Bread and Circuses
Has our culture fetishized food to the point where what’s on our plate matters more than the people who sit across from us?
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The Responsibility Project
There was a time, not so long ago, when chefs cooked food without TV cameras. When our nutritionist was mom, and she nagged us to eat carrots or we’d go blind. When farmers weren’t lauded on bumper stickers. When kids were expected to make a face when presented with Brussels sprouts. When most of us thought sushi was a girl’s name spoken with a lisp. A time when what we put on our plates was a matter of personal taste. And what was on others’ plates didn’t interest us in the least.
I thought of this recently as I drove my daughter to visit a friend who was hospitalized with anorexia, and I began to wonder just when food became so fraught. Just days earlier, I’d had an e-mail chat with a parenting magazine editor who said she made it her “mission” to get every kid to eat broccoli. Prior to that, a friend had offered up unsolicited advice about how to get “good” food into my fussy kids, such as grating zucchini into a bran muffin. I had stayed mute. My kids conduct forensics before they put anything in their mouths, so the notion of “sneaking” anything would undoubtedly prompt either a confession or a lie from my lips. I wondered why I needed to go to such lengths to get my kids to eat zucchini.
Then I stumbled across an article about the family of reality star Honey Boo Boo and their love of “sketti”, which consists of pasta and ketchup. The family has inspired much derision about their eating habits, which include road kill and cheese balls. Their menu, according to the masses, is emblematic of all that is wrong with the world.
At what point did we truly buy the slogan that we are what we eat?
Of course, food – and access to it – has long been political (let them eat cake!).
But when I find myself having to learn a new vocabulary just to order dinner in a restaurant, it’s gone too far. Food has become a way to marginalize people. We glorify certain foods and demonize others, and do the same to those who eat them.
A visit to Chuck E. Cheese’s and you’re dismissed as unrefined. But a lover of molecular gastronomy? How admirable. Bonus points if your child is vegan.
This seems an apt spot for full disclosure: I’m one of those people who buy their food from a local farmer – grass-fed, organic, pastured. All the buzzwords.
But as much as I feel as though I’m part of the solution, ecologically speaking, I’m beginning to think that I’m also part of the problem.
Perhaps I began to recognize this the first time I was asked if my toddler was a “good eater.” Picky eaters, I quickly learned from the plethora of parenting literature, were to be reformed. Fussiness is a character flaw – and a parenting failure.
While friends boasted that their child’s favorite food was sushi or octopus, and mocked children’s menus with their pedestrian fare, I would shrink a little with shame. My child refused anything that wasn’t an apple, yogurt or toast with jam.
I was aghast when noted vegan (and “Supersize Me” Morgan Spurlock’s former girlfriend) Alexandra Jamieson was vilified after confessing on her blog that she’d started eating meat again – explaining that her dictate had always been to listen to your body, and hers was begging for meat. At least one commenter hoped Jamieson would get cancer. Others concluded she could justify murder with the same logic.
In that coming-out blog post, Jamieson refers to a “hostile food culture,” which, she says, has made being overweight “a crime and a weakness,” made eating a “moral dilemma” and “produced the most unhealthy, food-and-weight obsessed and ashamed generations the world has ever seen.”
It’s a culture epitomized in Gwyneth Paltrow’s “It’s All Good,” a bestselling cookbook that purports that “it” is not “all good.” According to Paltrow, we need to exercise strict control over what we ingest. Food, it seems, is trying to kill us. But alongside this exhortation of demon foods is food porn. We photograph our food, we pretend it’s French (haricot verts, anyone? Frites?), we have a 24-hour channel dedicated to it with fare that dishes up shame-inducing food fights.
We flock to blueberries, which will deliver perfect health. No, it’s flaxseed. Wait, it’s quinoa (which, incidentally, is not pronounced kwy-no-ah. You can imagine how I know this).
Is it any surprise that a recent Canadian study revealed that one in 20 is a “food addict”?
Does our obsession with food offer up an explanation for our glorification of chefs? Our reverence for farmers? In the end, aren’t these people simply doing a job?
It’s a job, however, that fewer of us feel qualified to do. My husband and I are dedicated dinner-party throwers. Nothing fancy. No infusions or artisinal anything. We wondered why, though, we rarely were invited to any. A friend told me she hasn’t the confidence.
“I can’t cook,” she said. It’s not a surprising admission when, on TV, if you can’t throw a fabulous dinner party, you’re shown the door.
By those standards, I “can’t cook” either. My meals don’t resemble paintings. But I appreciate fresh, homemade and farm-to-table. My love for my farmer goes beyond a banal bumper sticker. My family gathers nightly around our table to share food and stories about our day. I pine for the days when that was standard. When food wasn’t used to shut people out but invite them in. When I didn’t need a translator to order dinner. When food wasn’t art but craft.
Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of 14 books, including The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and One Our Kids Will Thank Us For).