Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All

People who know me well understand that I process the world through my stomach. I love food. (One of my wedding gifts was a subscription to the Cheese of the Month club from New York's Murray's Cheese Shop).

The holidays are the best because most of my friends give great gifts of food in amazing packages. Last year, my friend Nancy gifted nuts seasoned with a homemade mix of honey and spices contained in a glass jar from Wecks. This year she gave paper thin ginger cookies with a wedge of stilton along with a beautiful letterpress card.

I happen to be writing an article for Architect magazine about a project in Ecuador involving fair-trade production practices, and I just got the greatest piece of research material in the mail: chocolate. It's produced through Kallari Association, a self-governed collective of Amazon artists and organic cocoa producers. The packaging is amazing. Heavy stock with a wonderful font and illustration. On each bar there is a line drawing of one of the ingredients and the name of the person who inspired it:

(I've been forewarned that the aji chili in this one is really hot)

The back of the package provides basic nutritional info, but also a brief story behind the name. I love the little perforated corner: Open Here.

The drawings remind me a bit of the illustrations used for the magazine Cook's Illustrated:

It occurs to me that my visceral reaction to this package has as much to do with the design and the thing it contains (CHOCOLATE), as the message that is being communicated. The package honors the natural elements that go into the food, it tells the story of the people who made it happen. And it celebrates the fact that it's real food.

It's very different from the food labeling that occurs today, particularly in the U.S. Let's contrast the Kallari chocolate with another food package I have on my desk right now: almonds.

I'm apparently lowering my risk of heart disease while being encouraged to employ some kind of math equation to assess my net carbs. The simple task of enjoying an almond becomes a complex question of nutrition, scientific research, and targeted dietary results.

I'll defer to Michael Pollan who says it best in his latest book In Defense of Food.

Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?

Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it—in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone—is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances" —no longer the products of nature but of food science.

Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion. The result is the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.