In ninth grade, I asked my classmate Ted why he didn’t eat hot dogs. He claimed he had worked in a hot dog factory the previous summer.

“So?” I asked.

Imagine being shirtless in a stinking hot warehouse, Ted said. You’re knee-deep in strange meat, and have to pitch it into a vat with a snow shovel. Occasionally you’ll see something in the goop that looks like a thumb, but you have to hold down the vomit until break-time.

OK, so maybe Ted was fibbing. But the image in his tall tale stayed with me, and for years, I checked my hot dogs for signs of knuckles. Finally I solved the problem by always topping my wieners with canned chili and artificial cheese – so I wouldn’t knowingly ingest anything gross.

In retrospect, those days seem so simple. “Meat” was a straightforward term. Meat was… well, it was meat. For instance, if you couldn’t find the beef in your burger, it was because the patty was too small, not because the beef was fake. Granted, there were a few mysteries at the far ends of the meat spectrum – but they were obvious outliers like cheap hot dogs, spam, or those inscrutable school lunch entrees.  Broadly speaking, the concept of “meat” didn’t stump anyone.

Times are changing, though, and food is changing –  mostly for the worse. Last week, everyone was talking about this news story:

[A class-action suit] objects to Taco Bell calling its products “seasoned ground beef or seasoned beef, when in fact a substantial amount of the filling contains substances other than beef.”

Just 35 percent of the taco filling was a solid, and just 15 percent overall was protein, said attorney W. Daniel “Dee” Miles III of the Montgomery, Ala., law firm Beasley Allen, which filed the suit.

Apparently, the industry — and Taco Bell internally — calls the substance “taco meat filling,” avoiding the word “beef,” according to the suit.

However, even that term is supposed to be used for products that are at least 40 percent beef. Taco Bell’s taco filling falls short of that definition too, Miles said.

The lawsuit says that Taco Bell’s “beef” is overwhelmingly non-meat, and shouldn’t even qualify as meat filling. Gross. I suppose vegetarians can take small comfort in the fact that Taco Bell’s beef might contain two-thirds less murder than previously assumed. Otherwise, I don’t see much upside.

Some dismissed the Taco Bell story, saying, “Whaddya expect? It’s fast food.”

But if it’s truly so unsurprising, then why all the fuss? More importantly, do we really believe there is such a vast difference between fast food and supermarket food? The gap is probably much smaller than we’d like to believe, and it’s narrowing. For example, this New York Times article on beef didn’t provoke the national conversation that the Taco Bell story did. And it should have. The article confirmed some of the disturbing findings from a 2008 documentary titled Food, Inc. in regards to how ground beef is currently manufactured:

Beef Products Inc., had been looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination, but a study commissioned by the company showed that [their] ammonia process would kill E. coli as well as salmonella.

With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef

But that’s just fast food, right?

as do grocery chains.

Oh dear.

So our USDA-approved beef contains pink slime made from fatty meat scraps, bathed in ammonia and added to our ground beef to keep it cheap. It’s sent to fast food restaurants, as well grocery stores.

Conveniently, that fact becomes part of Taco Bell’s defense. They claim that their seasoned beef recipe is actually 88 percent “quality USDA-inspected beef” which “includes ingredients you’d find in your home or in the supermarket aisle today.” How reassuring.

Don’t you just hate it when you’re cooking beef at home and realize you’ve run out of maltodextrin? It’s embarrassing to have to walk next door and ask your pre-diabetic neighbor for a cup. (Here’s a list of other wholesome ingredients in a Taco Bell “meal,” so you can complete your spice cabinet.)

Seriously, when Taco Bell compares its ingredients to the ones found in your home or supermarket, the really disturbing thought should be – what if they’re telling the truth?

In the documentary Food Inc., there’s a scene where a Beef Products executive is in a factory “straight out of Chaplin’s Modern Times,” standing in front of blocks of ammonia-treated “beef:”

“This is our finished product,” the executive declares. He then claims that the product ends up in 70 percent of hamburgers served in the U.S. “In five years we’ll be in 100 percent,” he predicts.

It’s baffling that we tolerate this. There seems to be an immense dissonance between the information in our heads and the weird stuff we put in our mouths.

