White stuff: Bread, milk, snow

I was going to write about the amazing Dodge Super Bowl ad that Spenser sent me a link to, but (1) Kiersten and Mariah beat me to it, and (2) what I wanted to say about it fits more with the week when we’re talking about farmers and social class.  Besides, I just can’t resist commenting on this video, which went viral over the weekend during the snowstorm.  (It doesn’t look to me as though this version of WordPress and YouTube talk to each other, so you need to click on the link below rather than the video itself to play it, in case you haven’t already seen it 18 times.)






Bread and Milk

In addition to reflecting one of the more recent and somewhat bizarre collective rituals of contemporary American society in our hyper-mediatized, weather-conscious, storm-sensitive era (which Charlotte and Jonathan also commented on in their posts this week), Vic Dibitetto’s little video captures the particular foods (with the possible exception of beer) that people seem to feel are essential for survival:  bread and milk.

As we saw in the reading about the “assize of bread” legislation of the 18th and 19th centuries, bread has long been seen as crucial to life in western societies, to the point that riots have often ensued from bread or wheat shortages.  Sociologist Melanie DePuis has written extensively (including in Nature’s Perfect Food:  How Milk Became America’s Drink, New York University Press, 2002) about the meanings of milk and how it, too, came to be seen as a staple food, particularly for urban American children.  Turns out this wasn’t always the case, and as we now recognize, many children have difficulty digesting cow’s milk, while most adults, except those of northern European genetic heritage, have trouble with lactose of all types.  But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, health reformers, farmers in search of new markets, and food processing and refrigeration businesses all contributed to the construction of the idea that children will fail to thrive if deprived of milk.  And this has led to an acceptance of governmental regulation of milk prices (even when that makes it impossible for dairy farmers themselves to thrive) and the fact that people go crazy buying milk now whenever there’s a storm in the forecast.

As an anthropologist who can’t digest either bread or milk, I find this fascinating.  As DuPuis, Rachel Slocum, and others have shown, the whiteness of these foods is central to the meanings people ascribe to them without ever realizing it.  The association of whiteness with purity and superiority in Euro-American cultures in the 19th century was of course counterposed to the scientifically racist typologies that justified dominance by lighter-skinned peoples.  I would suggest that there’s some uneasy linkage of all these ideas in the minds of many people who frantically stock up on milk and bread before a snowstorm–it’s not that big a leap from “Bread and milk will keep me alive” to “Bread and milk are pure and good” to “Bread and milk will keep [insert looming fear or threat here] at bay.”  I know it’s not just white people who do this, which speaks to the contagion of panic and the depth at which these old and largely unexamined associations continue to work even after they’ve been discredited on the surface.

~ Cathy


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