Every meal we sit down to, every bite of food we take is much more than simply satisfying a basic need as prescribed by our instinct to survive. It’s a political act, it’s an economics lesson, its science, history, culture and religion too. From the apple packed in a little boys lunch to the meals served in prisons. From migrant workers who pick produce in the fields to the best restaurants and dishes in the world. Every part of the food system is affected ether good or bad when the consumer finally takes that first bite, or makes that difficult choice of chicken or beef at the local grocery store or market. Food; its consumption, source and inspirations are of paramount importance in all aspects of society. Those who claim not to know how to cook, or grocery shop, or who simply don’t care about the implications of what they feed themselves had better reevaluate exactly why not.
Every aspect of food offers a different sentiment about a society. What a nation eats ties directly into its identity, culture, history, religious beliefs, economy and health care system. Nutritionist and author, Victor Lindlahr wrote a book in 1942 “You Are What You Eat” highlighting how to stay healthy through diet. The literal translation of this statement was originally its only reference however, as time passed an understanding of its metaphorical meanings grew. Pondered now, a sound thinker could easily draw a number of alternate meanings to its literal translation. It could easily be taken to refer to local or national identity, culture, history, religious beliefs, economy and health care. Meaning; what you and your region or country eat is what makes up that region or country’s characteristics and values. This belief is often forgot about or neglected, especially when we get in line at any popular fast food chain and begin that daunting decision of ‘combo one’ or ‘combo two.’
Food is many things to many people. To some, it’s a livelihood, to others it’s a passion and of the greatest importance—dining others and getting dined are equally enjoyable. Yet for many others it’s a chore and filling up on food is just about as dreaded as filling up your car with gasoline. The dinner table is rapidly becoming a thing of the past and is systematically being replaced by ‘fast-food.’ An entire generation of people who are apparently too busy to relax, cook and enjoy a meal with friends or family. “In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion…A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the United States was spent to prepare meals at home. Today about half of the money used to buy food is spent at restaurants—mainly fast food restaurants.” (Schlosser, pg 3-4) These numbers are as startling as they are real. The system which feeds our families has been turned upside down by multinational corporations that now dictate and prescribe what our farmers are to grow and what our children are to eat.
So what’s the issue here? North Americans like their fast food, it’s a major commodity for export and reflects much about our values. This is the issue. “Hundreds of millions of people buy fast food every day without giving it much thought, unaware of the subtle and not so subtle ramifications of their purchases. They rarely consider where this food came from, how it was made, what it is doing to the community around them.” (Schlosser, pg 10)
“Thus it can be said that all industries which produce commodities for mass consumption—for example food—are essentially culture industries involved in circulating cultural goods as much as they are in circulating economic goods.” (Leitch, pg 114) This is something we need to recognize as North Americans. The same foods which we are wasting our money on everyday is what’s being pushed as the true North American identity around the world. Namely—cheeseburgers and fries. This I would love to say is not true but, I know it most certainly is happening and with little regard for the externalities which it leaves behind.
Food and all of its subtleties are something that ought to be cherished and enjoyed, not hidden in the black box of capitalism. Indeed network television showcasing food and cooking programs are more popular than ever before. However, this does not translate into informed decisions about what to have for dinner. Much of the television programming is run by those same corporations who are pushing processed and chemically enhanced ‘meals’ literally down our throats. We as a society need to be much more aware of how the food system works and what processes equal safe, healthy and economical mealtime decisions.
Everyone should be knowledgeable on what grows seasonally and locally in their area. Grocery stores should be coerced to buy far more local, seasonal products and all restaurants should have close ties with their local suppliers. Restaurant owners should be just as much an expert in their products origin and story as they are experts in the actual preparation of food. “…not only do seasonal, local, and ecologically sound foods and ingredients taste better, but that “eating is a political act” and liken food choices to voting for a better farm and food policy.” (Mason and Singer, pg 173)
A lack of gastronomic imagination certainly is not to be blamed either for the pathetic “culinary competence in the West (which) declines at almost the same rate as discrimination in taste rises.” (Mintz and Du Bois, pg 111) In Spain, a new breed of chef emerges specializing in ‘techno-emotional cuisine.’ Also known as avant-garde cooking this style introduces “knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) are essential for progress in cooking. In particular collaboration with the food industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among cooking professionals has contributed to this evolution.” (www.elbulli.com). Regardless, that these new forms of culinary expression are on the rise and regardless, that the food network has more viewers than it ever has before people are still making wrong decisions about what they eat.
Food, its story, origin and creativity ought to be held with the utmost reverence. It’s something that we as North Americans most certainly take for granted. Meanwhile the spokesperson of our culture—our food—travels the world reflecting poorly upon us as it enters each new culture. A greater understanding is necessary not only for the benefit of our personal self-interest but also for the benefit for our society, economy, healthcare system and cultural identity. Victor Lindlahr was correct when he said in 1942 “You Are What You Eat.” This notion becomes more and more accurate as we see the widespread issues that are everywhere around us as a result of irresponsible decisions at the grocery store, at the dinner table and in the policies which our politicians set.