New Orleans writer James Reeves describes this condition in a gorgeously disturbing essay titled ”Panic in Aisle Five.” Please read it. Reeves recounts driving through a western desert with a stomach full of fast food. Then he comes upon an apocalyptic vista:

Must be hallucinating. … There’s no sign of life on these hot yellow plains except for this crazy stadium filled with moving dots. Something’s kicking up big clouds of dust and the scene looks absolutely Roman. The dots are cows. Thousands of them. Maybe hundreds of thousands. They’re packed tight and moving in spooky concentric formations like a hypnotist’s pinwheel while giant cannons power-spray waves of feed across their heads and backsides. I hit the brakes and hop a wooden fence for a closer look. Their eyes are glassy and their stomachs and pink parts drag along the ground, etching patterns in the dust. The stench hits like a suckerpunch. Chemical. Ammonia. Yellow smoke belches from a silo in the distance. My mind flashes on ground beef and rendering plants, on triple deluxe patties and automated killing machines.

Four hours later, Reeves is eating chicken fried steak. He reflects about how his “moments of anxious concern” about food are often overcome by his “willful ambivalence:”

Sometimes I look down at my plate and panic. What is this? How did it get here? I promise myself that I will eat healthier. And then I don’t. But it’s not just a matter of health. My panic is complex. These days, eating is more than a simple question of “What am I putting in my body?” It’s a political, economic, ethical, legal, and chemical question which requires a level of vigilance that I don’t yet possess.

I can relate to Reeves’ confession. Like him, I too often indulge in quick, cheap food. But I don’t want to think about dazed cattle and silos billowing yellow smoke. That doesn’t whet my appetite. Nor does the smell of floor cleaner.

It’s hideous to think that even “regular” old factory farm beef is now deemed too expensive for the average consumer, and has to be cut with reconfigured meat scraps bathed in ammonia. Surely it’s time we rethink things.

Luckily, South Louisiana cuisine is powered by traditional cooking and local ingredients. Monday’s beans and rice simmers throughout the afternoon, and fresh seafood is abundant. We understand there are no shortcuts to quality, and quality food is non-negotiable here. Cheapening a dish with foreign ingredients or newfangled “binders or extenders” would be unthinkable.

Pardon me while I sip my chicory coffee.

OK, let me amend that last thought. If we do use an extender, we have a damn good reason for doing so.

I hate to think we’re bowing to outside forces and are becoming like the rest of America: addicted to cheap, chemically treated, sugar-spiked Frankenfood. However, if supermarkets are indeed becoming more like fast-food restaurants, then it seems like only a matter of time before our tastes become commodified and Americanized. And that’s unacceptable.

I think we all understand that we cast economic “votes” with our dollars. And I believe we will make sacrifices, if need be, in order to afford quality food. But we need direction and clarity in order to make informed food votes.

“Fresh and local” is easy to say, but not always easy to find – especially on a budget. That’s why Reeves panicked in aisle five. We need clear, straightforward ideas about how to fight back, in order to maintain the integrity of our cuisine.

Off the top of my head, here are a few changes I know I can do with little effort.

  1. I can plan ahead so that I have a sandwich handy at lunchtime, and I won’t succumb to the fast food drive-through.
  2. Instead of shopping at the farmer’s market for one meal per week, I’ll make it two.
  3. To cut down on the factory farm beef at the grocery, I’ll buy organic, farm-raised stuff.
  4. To afford that, I’ll double the number of vegetarian meals I eat per week.

What else do you suggest?

One local initiative suggested by Jordan Shay caught my eye. Shay chronicles her urban farming adventures at the Front Yard Farmer blog. It’s addictive reading – seductively subversive, even. Somewhere in Broadmoor, Shay has grown numerous crops and raised pigs and rabbits (and then eaten them).

Her latest mission involves guerrilla gardening. Shay plans to unilaterally “take back” the neutral ground on her street, and plant citrus trees and blueberry bushes where there are now weeds and gravel. Between the trees, she’ll install some planters for cabbage and other veggies.

I actually like this small step she’s making toward sustainability. Obviously, it’s not the only answer –  we can’t all grow crops and raise pigs in our back yards. But many of us can, and just the example of urban farming seems worthwhile to me, so that we can remind ourselves (and our children) about the value of local, fresh, un-modified food. This is what we celebrate. This is what we prefer. We’ll pay more in dollars or sweat to ensure it, because it’s better than ammoniated factory farm products cut with weird fillers.

Don’t you agree?

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...