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I was in Las Vegas for five days. Occasionally I go there for work. Each time I go there I think two things: 1) I will try and find something I enjoy here. 2) I hope this is my last time ever coming here. Neither of those things ever come true. I did spend a bit of time out by the pool, which was fine. But to occupy my mind, I took some time to observe what life was like in a food desert. I’m not using that term correctly. A food desert is (officially) a place where poor people have little access to healthy food. Las Vegas doesn’t qualify. I suspect there are parts of the city that would but it’s not showing up on the government’s food desert locator.

Here in Portland, we have so much locally sourced, healthy food we have the luxury of indulging our very special snowflake whims of food intolerances and specialty diets. I’ll write another post another time about visiting a dear friend and bracing myself for her list of food intolerances and special aversions only to find her eating anything. And my shock at this. How did I get to a place where I’m shocked when someone is a true omnivore? I had this thought while we were eating, “Oh my god — she eats anything! I can eat anything too!!!” But basically, I think we’re spoiled in Portland. And for whatever reason, instead of celebrating this food, we have to punish ourselves for its very existence.

Back to Las Vegas.

Side note: I ate at Mario Batali’s restaurant in Vegas and a couple sat down next to me and informed the waiter they were vegan. In Mario Batali’s restaurant. Here’s a picture of Mario Batali using sausage links as a scarf. While there, I ate bone marrow ravioli and sweetbreads on fava beans. It was all delicious. With drinks, a meal for two people cost $240.

So, one can’t eat at Mario Batali’s restaurant for every single meal in Las Vegas even on an expense account. I was at a convention and staying at the Las Vegas Hilton, which is not on the strip. Basically, my days’ food was this: tea, bottled water, yogurt parfait (granola, vanilla yogurt, berries and bananas in a plastic cup eaten with a plastic spoon), banana. For lunch: more bottled water, banana and some cashews. For dinner: burger, fries, sandwiches, salads, bottled water. Plus more bottled water.

The food in Vegas (unless you’re eating at a celebrity chef’s restaurant) is prepared in big kitchens that you can’t see. I’ve not been in these kitchens, but I picture them as gigantic school cafeterias. And all of the menus have about 50 selections on them and they seat hundreds of people. Imagine the amount of prepackaged food that must go into that kitchen just to make this feasible.

The food comes out and it’s full of fat and it all smells the same. Dark colored food (unless it’s ground beef) is nowhere to be found. The waiters just sort of throw your plates at you. It’s nauseating. But more than that, it’s disconcerting. It’s disconcerting that you can’t see the food. That it all smells the same. And there’s an emotional quality to it that’s hard for me to put my finger on. It’s a feeling of not being taken care of, which is ridiculous. But I think it’s in direct response to the cooks having no reason to take pride in their work. Why would they? They never see the diners. Tables are turning over that that’s all that matters.

But what’s more distressing is that this is a common way of enjoying a meal. If you go to PF Changs or Applebees or Olive Garden, it’s the same. A dining room that seats hundreds and a menu with 50 choices. And people keep going back.

Obviously we eat for physical nourishment. Ideally, we eat for emotional nourishment as well. I’m not talking about eating a pint of ice cream after a bad day at work. I’m talking about the satisfaction of cooking and eating a good meal.

I left Las Vegas feeling burnt out. I came home and Fancyhats and I got into a fight. I can’t help but feel part of this was because I was spent emotionally. I had no reserves built up so the moment I didn’t feel taken care of by my husband, I blew up.

I wonder about the long-term impact on people who eat this way regularly. Yes, it leads to obesity. But what about the emotional impact of it? How long does it take to feel the deeper emotional deprivation of this sort of food? What if you have access to no other type of food? If you’ve read Fast Food Nation, you know that once fast food moves in, smaller mom and pop restaurants don’t stand a chance. So you might live in a fertile place, but all of your dining options are Applebees and its cousins.

How many people are living with the sort of general unease (dis-ease) of eating food that has not been made with the slightest thought of the eater’s well-being? It’s distressing to consider. I feel badly for the people who can’t come back to greens either grown in the yard, or less than a mile away. (Not to mention eggs just laid minutes before.) What about all of the kids growing up who will never learn to cook from their parents? What do they pass on?

I might be being dramatic. Okay, I likely am. But I think it’s a valid point. I hope the smarter food people like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan will one day address the emotional vacuum of a food desert, not just the health and economic vacuum.

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