Food and Eating

Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox

Food as Fashion

The myth of nutrition is shown up by rapid changes in food fashions. Availability is of course important. As waves of different foods hit Europe, eating habits changed. At first these "foreign" foods, particularly spices, like foreign fashions were a privilege of the rich, but they soon percolated down. Giinter Grass wrote a novel (The Flounder) in which each section is based on a food that changed eating habits in Eastern Europe; turnips, pepper, and potatoes loom large.

But once foods become plentiful and varied, fashion takes over, and the lure of novelty - the trendy - is often disguised as concern for nutrition. Thus vegetarian diets and nouvelle cuisine, high fiber diets and cuisine minceur, all masquerade as "healthy." In fact, they all are nutritionally suspicious, but are used like any other fashion: to show how with-it we are. Just as clothes indicate our trendiness, so does food. When grande cuisine French cooking was in, it too was extolled as "healthy." Now sushi is a fad, raw fish is praised as a "high-protein, low-fat" source, ignoring the high rates of stomach cancer in Japan. When cheeseburgers were shown to produce enzymes that might inhibit cancer, a whole generation of food faddists was thrown into turmoil since the cheeseburger was decidedly out. Food snobbism has now become as refined as wine snobbism. Not knowing about kiwi fruit tart or fresh coriander or how to prepare a ristafel or couscous in the authentic fashion, marks one as a social failure. One has not kept up with the latest in food fashion. As with all fashion industries, food fashion thrives on change; it demands it. The vast industry can only survive if people’s tastes are constantly induced to change. The tremendous bombardment of food books and food programs leads educated and literate middle-class readers to feel guilty if they don’t "keep up."

This is a considerable change from the days of servants, when how to get the best cook or chef was the issue. The upper and upper-middle classes did not do their own cooking, and at the very top even any knowledge of it was unthinkable. The middle-class housewife would have to know about it, but was not likely to practice it. She would most likely go by Mrs. Beeton and simply give instructions on menus to the cook. Since servants have almost disappeared, and madame (and monsieur) has moved into the kitchen, the snobbery of preparing something trendy and exotic with relative ease has moved with them.

Along with this has gone a reverse snobbery - a deliberate cultivation of proletarian tastes as long as they are romantic: chili con carne, huevos rancheros, pancakes - all cowboy foods and heavy with the romanticization of the Old West. Or take the tremendous popularity of Cajun cooking - essentially a peasant cuisine but "Louisiana French," and hence romantic. Tex-Mex is another peasant style that has taken. All this goes along with the "rediscovery" of ethnic roots after several generations of denying them, and the lure of the "regional" and quaint. But very little of this would be so organized and spread so quickly if it were not for the demands of the food- fashion industry to find novelty. "New American" cuisine is a way simply to take the homely and make it seem exotic so as to generate yet another "new" food trend. The food-writing industry dominates magazines and the "living" sections of newspapers, and it succeeds because it is available to everyone. We may not all be able to be with-it by buying into the latest ludicrously expensive fashion trends, but we can all whip up a ratatouille, or a green chili stew, or a spinach quiche, or stir-fried shrimp, or blackened redfish, serve it with a trendy "blush" wine, and feel right up there with the new wave. One remarkable feature of the "proletarian chic" style of cooking is the wide popularity of the "cookout" or "barbecue," using rich spicy sauces to baste large cuts of meat. ("Barbe et queue"? The OED says it’s from the Haitian "barbacoa" - a crate on posts. Do we believe that?) This is, in the USA, another appropriation of cowboy cooking by the middle class - which has spread beyond America (the Australians will invite you to "put another shrimp on the barbie," if the ads are to be believed). Why, we might ask, does the man have to do the cooking outdoors and the woman indoors? Because the myths have it that cooking with fire is dangerous and should be left to the men. Again, this is probably a hangover from the romanticization of the cowboy and a way for men to feel macho while wearing aprons and preparing food.

This may explain why the working class, which usually lags in the food fad business, is right on top of the cookout. Usually the workers have neither the time nor the means to be faddists. Quantity and "tastiness" (smoked or pickled) continue to dominate their diets. The quantity is not necessary and is even positively harmful. Other workers - Chinese peasants, for example - eat sparingly. It reflects a late trickle-down effect: The conspicuous consumption of large quantities of food used to be an upper-class privilege, as did obesity. This is now reversed. The upper classes consume expensive and exotic food, but in relatively small quantities. Stoutness, once a striking advertisement for one’s well-fed status, is no longer socially acceptable. Joe Alsop, in his charming autobiography I’ve Seen the Best of It (New York: Norton, 1992) records what is probably the turning point here in his account of "dining out" in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. Following delightedly the gargantuan eating customs of the capital, he achieved, through assiduous dining and scorn of exercise, a weight of over 200 lbs. and a threatening heart condition. The connection was by then obvious, and he was one of the first patients at the famous Johns Hopkins clinic of Dr. John Eager Howard, the genius who invented calorie counting combined with exercise, and thus the "Johns Hopkins Diet" - the granddaddy of them all. (The exercises were based on those used for polio victims.) When I knew the older and wiser Joe in the 1970s he was the thin and dapper dandy of his later famous years. But his book soulfully reflects his nostalgia for those great days of conspicuous calorie consumption (especially the terrapin stew, which smelled like feet but tasted like heaven).