Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What's so political about food?

As the Daily Duck's contribution to Great Questions week here at the PostJudd Alliance, I follow up yesterday's question "what's so political about nudity" with today's puzzler, motivated by my strange experience tangling with English organic food hoodlums on BryanAppleyard.com. Two other articles of note on the same topic is this diatribe on the patriarchal oppressions of food Stalinists on Pandagon.net (via BryanAppleyard.com) and this article at Reason.com on culinary correctness:
Years ago, I interviewed Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for a National Review article about his group’s highly publicized reports decrying the delicious dangers lurking in popular restaurant dishes. “I like my vegetables and rice as much as somebody likes their steak and French fries,” he told me. “No, you don’t,” I thought. The cadaverous Jacobson, who looks like he is conducting a life extension experiment involving extreme calorie restriction, routinely reduces the dining experience to numbers indicating nutritional assets and liabilities, treating pleasure as, at best, an afterthought.

To some extent, Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food (Harper-Collins), errs in the opposite direction. Glassner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, is no fatty, but his frequent references to memorable gustatory treats —including “sautéed Moulard duck foie gras with pickled white nectarines, onions, and arugula” at the French Laundry, “tasting menus” prepared by star chefs Daniel Boulard and Thomas Keller, and a “deeply chocolate fondant with a vanilla and toasted almond ice cream” served at an organic food fair—started to get on my nerves after a while. Still, his acute attack on culinary correctness demonstrates that his heart is in the right place: smack dab in the middle of his taste buds.
Still, Glassner resists turning every meal choice into a moral statement or political act, and he is quick to question all forms of food snobbery, including his own. His openness to innovation and diversity is especially clear in his illuminating discussion of what makes restaurant food “authentic” and whether it should matter. (Short answers: It’s not clear and no.) Glassner sees value in the fresh, locally grown diet championed by the food writer Michael Pollan, and he sees value in frozen TV dinners. He waxes lyrical about meals prepared by world-class chefs but also cherishes favorite dishes in cheap, obscure ethnic eateries (although he questions the contrarian food adventurer’s equation of obscurity with quality). He even recognizes the remarkable value of fast food: “Where else, for a few bucks, can a person of modest means get the complete, tripartite American meal (meat, potatoes, and vegetable), in a clean setting, with toys and diversions for the kids thrown in at no extra charge?”

In short, Glassner appreciates food in all its amazing variety and is not willing to deny what his palate tells him for the sake of fashion or ideology. As a guide to what’s worth eating, I’d take him over Michael Jacobson any day.

A wise middle ground. But why is there a political battleground around food anyway? What makes French food terrorosts blow up McDonalds restaurants, and social justice activists boycott coffee that isn't organically grown and fair trade certified? Why does anyone care what anyone else eats?

Your theories and food controversy anecdotes are welcome.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

OK. I suggest that the deeper and weirder the question, the more likely that the answer is Max Weber's: defective toilet training.

June 05, 2007 9:18 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

I think the biggest food controversy at the moment is whether or not trans-fats should be banned in restaurants. Man oh man is that political.

June 05, 2007 9:45 PM  
Blogger monix said...

I think it's down to boredom, Duck. Everything has been said (many times over) about religion, Dawkins, Iraq, terrorism, Bush, Blair etc. What is there to discuss but sheds, hats, nudity and food?

June 06, 2007 3:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Food is a political dividing line within the right, because it is a line between crunchy cons and globalisation free-market cons.

June 06, 2007 5:07 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm with Harry.

The Appleyard thread was particularly odd: a bunch of Brits obsessing about why Brits don't obsess about food.

June 06, 2007 6:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Brits are utterly obsessed with food.

June 06, 2007 6:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Among lots of other things. I'd go with Harry too, but I believe the Brits also obsess about defective toilet training and trying to reconcile the two short-circuits my little grey cells.

June 06, 2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

So what do Canadians obsess about (apart from the obvious Big 3 ms: Mooses, Mounties and More Interesting Countries)?

June 06, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think they obsess about creating a cultural identity distinct enough from America that is worth mourning in the wake of its assimilation by America.

June 06, 2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

It's because food is something everyone can go on about, being so central to everyone's experience.

My favorite comment on food authenticity was Phoney Mahoney's restaurant with the tag line "somewhat authentic food".

June 06, 2007 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's right, Duck. It's been a long time--two hundred years plus--, but we're just on the verge of collapsing into your cultural arms. I think Al Gore is making a film about it. Meanwhile, we just sip our beer and stare at the moose, dreaming of a more interesting life in Leeds or Bradford.

June 06, 2007 4:25 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Canadians aren't "on the verge" of collapsing into the arms of U.S. culture - that happened decades ago.

I blame TV.

Canadians, as a group, are less different from "Americans" than the intracultural differences that exist between Californians and Carolinians.

June 08, 2007 7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear that argument, I wonder what folks like you think the great gulf was before TV.

Still, for folks who you say are almost identical to you, we do seem to have an easy time making ya'll really crabby.

June 08, 2007 10:02 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Family knows all of the "hot buttons".

You must admit, many Canadian foreign-policy attitudes are studiously not-American.

Before TV, Americans were more diverse as well. What TV did was to consolidate accents, speech patterns, expectations, and attitudes.

June 08, 2007 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must admit, many Canadian foreign-policy attitudes are studiously not-American.

"Storm Over Channel--Continent Cut Off!"

June 09, 2007 5:53 AM  

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