Food Is Good To Think With

Well, I admit it. This is a selfish blog. But I love both anthropology (thanks, Claude Levi-Strauss for today’s blog title!) and the internet for their willingness, as media, to allow for the author’s personal quandaries to appear meaningful or even universal. And, with some careful thought and a little shift in orientation from pure navel-gazing every once in a while, I think that can move beyond appearances, that an anthropologist’s (and a blogger’s) individual struggles can be incredibly pertinent, applicable, illuminating…

I’ve talked a bit about my veganism on this blog and my personal insistence on explanation. When I tell someone I am vegan, I feel compelled to note the various class markers that inevitably (though not inherently, I hope!) cling to that label, to emphasize my environmental and political motivations, to distance myself from the emotional rhetoric that leads people to make posters of sad eyed cows and to berate slaughterhouse workers. I explain that I would want to eat eggs that were the products of chickens in a functioning ecosystem, an ethical environment (stressing that this means thinking about consumers, the animals, the workers, and the land), but I can’t afford to right now. Sometimes it feels as though I’m trying to communicate my whole political and ethical self in my vegan story. And then (as I am wont to do…) I start to become uncomfortable with myself.

Too precious? Too removed from the concerns of working America?
Too precious? Too removed from the concerns of working America?

Can’t my food choices just stand for themselves? Am I trying to rationalize a decision that I have qualms about? Why do I so fervently feel that my food must reflect me? And do I find some pleasure in differentiating myself from “the norm” in a way that perhaps undermines some of my stated goals? These questions have led me to think critically about food as a commodity and the fetishization that occurs in our capitalist system, thus leading us to attach meanings to a product whose material life slowly starts to disappear behind a web of symbols. It has also led me to far more concrete examinations of specific food choices (in terms of both production, consumption, and representation) and the often disparate motivations in attendance.

Rachel Slocum’s insightful, dense piece on food and race challenged many of my thoughts about food and identity. When certain foods become bound up with racial identities (and those foods, like fry bread for Native Americans or, as Slocum references, “Wonder Bread, Cheetos, and junk food” for African Americans, are nutritionally harmful and environmentally degrading, not to mention infused with histories of colonialism and oppression), I squirm between wanting to respect the ways in which historically undermined groups have managed to find connection and a sense of shared identity and feeling an immense frustration with those claims (1). I find myself asking if those foods really bear the cultural significance that people attach to them, but then I remember that that’s what cultural significance means… (ah yes, we make culture and culture makes us).

It’s impossible to deny the meanings and identities with which these foods are freighted and I don’t believe that eating certain cuts of meat with a sense of nostalgia and racial or cultural solidarity is the same as eating those same cuts of meat simply because they were made available. That cultural solidarity can also involve a performance of difference, a pragmatic positioning of oneself outside of “the norm” (and here I’m thinking specifically about Allison Truitt’s piece on the gardens and markets of New Orleans’ Village de L’Est and the importance of perceived Vietnamese authenticity) (2). So, I understand that the value of “cultural” food choices is not simply felt, but can also be very strategic. At the same time, I rankle against the notion that one cannot challenge certain food choices because they are culturally significant. As Slocum notes, the spirit behind much African American “soul food” was sustainability, innovation, and responsible use (3). Might not those motivations prompt decisions that look quite different in today’s food world?

soul food pyramid

SoulFood
I feel very similarly about arguments regarding feminism and food politics. As this great Salon article points out,  “the historically inaccurate blaming of feminism for today’s food failings implies that women were, are, and should be responsible for cooking and family health.” And when women rankle against increased involvement in their food, I understand. I see the reasons why the pressure to provide wholesome, precious meals can feel like a step back about 50 years. In fact, articles like Vandana Shiva’s “Seed and Earth” make me uncomfortable with my interest in “the regenerative,” because she so strongly aligns it with femininity (4). But, I ask myself why I, so opposed to essentialist thought, would base a decision off of an essentializing argument? Some women embrace cooking as a celebration of feminine tasks and others shun it as a marker of an oppressive history (and here I see a connection with Native American attitudes towards fry bread…), but I hope that we can move past those connections and see that food does not have inherent meanings. Its meanings are contingent, historical and, though histories are important, can be changed. And my frustrations with those who argue that “feminism killed home cooking” do not make me question the value of home cooking; it makes me more motivated to see a world in which feminism and home cooking can coexist (5).

