Eating out: are our restaurant choices sustainable and responsible? Should we not be Eating in?

Michael Pollan is a man with a food conscience, and has written a number of books on the theme of sustainable food and healthy eating, promoting cooking at home, and eating out responsibly, if one must eat at a restaurant, reports The Daily Telegraph.

Admitting that he once was a McDonald’s fan, having one of their meals daily, and that their chicken nuggets are his son’s ‘Proustian smells and tastes of childhood‘, he would not touch their food anymore.  He is concerned that ‘we don’t cook, can’t cook, won’t cook‘, despite the flood of TV food shows and rise in cookbook sales, leading us to eat unhealthy food, which is not environmentally responsible. Even worse is that we don’t connect socially over home-cooked meals any more.  Pollan is a Professor in Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and was named in 2010 as one of TIME‘s 100 persons to ‘most affect our world‘.

Pollan’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘ inspired Angus McIntosh, owner of Spier’s Farmer Angus meat and egg supply, to be environmentally responsible in the biodynamic rearing of his animals.  He gave me a copy of the book, to inspire me to spread the message when I visited his farm. The book is subtitled ‘The Search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world‘ and encapsulates Pollan’s criticism of fast food, which he calls an ‘industrial meal’, and of McDonald’s in particular. Pollan analysed the ‘nutritional’ content of McNuggets from a flyer, and found them to contain 38 ingredients, of which 13 are derived from corn, as well as synthetic ingredients made at petroleum refineries or chemical plants, allowing the food to be stored for longer.  Corn is the staple diet of cattle, yet ‘violates the biological or evolutionary logic of bovine digestion’, writes Pollan.  The omnivore’s alternative to industrial food is claimed ‘organic‘ food, sounding more ethical and sustainable. He concludes his book with a description of a meal he prepared from self-foraged ingredients, the ultimate way of eating but time-consuming to gather, including mushrooms, wild boar, fava beans, pâté, morels, bread (made using wild yeast), a garden salad, and a fruit tart for which the fruit was sourced from a public cherry tree, served with chamomile tea.

In his latest book ‘Cooked’, Pollan shares his experiences in cooking, including baking bread, slow cooking, making a braai, braising, roasting a pig, and beer fermentation, and pleads for the return to home cooking. Cooking one’s meals prevents one losing control to food corporates, who decide what one should eat, the horse meat content of prepared meals having caused an outcry around the world earlier this year.  Pollan also blames corporates for their prepared foods containing too much salt, sugar, and fat, more than one would add at home. He is concerned about the amount of packaging for frozen and chilled ready meals that depicts chefs, falsely suggesting restaurant quality food, which misleads consumers.

Eating out at restaurants has become common place, and no longer is a special occasion treat, with one third of American children eating in a fast-food outlet every day.  If one does choose to eat at a restaurant, one should choose one that serves ‘high-welfare meat and local sourcing’,  according to Pollan, fortunately a trend supported by top end restaurants in Cape Town and the Winelands, including Pierneef à La Motte, The Rotisserie at Leopard’s Leap, Dish at Le Franschhoek Hotel, Grande Provence, Maison, Tokara, Delaire Graff, Terroir, Overture, Rust en Vrede, Makaron, Eight at Spier, Aubergine, Buitenverwachting, Carne, Caffe Milano, Deer Park Café, The Roundhouse, Planet at the Mount Nelson, The Tasting Room, Waterkloof, The Greenhouse at Cellars Hohenhort, Camphors and Stables at Vergelegen, and Babel at Babylonstoren.  Similarly, restaurants reflecting the green or orange SASSI sustainability status of the fish that they serve should be supported, sadly a rare sight on menus.

Pollan has compiled a guide to responsible restaurant eating for the Sustainable Restaurant Association:

*   Requesting doggy bags is commendable and healthy, not to benefit one’s pets but so that one can use the over sized portions served in most restaurants for another meal.

*   One should choose restaurants that serve seasonal foods. The local restaurants listed above are environmentally responsible in this regard.

*   The smaller the delivery vehicle, the better the quality of the produce and the fresher it is likely to be.

*   Restaurants proudly listing their suppliers’ names, such as Farmer Angus at Spier for eggs, lamb, chicken, and beef; La Motte for vegetables and herbs: Steve the Magic Man for herbs and vegetables; Greenfields for meat; and Gary Goldman for mushrooms, should be supported.  A number of other foragers operate in the Cape Town area.  Sadly, this is not seen often enough on restaurant menus.

*   One should order specials, Pollan advises, as they contain fresh ingredients and have been well thought through, but one should check the price before ordering, as they often carry a ‘special’ price tag too!

*   Only order steak rare, to prevent the chef serving the worst quality meat for ‘well done‘ orders.  Then send the steak back, asking for it to be done more, Pollan advises.

*   The sustainable and humane raising of the meat that is served in restaurants should be described on the menu, says Pollan, but this has never been seen on a local menu. ‘Grass-fed‘ and ‘pasture-reared’ are terms seen more often, and are a good sign that the meat has been ethically produced.

Michael Pollan: ‘Cooked’ Twitter: @MichaelPollan

Farmer Angus, Spier, Stellenbosch. Cell 082 379 4391. Twitter: @FarmerAngus

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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