Roz Chast has nailed it again. She’s got a killer cartoon in the November 23 New Yorker, showing a group of her characteristically woebegone individuals, possibly a family, seated around a table. There are labels over each of their heads: “Can’t have salt”; “lactose-intolerant”; “vegetarian”; “vegan”; “macrobiotic”; “fanatic traditionalist”; “strictly kosher”; “on a cleanse”; “ultra-picky gourmet”; “allergic to gluten”.
And over the whole scene: “The Last Thanksgiving”. Yes.
We have become a culture obsessed with salvation by food, especially in those coastal enclaves like New York and California where old-time religion ain’t what it used to be. In what passes for a normal family, northern California division, every member might adhere to a different foodie sect, but all devoutly believe that if they can just get it right they’ll be saved. Berkeley blogs devote many more column inches to food than to social justice. I’m told that it’s the same in Manhattan, and it’s spreading.
In the first American centuries, it was all about abundance. My recent favorite history book, America Visited, (now sadly out of print), records exclamations over bounteous meals by Mrs. Frances Trollope, Jacques Offenbach and Charles Dickens, and that’s just from a quick skim. Dickens said in 1842 of the Planter’s House hotel in St. Louis (where some of my forebears were later to settle), “...the proprietors have the most bountiful notions of providing the creature comforts. Dining alone with my wife in our own room, one day, I counted fourteen dishes on the table at once.”
Thanksgiving Day is the inheritor of this tradition, morphed from “Now thank we all our God” to the groaning board as the focus. But now “a lotta food”, still perhaps the standard in some parts of the country, has given way to various forms of pickiness in others.
Food cultism is not new in the United States. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Kellogg of cornflake fame, not to mention Mr. Post of raisin bran and Mr. Graham of crackers, were all what we used to call “health food nuts”. Not that you’d ever hear that phrase any more…. people take their chosen diets much too seriously.
In recent memory (mine) a new peak in food fetishism in the United States started in the nineteen-sixties. Adele Davis promoted whole grains. Euell Gibbons recommended eating weeds, which he called “foraging”. Julia Child, on the other hand, discovered that the French had much more genteel cookery, and in the west James Beard and MFK Fisher were the leading edge of what’s now called locavorism.
Irony is not a prominent feature of the gustatory religion, but it’s ironically pleasing to note that health food proponents Davis and Gibbons died in close proximity to the biblically predicted age of three score and ten, while Fisher, Beard and Child, who espoused more sybaritic cuisines featuring plenty of butter, lived well into their eighties and even nineties.
It might come as a surprise to today’s food fanatics that even in the Midwest, way back in the mid-sixties when Michael Pollan was only ten or so and living in the suburbs, we had our community garden, we had our farmers’ market, we had our pick-it-yourself orchards outside of town. My kids, not all that much younger than Pollan, were raised while we still lived there with such amenities, which have now become cultural icons in Berkeley.
What we didn’t have was restaurants. I’m told that Ann Arbor has become a restaurant mecca, but in those days if you didn’t cook at home you had a choice of two German restaurants or a Chinese joint next to the railroad station where all the vegetables came out of cans. Several people we knew were in the orbit of the University of Michigan linguistics department, which meant that departmental potluck suppers featured exotic dishes mastered in the course of field research in foreign climes, much better than anything you could get at a local restaurant.
Now many of our friends eat at least one of their daily meals if not all in restaurants. The question “Do you cook at home?” has become surprisingly common, since there are many alternatives if you don’t. And at the same time home cooking has taken on the kind of high seriousness formerly reserved for painting in oils, perhaps, or studying ballet.
The issue of the New Yorker in which Chast’s cartoon appeared was dedicated to food in all its manifestations. Myself, I hate it when they do that. Nothing, nothing, is that interesting in such quantity. Why do I want to spend the several hours I devote to that magazine each week on nothing but “Fiction by 20 under 40”, another recent single topic issue? It’s just as bad as a meal that’s nothing but desserts.
Which brings me, circuitously, to the topic of food puritanism. If you have no children in your life, you might not be aware that school bake sales have been all but banned. Sugar, fat, chocolate: oh no!
So it’s amusing to hear from a mother of my acquaintance that her child’s school had a pre-Thanksgiving party where each child was allowed to bring “a little something to share” from home. What did they all bring? Cookies, of course, twenty-five kids all brought cookies. Nothing but dessert. Did you need to ask?
The same stern impulse that has banned bake sales is behind the drive to forbid fast food purveyors to give toys away with their products. Anyone who thinks that kids want hamburgers and French fries just because of a plastic trinket is living in a parallel universe, as in fact many San Franciscans these days are.
And class distinctions, that verboten topic, are implicated in this discussion as well. Parents who self-righteously turn up their noses at McDonald’s, when they take their privileged offspring along to chi-chi restaurants, are all too willing to buy them macaroni and cheese, or even macaroni without cheese—not hugely different in food value from burgers and fries, except maybe with less protein.
Not that children, when given half a chance, don’t like fruits and veggies. Kale—who would have thought—is popular with all of my grandchildren. On Halloween I experimented with putting some apples and tangerines in the bowl with the candy, and many small visitors were excited to see them.
But what’s nigh on impossible to track is the dizzying speed with which what’s “healthy” to eat changes. Michael Pollan among others has made manful journalistic efforts to explain it, but the science, such as it is, still isn’t there. Revisionists such as Gary Taube (another journalist, but more data-driven) have reported plausible doubts about the carbohydrate-fat paradigm, for example, but still no certainties. A sure road to wealth is for anyone with a medical-sounding title to write a book about diet and health, backed up usually by no particular research.
In an article in a recent New Scientist, excerpted from an upcoming book, Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland inveigh against ‘ the ways in which the rhetoric of health is being used to promote value judgments, hierarchies, and blind assumptions that speak as much about power and privilege as they do about well-being.” They challenge the tacit assumptions that individuals can control medical outcomes by taking the correct actions: “One of the many ironies is that at an individual level a health imperative reinforces the presumption of personal control deeply at odds with the reality of life. Cancer, accidents, Alzheimer's disease still strike those who do everything that they are told might save them.”
The religion of food as sacrament lends itself to the kind of pernicious over-interpretation that they decry. It’s important to remember that it’s possible to make all the right choices about food and still have things turn out wrong...
As a spiritual tonic, if your Thanksgiving table hasn’t yet arrived at the extreme polarization that Roz Chast satirizes, you might do well to take the opportunity to enjoy something to eat that’s outside your ordinary range, something that someone else brought, for a change. That could be your mother’s mashed white potatoes, your son’s Brussels sprouts, your grandchild’s beloved marshmallow sweet potatoes, even a little turkey though you normally pass it up. It won’t hurt you, really it won’t, and it might even be good for you.