I’ve thought quite a bit about differing motivations with seemingly identical manifestations/actions and similar motivations with apparently different manifestations/actions. Beyond the idea of applying past food “values” onto contemporary choices (instead of insisting on past food choices whose values have changed with the economy, the land, technology…), I’ve also considered the seemingly endlessly recurring desire to “go back to the land” and the various ideologies that have prompted it. In my post, “A Progressive Movement for Conservation,” I thought a lot about some of the different meanings that seem to lurk behind the desire for “conservation.” A commitment to the land, to “tradition,” to preserving something about the past (in terms of land, values, aesthetics, etc…), is not really an umbrella position.

When I began to explore some of the directions these movements with shared names (conservation, here) took, I saw important differences. The notion of conserving one particular farmer lifestyle, complete with attendant masculinist ideology regarding the right of man to exploit nature, the enshrinement of the individual, the division between household and outside world, and the privileging of physical knowledge and hard labor over intellectual work and abstraction, manifests very differently from the desire to conserve another farmer lifestyle, one that emphasizes  community support and connectivity, the importance of shared knowledge, and the feeling of spiritual fulfillment. Both might call themselves “back to the land” movement and, in the past, I’ve felt frustrated with their (not specifically referring to those examples, but the various offshoots of “the food movement” in general) inability to work together, to see the importance of their common goals surpass their differences in ideologies. After reading Brown’s “Back to the Land” piece, though, and doing my own research on organizations as disparate as the Peconic Land Trust and the North Dakota Beef Council, I’ve come to feel that the specific ideologies that govern these groups are unrelated enough to make their material/enacted goals incompatible, although the first steps might look similar.

As Brown said, even in the early twentieth century, the proponents of the “back to the land” movement “came from a wide variety of ideological backgrounds: they were anarchists, socialists, and progressive; promoters of the arts and crafts, the ‘simple life,’ or the single tax” (6). To me, that demonstrates that there wasn’t a “back to the land movement;” there were many movements and the end goals of each looked very different. A desire to leave the industrial, modernizing, urban center can come from environmental, aesthetic, moral, health, and political reasons, to name just a few, but the vision of an alternative to the city would be radically different.

Perhaps this is a sign that it is valuable for me to distinguish my veganism from someone else’s. Because, I often feel that my vision of an alternative system, my “end goal” is not the same as many other people who appear to make the same food choices as I do, who mark themselves with the same label. Just as “back to the land” doesn’t mean something stable, neither does “vegan.” It doesn’t signify your motivations or your goals; it simply points to the way you’re coping with the system as it is. And that has its place, I think. But I want to move beyond today’s system.

So, I do believe it’s meaningful for me to distinguish my veganism from the kind touted by PETA. Because, as evidenced in my review of “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” PETA’s mission seems to be more about animals than about people (see their “My Boyfriend Went Vegan And Kicked The Bottom Out Of Me” campaign…). And, while I care about animal welfare, my veganism is about a far more holistic view of ethics and morality.

home-peoplesstories
A still from the MBWVAKTBOOM clip

So, although our labels and apparent food choices appear to match up, our motivations are quite different and I often find their strategies to be utterly reprehensible. There doesn’t seem to be a word, though, for wanting a more transparent food system that relies on smaller networks and takes the wellbeing of animals, workers, land, and consumers into consideration. Naïve? Bougie? I’m well aware of those resonances, as well as the ways in which those desires are aestheticized, become trendy, or get attached to very classed meanings.

How many more words are useful? At some point, shouldn’t we be doing? I seem to be advocating for a multiciplicity of words, a flood of food stories. At some basic level, though, I believe that words are actions. I believe that working for more specificity, more connected understanding, and more open communication will lead to material changes. To bring the unconscious to the surface, to insist on the examination of our everyday choices, to call attention to the meanings we are constantly producing… I think those efforts can do the internal work that leads to profound (flexible, contingent, ever-shifting) change.

Referenced:

  1. Slocum, Rachel. “Race in the Study of Food.” Progress in Human Geography. 35.3 (2011): pg. 6
  2. Truitt, Allison. “The Viet Village Urban Farm and the Politics of Neighborhood Viability in Post-Katrina New Orleans.” City and Society. 24.3 (2012): 321-338.
  3. Slocum, Rachel. “Race in the Study of Food.” Progress in Human Geography. 35.3 (2011): pg. 5
  4. Shiva, Vandana. “The Seed and the Earth: Biotechnology and the Colonisation of Regeneration.” Trans. Array Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. New York: South End Press, 1997. pg. 153.
  5. Matcher , Emily. “Is Michael Pollan A Sexist Pig?.” Salon. 27 Apr 2013: http://www.salon.com/2013/04/28/is_michael_pollan_a_sexist_pig/
  6. Brown, Dona. Back To The Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. pg. 3.

