According to a recent issue of New York Magazine, local artisanal soda pop is the next hot food trend. This is going to make me look "in the know" here in Chicago because, while New York gets our weather remnants, we receive your stale food trends. Remember when cupcakes were all the rage back in the days when "Sex and the City" was a TV show? We just finally got over them (Chicago is one step ahead of food networks, though, as "DC Cupcakes" is now a thing). Currently our city is hot for hamburgers. If you're a culinary trendster then you know the difference between M. Burger, DMK Burger Bar, Kuma's Corner and Edzo's. The whole macaron thing didn't really take root here though, I think because the little cookies are too dainty for a city with tastes so bulky we like our pizzas to actually be pies at the same time.
Following food trends is secretly an upscale way of justifying eating things you probably shouldn't. No, a hamburger or glass of pop or cupcake now and then won't kill you, but the point of a craze isn't moderation: if you're really going to consider yourself up on the soda trend, you'll know the difference and have opinions on Brooklyn Soda Works versus P&H Soda versus Fort Defiance and so on right now. Get in on it while it's hot: it's fun, it's old-timey! It's not going to be fashionable for long so you need to get in there and try it and have your say. Being part of the communal tasting moment is part of the experience, but it's a luscious bonus that the majority of the experience is eating something sugary, fatty and/or delicious. Eating indulgently somehow seems less sinful when it's the thing to do. Eat a cupcake because you feel sad: that's sad. Eat a cupcake because the gals on "Sex and the City" did it: well, now you're living the life. That's aspirational eating. It's not so bad for you if you had to wait in line for it and pay a shit ton of money for it and do it in high heels.
There seem to be two issues at play these days when it comes to what makes foods "good" and "bad" (of course poor, innocent foods are not actually "good" and "bad" the way, say, the Holocaust was "bad" and eight hours of sleep is "good," but you can't deny that certain foods are more nutritionally valuable than others): calories and content. Take a Hostess Twinkie and then a "Twinkie" that is not actually a Twinkie but a dessert created by a trained pastry chef out of the finest ingredients in the kitchen of an exclusive restaurant to look like a Twinkie (this sounds like a great challenge for "Top Chef"). Many of us wouldn't be caught dead eating a Twinkie: we've all been told that Twinkies never age because they're made of wicked unnatural ingredients, Twinkies are filled with whale blubber, Twinkies will give you cancer. Yet you'd pay $12 for the honor of eating the "Twinkie," even though they both may have the same amount of calories.
There's a double standard when it comes to food that's calorically bad for you. Hell, there's a double standard even when it comes to food that's good for you. Those of us who allegedly can afford it and "know better" aren't supposed to eat baby carrots anymore: we're supposed to go to the farmers' market to purchase beautiful fresh-from-the-dirt carrots with green tops, or have them delivered to us in a weekly produce co-op box. You don't cram them in your face to fill the void and grimly just take it because the food suits its purpose and is filled with these goddamn vitamins and nutrients-you thank Gaia for the soil and the sun that brought it to you and consider yourself one of the "good ones" next time you read a Michael Pollan article.
When it comes to people who live in urban "food deserts" though, we don't expect that type of worship: they're lucky to get frozen, even canned, produce. But junk food? That's when we get snobbish. High-class cupcakes, local pop, hamburgers made by top chefs, these are little indulgences for foodies. But gas-station treats, Coke and Big Macs are part of the nation's nutrition problem.
I emailed Dawn Jackson Blatner, a friend of mine who's a registered dietitian (N.B. I am also an occasional client. I'm not immune to the struggles of "want to eat" versus "should eat") to ask if she also thinks there's a double standard when it comes to junk foods. She agrees, and invokes a phrase called 'Health Halos': "When ingredients are listed as organic, local, natural or artisan, people often don't feel as guilty about eating the food and in fact feel that the perceived healthfulness somehow buffers the calories. There could be a slight health edge to the luxe version, though: one study found that our metabolism burns twice as many calories after eating the less processed versions of food. So, if we are comparing a cheap cupcake with more than 30 ingredients with a more homemade version with just 10 ingredients there may possibly be a slight difference in how our body reacts to eating each…but not enough to give homemade artisan cupcakes (or whatever trendy junk food) a dietitian's stamp of healthy excellence."
Of course, some people might not give a crap about a dietitian's stamp of healthy excellence, especially if it's 3 PM and they've had a terrible day. But even if we should be the last ones to cast aspersions on other people's health, admit it, you've thought about "those people", the people who don't know better than to eat fast food three times a day, or can't afford otherwise, who drink Coke instead of water and so on. They suffer, they're part of the problem. If only they knew better, they could live better.
Head into a Starbucks any Sunday morning and you're bound to see parents indulging their kids with mini scones or tiny boxes of organic chocolate milk. This is urban indulgence, and the biggest argument isn't so much whether the kids should be having it but whether they're making a racket that bothers everyone else who's there on the WiFi they paid so much to use. However, head several neighborhoods over and parents are feeding their kids food that looks vaguely the same but costs much less and is made with less dear ingredients.
Paying more for a special, local treat isn't just a caloric indulgence: you're eating your privilege (and later flushing it down the toilet). If you meet two or more of the following key demographics when you eat trendy indulgences: thin, well-educated, white, financially sound-it's okay, as long as you paid a lot for your food and know more about it than is probably necessary. If, on the other hand, you're fat, poor, uneducated and perhaps not-so-white, put down the burger, because you're part of this country's nutrition problem. Unless, of course, you're willing to come downtown and pay twice as much for it.
Claire Zulkey lives in Chicago. You can learn so much more about her here.