I was standing, sleepily, at the counter of a coffeeshop in Union Station, waiting for the barista to remember I’d ordered a drink, when I overheard the woman behind me order hers:
“I’ll have a small latte.”
“What kind of milk?”
“Whole milk.” Pause. Muttered, half to herself: “The way God intended it.”
Maybe I was just cranky — it was my first day heading back to the office after a week out with the flu — but I had to fight the urge to say to her, “Just like God intended that sheep’s wool to be spun, woven, and dyed into your pretty pink plaid coat?”
I had little doubt it was a real wool coat. She looked like someone who would curl her lip at the thought of synthetic fabric touching her skin.
Okay, I’ll cut the woman some slack. I, too, try to eat whole foods, fresh produce, and locally sourced items, like honey. I do these things because whole foods and fresh produce are extremely healthy, and because I like to support small, local businesses. If I told her about the CSA program I participate in every year with a local organic farm, we’d probably become fast friends, exchanging recipes for the summer’s bumper crop of beets, and tales of the most puzzling heirloom vegetables we’ve received.
It’s the “way God intended it” remark that stuck in my throat. Because that’s not about being healthy, or about supporting local farmers. It points to the fetishization of “natural” eating — the worship of things because they’re natural. “Natural” or “unprocessed” are not virtues in themselves. An all-natural chocolate cake is still both a product of man’s ingenuity, and probably pretty fattening. The idea of the pure, untampered-with products of nature is an illusion: that whole milk you’re buying in the coffee shop in Union Station is the product of centuries of innovation in the science of agriculture, one of the fundamental achievements of man. But man also removed fat from milk! which, let’s face it, is just plain evil, so I don’t blame her for wanting to get back to “the way God intended” things to be.
What if God intended us to innovate? What if God intended us to learn the techniques to pasteurize milk, making it safer and more shelf-stable? What if God intended us to find ways to remove fat from it, to vary it according to our tastes? What if God intended us to put chocolate in it sometimes, to entice a picky child to consume the necessary nutrition? What if God intended us to engineer the technology that allows us to plant vast fields of grain and vegetables that might not be as tasty and vibrant as that local organic farm’s, but does allow thousands of less affluent people to be able to afford healthy food?
What if God intended us to sheer a sheep, spin its wool, weave it, dye it pink, and stitch it into your pretty plaid coat?
When you order your whole milk because it’s “the way God intended it,” what you’re really saying is you think nature is wiser than man. I won’t wade into that debate today, but I will say: nature didn’t make me a skim double-shot cappuccino, so this morning I’m sticking with the things man made — as God intended him to.