 

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Citizen Eater

I happened across a roundup of regionally significant sandwiches on bon appetit the other day and, although I am not a big sandwich eater, I found myself riveted. I wasn’t particularly interested in the sandwiches themselves, but in the idea of making a statement about national belonging, political affiliations, and cultural values by choosing to eat something squashed between pieces of bread.

The criteria for inclusion in this list of 28 “iconic sandwiches of the world” included notions of naturalness or originality, requiring the sandwich “to be either endemic to its homeland or strongly identified (panini, for instance, are everywhere, but they’re clearly Italian).” So, popularity is not the only issue. In order to signify national identity, these foods have to be both regionally important and original to the place. This makes all kinds of assumptions about

Inclusion in the roundup aside, these sandwiches are making me think about what it might mean to eat one of these meals in its “home town.” Is eating the Barros Luco a political signal in Chile? Apparently, it is named for Ramon Barros Luco, who was President from 1910-1915. It’s entirely possible, though, that, for its modern eaters, the sandwich has nothing to do with its political history. But can it be thoroughly torn from its name? Can it be severed from signification?

sss-barros-luco

Of course, food is never a stable signifier. These sandwiches must collect and discard meanings throughout time and place, resonating according to each eater’s own stories, context, and beliefs. While I, as a visitor, would feel uncertain about what meanings I might be communicating by ordering a Barros Luco, it’s entirely possible that I might not be signaling some specific political message, but only demonstrating my outsider status by asking for an “iconic” national food.

One can often tell a tourist in Virginia (my home state) by how “classic” their order is. There’s something that’s just far too neat about someone ordering ham biscuits with coleslaw or fried chicken with a side of black-eyed peas. Although those are marketed as essential Virginia foods, the very fact of that marketing seems to separates the “reality” of Virginian diets from its representation. Sure, those are things that “real” Virginians eat, but it isn’t meant to signify something clear or definite about their Virginian identity. Remembering my days of eating such foods and recalling conversations I have with current meat eaters (who still scarf down the barbecue at Extra Billy’s), it seems to me that there’s a kind of paradoxical interest in food that doesn’t signify. It’s as though as soon as something becomes representative of a place or is marketed as such, it loses its status as “authentic.”

There’s a kind of irony in eating food that is so bound up in media/commercial representations of a place. When I am an insider to a place, I feel able to consume its goods without necessarily announcing my belonging. However, as soon as those goods become marketed as emblems of place, my relationship to them changes. When I’m at home, drinking Virginia wine feels like a bit of a performance, as it draws up memories of bumper stickers, t-shirts, and urges to support both local commerce and state pride. While I can eat homegrown tomatoes without signaling Virginia pride (although heavily associated with Hanover, Richmond has managed to benefit from the proximity to amazing tomato farms without becoming caught up in the marketing of the crop), I can’t just be drinking this wine because I like it. I always also feel that added layer of my own complex relationship with the state’s government, history, and the stories that give me context.

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This makes me wonder about how I’m perceived when consuming classic regional fare. I don’t eat most of the foods considered to represent Boston, but I almost shrunk underneath the table when my father ordered a bowl of clam chowder the first time he came to visit me here. It seemed so clear that he wasn’t from around here, that he was choosing the food purely because of its place associations.

I suppose issues of outsider/insider status are always being negotiated, but it seems particularly resonant when talking about “national” cuisine. I was struck by bon appetit’s description of “The Cuban” sandwich.

sss-cuban
“There’s some contention over whether or not the Cuban was actually invented in Cuba or Florida, but either way it’s a sandwich made of crusty Cuban bread, mustard, roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and a layer of pickles.”

The Cuba/Florida line seems incredibly meaningful to me, especially with regards to issues of immigration, national belonging, and cultural permeability. Does it mean something different to eat a Cuban in Florida? What might it mean to insist that it was invented in Florida? And can we read anything into the “Swiss” cheese? (Too far? Is that just because Swiss cheese has become so ubiquitous? Is there some sort of Swiss pride in that kind of global saturation?)

Of course, these questions are not simply about the extent to which an eater feels communicative through their food choices. These are questions about capital, about production (of values, goods, meanings, identities…). 

