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Gluttony of Choice – When Too Many Choices is a Burden

I used to think I was what they call a ‘foody’; that I intuitively understood food, recipes, and produce. By three months into a ten-month trip in Italy, I had learned I had got one thing very wrong about food. When I first arrived, I embraced what has always been my favourite cuisine with open arms. As the consecutive days of pasta, pomodoro, white cheeses, and seasonal vegetables went on, I wondered out loud to my partner when we were going to get sick of this. As I continued eating variations of the same thing, I found I did not long for the banh mi, the poke bowl, curry, dumplings, frozen yoghurt, burgers, dressed-up breakfasts or exotic variations of coffee our shops offer back home. In Italy, it is sacrilege to combine too many ingredients at once on the plate. These ingredients do not hide behind others, instead, they stand bold and resolute on the plate like individual entities unto themselves. It is this absence of complexity that makes the Italian cuisine and lifestyle so psychologically relieving to be in. It also makes me see the way I had been living, in a kind of complex gluttony, is not the way it is supposed to be.

Too many options ultimately leads to reduced satisfaction in the choice made

At home between 3 to 4 p.m. on a regular workday, I would pour over webpages and cookbooks for dinner inspiration, but to no avail. I would then find myself walking around the supermarket ‘fresh’ produce aisles crippled by the many choices in front of me. The abundance of choice is a product of globalisation and technological advancements whereby foods are now chemically enhanced, preserved, packaged, and transported to maximise consumer choice. This, we are told, is supposed to be a luxurious freedom we should be enjoying, though it is frankly stressful and a massacre to the palate.

In psychological terms, the stress we experience in a supermarket is described as the paradox of choice where too many options become overwhelming due to ‘opportunity costs’. We run through all the benefits we might be missing out on when we make a certain choice. This act of hypothesising about what we might be missing out on is mentally taxing to calculate. Reduced satisfaction with our choice (even if it was the right one) is the inevitable outcome of being regularly exposed to these choice paradox situations. As I move further into the trip and become more accustomed to the routines and rhythms of the Italian diet, I find I become increasingly appalled by the way I used to consume.

It dawned on me: everyone in this town is eating what the local farmers pulled out of their soil this week

On my descent to our local marina this morning, I pass a man selling his produce on a corner and ask him if he will be here much longer. He shrugs and tells me he moves to a different spot when one dries up. Fair enough, I think. Further down, I pass another one. Their trays display similar items: zucchinis, leafy greens, broad beans, and mulberries. Their trays, I realise, are a visual display of Spring. On my way back, the trays have reduced dramatically in quantity. How wild, I think, that most people in this town are cooking with these ingredients today. This is a far cry from the food supply chain we have in Australia which relies on domestic farms, international farms, and processing plants. Food scientist and activist, Michael Pollan, has been loud about this for some time, calling it the ‘Omnivors Dilemma’ or the “What should we have for dinner?” dilemma.

The more processed our food is, the less we know about it

Pollan explains the four main food chains in our globalised world:

  1. Industrialised Food Chain (e.g., Tim Tams)
  2. Industrialised Organic Food Chain (e.g., organic Jalna yogurt)
  3. Regenerative Food Chain (e.g., farmers market vendors)
  4. First Person Food Chain (e.g., your backyard)

As the length of the chains decreases, so too does the environmental impact, the variety of options there are to choose from, and the quality of the product increases. Pollan stresses we cannot claim to consume ‘mindfully’ or ‘ethically’ without being aware of the different chains as well as where the ingredients we place in our mouths are really coming from. He asserts that this is our only obligation as humans. Continuing to undermine our individual impact is a driver of continued environmental decline. In this, Pollan is referring to the unsustainability of the large-scale industrialised food supply chain. This chain recklessly relies on Band-Aid measures to keep up with production demands. These measures manifest as spraying pesticides on crops, injecting antibiotics into animals, industrial-scale temperature control units, and chemical interference to speed up and slow down ripening of the food held in enormous refrigerators.

Eating ‘seasonally’ means eating produce grown in your region at its peak ripeness

It is extraordinary Italy has managed to keep the rest of the world off their supermarket shelves. It seems the only time I am returned to the choice paradox is in the environment of the gelato shop. Posso assaggiare per favore? I ask over and over. When my sample tastes have exceeded their limit (often capped at one or two in major tourist locations), I ‘um’ and ‘ah’. I eventually beg for the decision to be relinquished from me by asking: qual e migliore? I feel obliged to choose the employee’s preferred flavour only to realise I don’t like it at all. The return to the choice paradox is so disagreeable I now opt out of gelato unless my partner is willing to share and therefore choose on my behalf.

These instances leave me to consider how I might keep this experience out of my life when I return to the abundant variety of the Australian diet. The answer, I think, is eating strictly seasonally: this means when the produce of wherever you find yourself in the world is at its peak ripeness. There are three main benefits to this. Firstly, the nutritional value is far higher compared to the year-round availability of ingredients that our supermarkets offer. This is due to year-round greenhouse growing, early harvesting, long storage, and selective artificial ripening. The product of this process is empty, flavourless, and expensive. Secondly, eating seasonal foods has less of an environmental impact as they are being eaten straight after picking rather than undergoing storage, chemical, and transport processes that increase your carbon footprint. Finally, seasonal eating is cheaper as it is in abundance, and you can sleep soundly knowing you are supporting your local economy.

The industrial-sized supermarket experience is not good for the soul  

What follows are a few recourses and tricks to help you consume seasonally.

  • If you’re online (which is likely if you’re reading this), I find that subscribing to a farmers’ market page is useful for their updates on market locations and what is in season. For readers located in Melbourne, you can try the Victorian Farmers’ Market Association. They have heaps of information on their website and Instagram page
  • Seasonal Food Guide Australia has an excellent guide to see what is in season and is broken down into different locations.
  • Engage with your local fruit shop vendors and market vendors. Don’t be afraid to ask them what’s in season and how best to use the whole vegetable – it’s their crop, they’ll know what to do with it better than the internet. It also means you’ve got something to talk about the next time, even if your attempt went horribly awry.
  • Plant in your backyard. You can also be clever and creative in storing seasonal produce for off-season enjoyment. Cook down pumpkins and jar for a pasta sauce for later. Or utilise pickling, you can pickle anything with water, salt, sugar, and good vinegar. The Preservation Kitchen by Kate Leahy and Paul Viran is an excellent preservation bible for your kitchen.
  • Finally, this one was news to me, you can keep root vegetables uncooked for months under moss, sand, or sawdust.

Small changes have big impacts 

Dedicating time and conscious thought to what you buy and eat will add meaning to not just your food but your life. The bonus? You get to say goodbye to the demoralising experience of visiting a fluorescently lit, hard to find a park, industrial-sized supermarket. Good riddance!

If you have found yourself feeling a little anxious about the environmental impacts of industrial-sized supermarkets while reading this blog, you may find it useful to read this blog post on climate anxiety! You can also read more on choice-anxiety here.