Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

23 February, 2010

The Gospel of Food

Today I ran across an interesting blog post called "Some Daily Effects of White Privilege in Housing Co-ops". One item in the list of effects struck me:

2. People don't expect me to know how to prepare foods that reflect my ethnic heritage.

As a white person who does prepare foods that reflect his ethnic heritage (mainly German and Slavic), I have to admit that I never thought about this. I suppose that I take it for granted that very few people regardless of their skin color tend to make meals reflecting their ethnic heritage.

Barry Glassner, on the other hand, has done rather a lot of thinking about people's thoughts and feelings about food and he even wrote a book about it - The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong.

He begins by relating how he was at a child's birthday party where the cake that was served was not quite what he was expecting: "Though neither the parents nor their child nor any of the guests were vegans or celiac-disease sufferers, the cake had no eggs, butter, milk, or wheat. And needless to say, it had no sugar." Further along he notes that the official dietary guidelines of various countries include the word "enjoy" but that ours do not. Glassner bemoans that many Americans subscribe to the "gospel of naught" which judges foods by that which it lacks. The less things that are trending badly, the better. He goes on to defend the lowly potato and to show how various foods are unfairly stigmatized. He quoted a study which asked people, if they were stranded on a desert island and could only have one food, which food do you think would be best for your health. The choices were corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate. Less than 10% chose the items which contained the greatest variety of nutrients – the hot dogs and chocolate.

The book's middle chapters discuss how restaurant critics may not be totally reliable. They are often times recognized and thusly get special treatment that neither you nor I would receive. Glassner takes on the reality TV show The Restaurant, which I gather is no longer on the air, and shows how scenes are staged. These parts which look at the intersection of food and celebrity are the weakest of the book. I mean, is anyone really surprised that a so-called "reality" TV show doesn't always reflect reality?

It is a couple chapters at the end of the book that are the hardest hitting. The first deals with McDonalds and fast food joints more generally. Glassner provides a defense, of sorts, for McDonalds. He doesn't promote their food as being healthy but rather approaches the subject from his field of sociology. Unsurprisingly, he shows how many anti-McDonalds activists not only belittle those who work there but also stigmatize those who eat there. Glassner shows how McDonalds is "the ultimate populist place" by quoting the stories of various people. One of them, a Russian émigré, notes how immigrants find comfort in McDonalds, a restaurant which requires little cultural knowledge or language skills. Then there was Lee Gapay, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who found himself homeless. He frequented fast-food restaurants as they offered a place to sit for part of the day, a restroom, and cheap eats.

There's a great quote from New York Times columnist Daniel Akst which summarizes a lot of my feelings towards Michael Pollan and related ilk such as the movie Food, Inc.:

"It's a measure of how astonishingly far we have come from the hand-to-mouth existence of our forebears that rock-bottom food prices, once a utopian prospect, are now seen as a threat to the well-being not just of Americans but of countless unwitting foreigners who don't know enough to temper their relief at not having to go to bed hungry."

Again, Glassner is not saying that a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke is the healthiest meal option around. But he is saying that fast food is here and that there's more to it than the fat content of the food.

The chapter discussing why Americans are overweight is essential reading. Glassner takes on what he calls the "fiscal model" which contends that Americans are overweight due to eating too much and inactivity. Instead of Americans simply being lazy overeaters, he shows that there are more likely a number of factors at play. For one thing there is evidence suggesting that obesity has a genetic component. Furthermore it was the poor who disproportionate gained weight when our waists got bigger in the 1980s and 1990s which was also the time of the greatest job losses since The Great Depression until that time. Glassner says that during times of stress the body produces less growth hormone which reduces fat deposits and speeds up metabolism. Later in the chapter he takes on the notion that being overweight shortens one's lifespan. The evidence is spotty and ambiguous at best.

What I found so compelling about these two chapters was that they expose attitudes and misconceptions related to food which impact how we view and treat one another. When Glassner is talking to a food scientist about the flavorings he makes and how FDA regulations govern whether they can be labeled natural or artificial, it's a story with little social impact. On the other hand, society tends to stigmatize those who work and eat at McDonalds as well as those who are overweight. Knowing that someone works at McDonalds or seeing that someone is obese is all many people need to make a resounding judgment of these folks. For instance, today, it almost goes without saying that overweight people are lazy.

But it goes beyond stigma to discrimination. And now it is moving from that to financial penalties. Whole Foods has announced it will charge employees with a BMI (Body Mass Index) over a certain threshold more for health insurance. The implication here is that certain BMIs are "healthier" than others and that any given score is completely attributable to lifestyle choices made by the employee.

The media feeds off of and/or feeds into these stigmas. One of the more recent examples that sticks in my head is an article at Slate from last December called "Indie Sweethearts Pitching Products". It's about actors who gained prominence in independent films now schilling for various corporations, including Luke Wilson's AT&T commercials. While I can't remember the exact phrase, when a link to the article appeared on Slate's front page, it was given a title having to do with Wilson having gained weight. The author of the piece, Seth Stevenson, rates the AT&T commercials poorly, in part, because "Wilson had no time to lose weight for the camera" and so we viewers are subject to his jowls. Stevenson seems offended by the notion of having to watch someone who isn't as thin as TV tells us people should be.

Unfortunately, it is a lot easier for most people to rail against a faceless corporation such as McDonalds or attack corn syrup, saturated fat, or whatever the mal-nutrient du jour is than it is to reassess one's own views and behaviors towards other people and the reasons why we have those views and stigmatize others.
|| Palmer, 10:48 AM


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