However, in a world that focuses on fast and easy and a global economy that transcends time and space, what we are eating becomes harder and harder to identify. Most of us don't actually know the source of the foods we buy and eat - eggs, tomatoes, breads, fruits, meats - who grew them, where, when and under what conditions.
The tomatoes in our lunch salad could have come from neatly manicured fields in Gilroy or a backwater town in Mexico; the strawberries we add to our breakfast cereal could have been shipped over from Venezuela or driven over from Lodi; the Napa wine we drank over dinner could have been made from grapes grown on San Luis Obispo and Livermore vines; the salmon we grilled over Labor Day could have been caught wild in Canada or grown in underwater farms in Washington.
The average supermarket food travels about 1,500 miles, passing through many different handoffs before reaching our carts. Given the broad range of cross-country and international harvesting and import/export shipping, mostly we don't have a clue.
In his book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," Michael Pollan traces back to the origin of the raw foods in four distinct meals, including a McDonald's lunch. The results are truly interesting but one discovery was even more amazing: The prevalence of corn in the American diet. Of the 45,000-plus items found in a typical supermarket, more than 25 percent contain corn.
The Amazon.com's reviewer of Pollan's book puts it this way: "American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, cornstarch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. We're corn." Yep, corn 'r' us! Yet, even today, the French do not legally recognize fresh corn as suitable for human consumption. It is only fed to cattle.
In a closely related adventure, Barbara Kingsolver (whom many of us recognize as a leading fiction writer) moved to Virginia and spent a year with her family eating only locally grown foods, including what they grew in a home garden. Her book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" chronicles their year-long experience as "locavores." While it took some major adjustments, they say now that they can actually taste their food again, they won't return to the convenient but unconscious eating style they once knew. Kingsolver, Alice Waters and an increasing number of other food-conscious folks have joined a food revolution that has three sacred principles - eat locally, eat seasonally, and shop at farmers markets.
Some refer to this food dogma as eating "green"; others call it the slow food (as opposed to fast food) lifestyle. The slow food movement was made famous by Carlos Petrini in Italy around 1986. Now, with more than 85,000 members (not counting fans) in more than 45 countries, Slow Food has evolved into the most influential gastronomic movement in the world with a goal "to protect the pleasures of the table from homogenization of modern fast food and life."
Slow Food, according to its Web site slowfoodusa.org, "envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet." Slow Food embraces three concepts - good, clean and fair - and offers these online definitions:
* Good: Enjoying delicious food created with care from healthy plants and animals.
* Clean: Nutritious food that is as good for the planet as it is for our bodies. It is grown and harvested with methods that have a positive impact on our local ecosystems and promotes biodiversity.
* Fair: We believe that food is a universal right. Fair food should be accessible to all, regardless of income, and produced by people who are treated with dignity.
The goal of eating locally and seasonally, with an emphasis on good, clean and fair, not only sounds honorable but healthier. Our healthiest foods should travel less than 75 miles to reach us, meaning they are fresher and we have more firsthand knowledge about them. Supporting our local growers and fresh-food markets sustains our local communities. More importantly, eating locally advances your health, not to mention more satisfying culinary experiences. Becoming more conscious of exactly what you are eating and where it was grown is bound to make you be a better person ... inside and out! And if he were still around, no doubt Brillat-Savarin would treat you to lunch.
READING FOR WOULD-BE LOCAVORES: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair by Carlo Petrini Slow Food Revolution: A New Culture for Eating and Living by Carlo Petrini in conversation with Gigi Padovani The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Footnote: In response to my Sept. 12 column on water, Epicure reader Kathy Edgington offered this information: "In addition to stainless steel bottles, some manufacturers are now producing reusable plastics without BPA. These newer generation plastics are really wonderful - they are dishwasher safe, withstand extreme temperatures, will not dent, and are virtually leak-proof, all without the use of bisphenol-A. While there are no manufacturer icons yet to distinguish between BPA and non-BPA bottles, look for product brands like Camelbak and Nalgene." Thanks for the tip, Kathy!
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.