Imagine you are a kid in, say, Sudan, or the slums of Mumbai or Mexico City, or maybe even in an American location. It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you are hungry.
Imagine you rarely have a complete, nourishing meal, much less three squares per day.
You are always on the cusp of starvation; the idea of the next meal — whatever it might be, whenever it might be — dominates your consciousness. Your parents scramble to keep you and the rest of the family alive; they produced a significant number of kids so, as they hustle on a day-to-day basis, they have a built-in work crew with the brood. The one’s who survive, that is.
Now, imagine someone shows up at the hut, or the shanty, or the lean-to, or the trailer, or the tenement, and sets up a satellite system with a television. Maybe they bring batteries, maybe you have electricity one or two hours per day … it’s not important: someone has arrived with a TV and a satellite system, they click the set on and it works.
On the screen, you see a heavy-set chap whose weekly broadcast chronicles his travels to cities across the U.S. His job is to visit restaurants. Not just any restaurants: he frequents establishments noted for offering at least one massive menu item. Massive, as in far too much food for a human being to eat at one sitting.
More particularly, he visits restaurants that feature a contest: the contestant is challenged to eat the enormous menu item within a defined period of time. If the person accomplishes the task, he or she wins a T-shirt and their photo is plastered to the wall of the restaurant as an addition to a shrine to overindulgence. (The owners of the establishment are held harmless in cases when a trip to the ICU, defibrillation and/or other lifesaving measures are required.)
The host of the show attempts these eating challenges, downing enormous amounts of food — for example giant pizzas, huge omelets, six-pound frittatas, 12 sandwiches that each include a quarter pound of brisket, a potato pancake, onion crisps and a slab of cheese.
The list of items this clown encounters and attempts to eat is long and varied. What unites them is their enormity, the sheer excess of the construction.
Remember, you are that kid in Somalia or Dakar or Cairo, wherever, who has probably not consumed a pound of meat of any kind in the last year. You are sitting in the dirt, your stomach distended and growling, your intestinal tract home to a legion of parasites, and you are watching this overweight goof make a sport of gluttony.
A crowd of spectators (many, if not most, overweight themselves) cheer the host on, urging him to gobble up the fat and carbs and protein, ten thousand-plus calories at a sitting, applauding him when the food falls from his mouth as he hunches over a giant platter of goodies, his forehead greasy, tears running from his bulging eyes, his digestive system at DEFCON 5.
What he doesn’t finish, is thrown away.
What he doesn’t finish could probably feed you and your family for a couple days.
What do you think of this spectacle?
What do you think of us?
What have we come to … and what does it mean?
It is not bad enough that we are a society of narcissistic debauchees, entertained by excesses so counter to reality in much of the world that the excesses are immoral.
To make matters worse, we are chronic whiners. People weep and moan about all manner of things, all the while perched in relatively luxurious circumstances, enjoying relative riches, even if they are “middle class,” and, by comparison to many places in the world, even if they are “poor.” Feebs in every corner of our culture warble about the awful burden of their taxes, complain about a section of road in front of their house, harp about the fact elected officials won’t do their bidding. They shriek about gay marriage and immigration, about fascists and corporate influence and partisan courts, and they castigate any and all who fall into their sights for any and all perceived insults and offenses.
At the same time, they make regular trips to markets and stores packed with every conceivable item, and daily avail themselves of the many foundation rights that define life in a country so many criticize so often. We take for granted free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion — all things that, when people attempt to exercise them in many parts of the world, they are hustled into a black van, spirited away and never seen again.
Our culture produces displays of excess in so many forms. Barely literate goofs compose kindergarten rhymes, peppering them with misogynist and racist notions, bark them out and call them music, and are rewarded with millions of dollars, huge homes, fleets of luxury cars. The cult of celebrity elevates pinheads to a culture-crafting role — actors and others of their ilk become icons and seers, while scientists, teachers, doctors are shuttled to the side and, often, are ridiculed and socially humiliated for attempting to tell a myth-bound audience the truth.
