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Planting the Seed

November 10, 2011

We Americans have a very strange relationship with our food.

In some aspects this is not news.  Fad diets come and go over the years, everything from the grapefruit diet to the South Beach diet to the Paleo diet to the Atkins diet, and those who roll their eyes at the latest and greatest fad might be surprised to realize that these types of diets have been appearing and disappearing in our culture for almost two hundred years.

The goal of these diets has not always been health, however.  For example, Sylvester Graham’s special vegan diet (and namesake crackers) was designed to kill the libido since it was a source of sin5.    But this in and of itself is not entirely surprising, for we share a cultural viewpoint of food in a very unusual way.  Food is viewed either as a virtue to be touted or a vice to be kept under tight control, to the point where our opinions of other people is subconsciously colored by the types of food that they eat.

Fat has been a secular sin since the nineteenth century, as religious discipline began to decline and restraint in eating (and its physical manifestation of slenderness) took on the same cultural function in its place.  Fat could not be hidden as other sins could, and as such the foods associated with fatness, the “bad” foods, became imbued with the same moral judgements and have remained so today.  This can be seen in the language used to describe calorie-rich foods such as chocolate cake, which we frequently describe with language such as “sinful” and “decadent;” God knows I’ve done this myself, and you’ve probably done the same.  More tellingly, when students are shown images of their peers in psychological experiments, they will rank them as more attractive and likeable if they are described as eating “good” foods such as fruit or chicken than donuts or french fries – even if the images are exactly the same in both experiments2.

The attribution of virtue goes the other way as well in our relationship with food.  Asian-style cooking is viewed as a healthy, modern way to cook these days, but it was not so popular when such immigrants were new and still viewed with suspicion.  The same was true for Italians and their “obviously” unhealthy, heavily-flavored cooking were early in the twentieth century (Pillsbury 1998).  Class has a great deal to do with our attribution of food virtue; upper- to middle-class people will happily rail against how unhealthy McDonald’s is while sipping a flavored coffee drink from Starbucks with a fat and calorie count that would put a Big Mac to shame2.  This is particularly salient with the rise of the organic and local food movements, the followers of which are more likely to correspond to these same socioeconomic strata.  Not only are they more able to afford to spend more money per calorie than those with less available income, but even the availability of such foods is likely to track income levels; fresh produce is far more likely to be available in middle-class than working-class neighborhoods (where those of appropriate status can buy it), and, if it is available in lower income areas, it will actually be more expensive1.

There’s a saying that fish don’t notice the water because it is all around them.  Our interactions with food nowadays follow this same pattern.  We search for one-step quick fixes to complex, multifaceted issues in our food supply such as eating local or eating organic, while similarly overlooking the very deep cultural impulses that create the problem in the first place – the relentless push for cheaper food, more food, more meat, and the stratification of food across class lines that we similarly like to pretend don’t exist.  In many ways this blog is meant to be a reaction to this reductionist viewpoint on food, from the point of view of someone who grew up just as the food system was really undergoing its transformation into its modern form: heavy consolidation of food production and processing; ever-increasing quantities of meat available; the elimination of seasonal food; the sharp drops in price for high-calorie ingredients such as fats and starches; and changes in the surrounding culture – largely driven by the food industry – that make all-day eating a culturally acceptable affair where once it wasn’t 4.  Dear God, no wonder everyone’s crowing about an obesity epidemic these days.  But while it is easy enough to point fingers and proclaim that we eat terribly due to a lack of willpower, or claim that shifting our food production methods over to more local or organic means will fix the problem, the reality is that solutions will need to be as varied and multifaceted as the problems that exist, and they can’t get away with ignoring the surrounding culture that created them.

Suburbivore is meant to talk about these larger issues while simultaneously looking at the much smaller, day-to-day things that individuals can do to change some of their relationship with food: actually cooking it at home, gardening, home preservation, and the like.  Although urban homesteading is a new movement, these aren’t exactly new skills.  I’ve always grown up in a house that had a garden, trees that produced more fruit than we could possibly eat as a family, and a mother that canned food for the winter (and is now teaching me to do the same).  At the same time we’ll also look at the biological and scientific side of food: why do plants fruit for us to eat it?  Why does milk exist, or for that matter, eggs?  How does growing corn in Kansas harm the fisheries of Louisiana?  And so on.

Food has long been a passion of mine, and it kills me that we spend so much time fretting about it in general rather than actually enjoying it.  With luck, perhaps this blog will ease a bit of that discomfort, and provide a path for others to a more even-handed relationship with food.

References:

  1. Beaulac , J., E. Kristjansson and S. Cummins.  2009.  A Systematic Review of Food Deserts, 1966-2007. Preventing Chronic Disease 6 (3):  http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2009/jul/08_0163.htm. Accessed  11/14/2010.
  2. Glassner, B.  2007.  The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.  New York: Harper Collins.
  3. Pillsbury, R.  1998.  No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  4. Roberts, P.   2008.   The End of Food.  New York: Houghton Miffin Harcourt.
  5. Stearns, P.N.  2002.  Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.  New York: New York University Press.
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