Just around the corner from me is a fabulous Spanish / Latin grocery store. It is packed with all kinds of goodies imported from Spain, Portugal and South America. Tuna and sardines, anchovies, jars of artichokes in oil and tinned hearts-of-palm. Chorizo and legs of acorn-fed jamon hang from the ceiling. There are bags of arroz and sacks of gabanzo beans. Vats of olives and litres of olive oil. Paella tins and dozens of varieties of dried chillies and spices.
Dried and bottled and salted and cured and frozen and vinegared Iberican abundance. Making dinner a matter of throwing together a random selection of whatever catches the eye.
Is there a difference between my colourful Spanish salad and a Krispy Kreme doughnut or KFC?
When does the act of preparing a meal become home-cooking? When does food become processed? And when does food become junk food? And why junk? Why a word connoting such worthlessness?
‘Junk food’ continually appears as a culprit in public debate. From banning the sale of toys with Happy Meals to government mandated standards for the food in school canteens to lobby groups opposing the advertising of ‘junk food’ during prime-time children’s television to public health studies and nutritionalist advice: junk food is a core concept in the contemporary public debate about food.
Junk food is shorthand. It’s used to describe everything from production to consumption practices, method of processing, readiness of availability, caloric content and nutritional value (or valuelessness), (high) percentage fat/sugar, (un)naturalness, cheapness, and social context. All terms and concepts themselves that themselves are difficult to pin down and already laden with all kinds of assumptions about what is good and bad food.
Beyond this is a debate that too quickly seems to be shorthand for blaming someone. Blaming governments. Blaming the media. Blaming big corporations. Blaming society. Blaming parents. Blaming us. And then judging.
Rather than focusing on an item of food in terms of its health outcomes or nutritional inputs or even consumption context (all of which are important), I think junk food is perhaps something we can think about as our broad relationship to eating. Food does not, inherently, have a quality of junk or not-junk. But our broad approach to eating may turn our consumption practices in ones that are more or less valued by us and valuable to us. That is, the way we eat, the way we think about food, nutrition, sustenance, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, pleasure and flavour may position food as worthless and junk-ful or as valuable. So for me, junk food is thoughtless, mindless, directionless, irresponsible eating. It is eating that fails to take into account the singularity of eating this thing, here and now, as a unique and unrepeatable experience.
My salad may have too high a quantity of sodium or oil or fat. It may inhibit or replace my ability or willingness to ensure I have, that day, met my recommended daily intake of certain essential vitamins and minerals, fibres or proteins. It may be primarily pre-prepared.
But it makes me think of Spain. And I shared it with people I love. And I chose the items with a sense of wonder. The act of eating is also an act of ritual: the table was set and the time we ate was time set aside for eating together. It may not be healthy, but it is not junk.
Artichoke, pimento, jamon and frozen pea salad.
Serves 2 as a main meal
1 red onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup frozen peas, blanched and refreshed (of course, you could blanch fresh ones)
1 jar of roasted pimento in oil, drained, finely sliced, oil reserved (or you could roast your own capsicum – you’ll need two)
1 jar artichoke hearts in oil, drained and quartered
100 gm thinly sliced jamon, torn into strips
1 tbsp Spanish sherry vinegar or lemon juice
Heat a tablespoon of reserved oil in a fry pan. Add garlic and onion and sauté over a medium heat until soft. Add peas and toss until warmed through.
Remove from heat, toss through the remaining ingredients and vinegar.
Serve with crusty bread.