A cocoa nib a day . . .

The title of this article by Verity Johnson in the New Zealand Herald caught my eye this morning: “Are you eating enough cacao nibs?” I read on, expecting to find the usual treatise on the healthful effects of consuming nibs, every day. There would of course also be the requisite appendix of recipes, urging me to toss a handful of nibs into everything from beet greens salad to my holiday turkey stuffing.

The benefits of nibs have been much touted. Nuts.com has nothing but praise, offering that organic cocoa nibs are “an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, iron and magnesium” that will stabilize my blood sugar, improve my insulin sensitivity, and lift my mood  While a Huffington Post article does caution that the theobromine in nibs “affects [some people] the way caffeine might” (though this is debatable), it mostly emphasizes the feel-good effect of eating nibs and the possibility that they might provide some calcium. Livestrong is the most adulatory of all: cocoa nibs may “even help you live longer.” Wonderful! The world offers far too much to see and do in one lifetime, so I’d be glad for a nib-based extension.

07 nibs

Amidst all this nib celebration, I expected more of the same in Johnson’s article. I was so pleased, then, to find instead a droll, witty piece about the fact that far too many foods are now considered the only ones that can possibly save you. In the process, these best-of-all-possible-foods have become so hip as to be unintelligible on restaurant menus, such that “Now, more than ever, no one knows what they hell they’re ordering.”

All too true. My boyfriend and I recently made a hasty exit from a renowned gastro-pub in Oxford, after realizing that the only word we understood on the single-spaced menu was “beef.” (And we like beef!) In my Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, where a new hip restaurant springs forth into being every day, rising from the ashes of a Scandinavian fish tavern that once stood on the spot, I’ve given up eating out anywhere except for Hotcakes Molten Chocolate Cakery and The Scoop at Walters.

I don’t mind saying that I have no idea what is “miso caramel,” which I might get as part of my dessert at Delancy, or whether I would enjoy the “fid mostarda” at Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy. (Though I have at least the sense to wonder if “fid” should be “fig,” as a fid is, in my world, someone who worked for the British Falkland Islands Dependency Survey or a tool that we use on sailboats to loosen knots and release trigger shackles—neither of which, I think, can be tastefully made into “mostarda.”)

In implicit acknowledgement that Johnson’s (and my own) menu reactions may be shared by many, Staple & Fancy offers to shoulder the burden of food-comprehension: “But, if you would like to avoid the trouble of ordering altogether, please feel free to hand the menu back to your server and allow us to take care of you.” Great! I don’t even need to know anymore what I am eating.

But in fact I do. It’s a fun digression to make fun of menus that I don’t understand, but Johnson’s point is a serious one. “There’s always been a base level concern over making sure people eat the right things,” she writes. “What I’m talking about is the recent rise in concern over eating grains at the right times, spiking everything with kale, drinking green smoothies, snacking on low-GI foods and making sure everything comes with chia seeds.”

This is a concern that I have also come across and considered carefully in the scholarship on food: that prescriptions for our eating, however unfounded and however un-delectable, have become a requisite lifestyle guide for the middle class. As Johnson puts it, “All of these things have combined to make understanding nutrition a way to show you are a sophisticated, educated, superior sort of person who looks after their body. . . . Somehow appearing disciplined, healthy and disgustingly self-righteous became posh.”

As we instantly incorporate whatever food fad has swept the headlines into our grocery lists, we are actually shaping ourselves into a particular kind of person. Letting my academic self take over for a moment, it’s what Foucault called “governmentality”: the techniques of governing our bodies, our ways of being, to bring them in line with the dominant ideology of our time. But while Foucault was writing about actual governments instructing us how to behave, here we are subject not to a president or parliament, but to the discourse of food.

I fall prey to this constantly. I add a handful of cocoa nibs to my smoothie every morning, blasting them dutifully into their antioxidant, healthy-fat bits for better absorption (as Johnson asks, “Are you using your Nutribullet for every possible dining scenario?). I have so many competing lists of “correct” foods on my kitchen counter that my grocery shopping consists these days almost exclusively of squash—the only thing that appears to be inoffensive to every prescription for healthy eating.

But the truth is there is no panacea. It probably doesn’t matter if I eat cocoa nibs or not—though I really do enjoy them, which likely counts for something. In the end, reason ought to prevail. Food should not be so complicated, the instructions for eating so fast-changing, that we cannot keep up. Is it really a sensible world when we hand the menu back to an unknown server and let them decide what we put in our bodies? It seems we have come to worship false food idols. At minimum, we may pay a price for this: not of exile or hell, but of a lost comprehension of sustenance.

So long as we are eating what Michael Pollan calls “food”—whole things, once alive and growing, not mish-mashes of particles with frightening names (butylated hydroxytoluene, anyone?)—we’re probably OK. If we can confidently identify the category of thing—animal, vegetable, mineral—that will arrive on our plate, and understand its basic flavors and building blocks—carb, fat, protein—it’s for the best to judge for ourselves.