Politicians indulge an orgy of partisan nonsense, the camps set on the edges of an unbreachable divide, the participants vying for unrestrained corporate campaign spending and lucrative consultant jobs that await them after retirement. The rich are lionized, given every opportunity to become richer yet, while the middle class shrinks and the paycheck-to-paycheck crowd swells. And to make the absurdity deeper yet, a significant number of those on the downslide support those responsible for their demise, charmed and deluded by the cynical media mouthpieces of the privileged class.
The culture champions excess. Why? Because excess, hastened by the Internet, television shows, personal music devices, and the charade that passes for political discourse, keeps people pacified and distracted. Passive souls buy the illusion that, given the right circumstances, it could be they who enjoy the riches. We listen to lowest-common-denominator music, view lowest-common-denominator films and have our own cheesy values confirmed.
It is bread and circuses … and few take to the streets. No one but the pawns of corporations and captains of industry engage in a simulation of protest — those whose “movement” is subsidized by rich interests and who can afford the tri-corner hats and fake Revolutionary War outfits. It is those who buy into the notion that somehow, someday, they will be safer, more secure and well-to-do, who raise their cracking voices in a feeble chorus, liver-spotted hands clenched in pale, weak fists.
The young? Too many sit in front of their computer screens and pretend the drivel that passes for communication on Facebook or Twitter constitutes a “real” relationship. They retreat into private worlds with soundtracks of their own making. They watch ignorant cheeseballs act out the trivia of less-than-ordinary existences on television’s “real worlds.”
Television shows about gluttony, shows about stupidity, displays of unearned arrogance and small-scale accomplishments all serve to honor the mundane. In a world that champions the mundane, children are raised to believe that a “good try” is worthy of a trophy, that an average performance is due a reward and that failure does not exist. They are led to the edge of the precipice, feeling good about themselves all the way. A sense of entitlement is everywhere – among a growing legion of withered and selfish retirees, among the gaggle of youngsters who will one day wake and realize they are spending their time and most of their money supporting those withered retirees.
What have we come to, and why is it that so few people object?
And how can someone, like me, who writes a column that is ostensibly about food, do so with a clear conscience?
By declaring, up front, that I am one of the most fortunate humans who have yet to inhabit the planet. That I have access to institutions, services and goods — in particular, food — that are a blessing, the opportunity created for me by my predecessors who, in large part, were not the self-indulgent buffoons who now people the landscape, griping, grasping, refusing to contribute more in times that call for more from everyone, if any are to survive.
We Americans are blessed and should indulge our blessings with a deep sense of gratitude.
And we should seek to reduce waste of those blessings and destruction of the environment that produces them.
As a result — no extravagance here, today.
I am heading for the market to pick up items for tonight’s dinner.
I have a bag of organic brown rice — great stuff, purchased at a Korean market in Denver.
I’ll cook a pot of the rice.
I’ll slice a couple of carrots, a zucchini and a couple shallots. I’ll mince and mash a clove or two of garlic and grate a healthy knob of ginger. I have some cilantro in the fridge and I will chop a bunch. I also have a bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Half a bag will do.
For flavor: Yamasa soy sauce, sesame oil , a touch of mirin, some hoisin sauce, a smidge of chile and garlic paste — the tastes a tip of the hat to what is now, truly, one world.
Meat? Not much. Two skinless chicken thighs, cut into half-inch hunks.
The list is extensive, yes, but each of the items is inexpensive and readily available in this land of abundance.
The carrots are first into a hot pan, with a sheen of canola oil. After a minute or two of cooking (the carrots being moved and turned constantly) in go the shallots and the ginger. After a minute, in goes the zucchini. After the veggies cook for about two minutes, they are taken out and put on a warm plate. Some oil is added to the pan and the seasoned chicken is cooked quickly, over high heat. The heat is reduced to medium high, the rice is added with the cilantro and the peas. A couple splashes of Yamasa, a teeny dribble of sesame oil (not too much, it can get bitter) a splash of mirin and the mix cooks for a couple of minutes. Lastly, in goes several tablespoons of hoisin, and a teaspoon or so of chile paste. The ingredients are mixed thoroughly, brought up to heat and it is time to eat.
As I eat, I will be mindful of my, our, good fortune.
I will make a vow not to watch a gluttony extravaganza on the tube tonight.
And I will hope that kid in Darfur doesn’t get a television any time soon.