed, that’s all she wrote. In Switzerland, the strictest place, stores were closed on Sunday all day and closed at 5:00PM Saturday evening.  But we knew that was the system.

People had all day Sunday off to spend with family and relax.  For all its rules, I think the quality of our family life in Switzerland was the best it ever was.  Every Sunday we went to a museum, the park,  the lake or for a family stroll. Restaurants and the big museums were opened, so some people were working, but because the shops were closed, I was forced to get the errands done beforehand giving me time with my family on Sunday.

Switzerland, for all its wealth, was not a retail mad country, and no one was urging us to BUY BUY BUY.

Can we here in the US reverse this trend? Can we be “unprogrammed” to rush to the stores early on “Black Friday” to buy, buy, buy, emptying our pockets into the corporate maw and depleting our own stores of happiness?

I think so, or frankly I wouldn’t be writing, would I? Resist.  As a nation we must learn that we are being manipulated and used by corporations.  More and more I’m seeing this, and it’s breaking my heart.

And I know some people think of shopping as a hobby, but I have never heard one person talk about the pleasure of shopping on Black Friday. They complain of the crowds, the crush, the tempers, the surliness, the lack of parking.  After a lovely, relaxing day, why subject one’s self to that?

Want a tip from someone who hates shopping (I love giving the gifts, but I hate the actual shopping part and always have)? Early morning Saturday the week after Black Friday is a totally different experience. I went into Macy’s when it opened and had the place practically to myself.  It was still three weeks before Christmas, so I wasn’t too frantic, and the crowds had spent their money the week before.  Lesson learned.

I have friends who are happily out shopping today, and that’s their decision. I refrain, mostly out of my hatred for the manipulation, but in part because of my abhorrence of crowds and long lines.

If you shop today, though, all I ask is that you do it mindfully not because you were brainwashed. And please, please please treat the workers politely, Many have given up family time to help you and far too many people are rude and nasty. Kindness costs nothing, and really, truly is the American way.

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

September 27, 2012

Comfort food

Filed under: ex-pats,New Broads,Sweden,Uncategorized — by maggiec @ 6:12 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A woman hit me in the head with a yoga mat today. It was the start of a wonderful conversation.

I had stopped by a new “lot” store on the way home, and as I rounded the corner, I walked into a falling yoga mat. It doesn’t sound as dramatic that way, though. The woman who had knocked it off was very apologetic, and while she was talking, I noticed her accent.

She was German-Algerian and French was her first language, so I was wrong in my guess. But we both had lived in Geneva as she freelanced for the UN, so we had Geneva in common.

She also lived here now, but had been in Paris to visit family, and this store was new to her. I mentioned that it was a good place for German cookies and we were off!  We stood in that store talking for a good ten minutes, two strangers but tied by their search for familiar foods.  I think I enjoyed having that conversation again as much as I enjoyed telling her where to find certain things.

Ex-pats, when they meet their fellows in foreign lands, always have the “where can I get…” conversation.  Once I’d lived a place long enough, I was the one giving the newbies the information.  Some things are impossible to find in foreign lands, but we all learn where we can find many of the ingredients or products we need to make being an ex-pat less “foreign”.

As I’ve been back in America for five years, I don’t often have this conversation anymore. Today I realize how much I’ve missed it–the sense of being different, of spying out things natives may overlook. Of being on a foraging adventure with like minded folks. It was bonding over food–an activity as old as civilization.  Living in New York City I can find everything I miss if I’m willing to pay the price and perhaps travel a bit.  But some products are harder to find than others.  Real crème fraîche made with unpasturized cream is very difficult to find. The children’s candy staple Kinder Eggs are actually illegal in America. But for the most part, I can find things.

I still get cravings, though, and miss foods from “home,” but now “home” is Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.  The Taiwan part is easy. I go to Chinatown.  Sometimes I don’t even have to go that far. The other day I was walking down a block in the Garment District, and was all of a sudden back in Taiwan. Something delicious and exotic and very, very Chinese was wafting out of a small take-out restaurant; the streets were clogged and dark from construction; the languages around me weren’t English. I was so happy to feel “at home”!

Swedish food is only really a problem at the holidays, and I have a “connection” now. IKEA used to be a source, and still is, but they carry a house brand now, not the brand names.

Swiss food is the most elusive to find sometimes. Swiss wine is incredibly difficult to get outside of Switzerland, which is a shame. I developed quite the taste for it in my years there.  Choucroute garnie, a dish of sauerkraut, sausages, ham and pork pieces with boiled potatoes, is hard to duplicate (especially since I bought it ready made at the store). Filets des perche, a lake fish from Lake Geneva, are a regional specialty not usually found outside the canton.

The other day, though, at a large discounter I found petit suisse and swooned. It’s a fresh unripened cheese, often flavored with fruits or chocolate and given to children as a snack as we use yogurt in America but in much smaller servings, only a few ounces. I bought a package for my son, as it was a favorite of his when we lived in Geneva. He wasn’t interested, having forgotten it, so I had to force myself to eat it. A sacrifice, but I did it.

My conversation pal did tell me one great secret: where to find quark!  No, Trekkies, not the character.  Früchtequark (called fromage frais in French, but not the same as just any fromage frais) is fruit flavored or served with fruits and is wonderful. Oh, how I’ve missed it!  I actually dream of it sometimes.  But I’ve learned there’s a source in the Bronx of all places! Now I love the Bronx, but it’s not usually known for a large German population.  The Bronx is were to go for great Italian and Dominican food.

There are days I miss being an ex-pat terribly. But today, for a sweet few minutes, I was once again the world citizen, helping a fellow traveler find the familiars of comfort food.

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