Eat It If You Can Read It?

The Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta has a sign admonishing its customers to “only eat it if you can read it!”

That’s good advice, actually.  Those yummy Pepperidge Farm Orange Milano cookies, for example, cookies I have no business eating, contain “interesterified and/or hydrogenated soybean oil.”  Now, I’m not quite sure what interesterified oil is, but the very fact that the name includes a form of the word “terrified” kind of terrifies me.

The subject of scary foods reminds me of green Fruit Rollups.  Back when I didn’t know about only eating what I can read, I thought Fruit Rollups were actually made of fruit.  I now understand that they’re like having a little fruit with your psychadellically-colored chemically-based food additives.   Years ago, we owned a condo on the beach in Destin, Florida.  Friends were staying in the condo, and their toddler, Anna, ate a green Fruit Rollup or two.  Now, I don’t think the Fruit Rollup made her violently ill, but Anna barfing up that Fruit Rollup in six different spots on my white carpet made me violently ill.  My kids never had little pancake-thin fake fruit thingies again.

But I wonder, is the reverse of the “if you can’t read it, don’t eat it” axiom true?   Just because you can read it, should you eat it?  I remember back to a time when I was a little girl and clearly read a food label for something that I would not have put in my mouth for all the Ding Dongs in Dallas.

My grandfather, my mother’s dad, was a World War Two fighter pilot who flew jets for a worldwide shipping company after the war.  He retired in 1982 to a 300-acre farm in Milner, Georgia, where he raised what we now know as organic local grass-fed beef.

I was raised on that beef and on the pork from his pigs.  And on my grandmother’s chickens, which were just as organic as Pa’s cows.  And on those chicken’s eggs.  And on vegetables from their garden and from my father’s garden, which might have been the most organic garden in three counties. I vividly remember how our yard smelled when Dad spread a load of stuff he got from the Clayton County Water Authority to put on that garden.  He called it “sludge,” a kind of euphemism for what really was just sanitized shit.

Eggs, steak, beans, greens, pork – words a kindergartener can read.  According to the experts, that’s what is healthy.  And I’m pretty sure that’s why the people in my family have consistently enjoyed terrific health.

Back when Pa had the farm, he and my grandmother had a large chest freezer in the basement of that farmhouse.  When my cousin Barbie and I got tired of playing in the creek and swinging on the tire swing and naming the cows, we used to go down to their basement and investigate the contents of that freezer.

I remember one time pulling out a package wrapped in brown butcher paper that had a three-inch strip of masking tape on the outside.  The words “pork shoulder – 1965”  were written in my Nanny’s perfect cursive handwriting.  Barb dug her hand deeper into that freezer and came out with “beef ribs – 1963.”

“Ewwww!”  we shouted in unison.  It was around 1976, and I was probably nine years old, Barb ten.

“Eat it if you can read it?”  We read those labels loud and clear.  That shit was older than we were.

Nanny and Pa sold the farm several years ago and moved to a house with no basement.  Pa died four years ago, and Nanny will celebrate her 88th birthday this year.  That old chest freezer, now completely rusted over but still running just fine, sits in their carport, and I’m willing to bet there’s still some stuff in the bottom of it that’s older than I am.

I joke about staying on Nanny’s good side because I don’t want her to leave me that freezer in her will.  But if she does, I’ll drive down to that house in Barnesville and dig through that old freezer.  And I’ll laugh through my tears when I read her handwritten labels on packages that will surely remind me of the fun times I spent at the farm when I was a kid.

But there’s no way in hell I’ll eat any of it.


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