I’ve been hitting up against this issue for the past several weeks- the question of what happens to food when it becomes a signifier in the capitalist system. In  a world in which my consumer choices are meant to add up to an identity (or to push me ever towards some ideal persona), food is always freighted with intended meanings, networks of production, and complicated perceptions. I’m constantly being urged to, and I think I should, vote with my dollars and, increasingly, do so “three times a day” at my table. But it’s not just that my food purchases can reflect my views on the most appropriate way to manage our food systems, it’s also that I can make statements about who I am, who I want to be, and my relationship to place. I can’t know if this is a necessary outcome of capitalism or even if it would cease to exist outside of such a system, but it seems to me that the foods that seem the most symbolically charged are those that function outside of their materiality and circulate in the market exchange of values and cultural iconography.

This is not just the cultural importance of, say, the classic Southern dish of ham hocks and collard greens to an old South Carolina family. I am talking about what happens when food begins to function in the media representation of a place- how it changes that family’s experience of the ham hock to have it be hung up on a billboard announcing South Carolina’s tradition and authenticity, to have it included in a countdown of regionally specific dishes, to know that its purchase is going to signal something about your relationship to place, to history, to politics.

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Your Fridge, Your Self

Stephanie de Rouge - a French photographer based in New York is on a self-proclaimed quest for intimate images. Like many photographers, she is eager to get at the “truth” of her subject, to probe beyond how people present themselves and to delve into the aspects of their selves they might not put on display.

She began a project of shooting New Yorkers in their bedrooms, but didn’t feel that she was getting deep enough. She explained that the often transient nature of the New York apartment was “not a good setting for a long term relationship with one [sic?] self.” And in the course of this project, she asked someone for something to drink. And, there, “L’Ego au Frigo” was born.

The English title of the project is “In Your Fridge” but I think that a better translation of the French title is “The Self/Ego in the Fridge.” de Rouge says at the bottom of her artist statement, “Show me what you eat your refrigerator and I’ll show you who you are? Maybe. Maybe not.”

The images themselves are tantalizing. She gives no information about her subjects beyond their names and locations and the groups are surprisingly diverse.

Andrew and Framton, from Brooklyn, open the set. Do we assume that they are gay? Heterosexual roommates?

Screen shot 2013-04-01 at 11.50.25 AMDoes what we see in their fridge tip our assumptions one way or the other? They eat tofu, hummus, and lots of fresh vegetables. Does this perhaps line up with a health conscious, hip, foodie, gay Brooklynite vibe? We’re forced to confront what our ideas about diet tell us about the identities of the subjects.

There’s also a question of national identity (or attachment to place) that runs throughout the project. de Rouge expanded her subject base from just New York to include Paris and the results prompt a comparison between the stereotypes of the food-conscious Parisien and the too busy to cook New Yorker. Closing in on the particular, the individual’s food habits, helps illuminate some of the cracks in our universal assumptions.

While de Rouge doesn’t comment on the project on her website, she has done a little bit of press. In an interview with a French-language paper, she reveals that she thinks of the fridge as a “lair” or a place where one can “release your neurosis,” a place where part of the “repressed” self emerges (these are rough translations, forgive me!).

Interestingly, these are all the fridges of urbanites. Perhaps there is more in common between Parisian and New York fridges than between the contents of fridges in Los Angeles and Cambria, California (which, although close in geography are radically different in population size, proximity to produce production, and market accessibility).

In “In Your Fridge,” some products cross national boundaries as well as those of age, presumed socioeconomic class, and family “type.” For example, Monique’s Parisian fridge reveals some of the same beverages as Kadafi’s New Jersey clan…

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Screen shot 2013-04-01 at 12.04.04 PMWhat do we think we can assume about these people’s heritage? Their living situation? Do the foods they consume link them somehow to their politics? Their country of origin? There is such an effort on the part of advertising to make us feel that we can represent ourselves in terms of our purchases. Does this hold true for food?

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Screen shot 2013-04-01 at 12.09.24 PMHiro eats tofu and there is Japanese writing on a package in the door of his fridge. Does this tell us that he wants to maintain a connection to his Asian heritage? Peter and Framton also eat tofu, but we make no assumptions about a specific national/cultural meaning in that case. For them, the tofu carries potential lifestyle assumptions. Amongst the fresh veggies, wine, and home-cooked leftovers, the tofu means something completely different than it does placed beside stacks of packaged foods.

I don’t think that these portraits can reveal the “self” in the fridge, but I do think that they can help reflect the assumptions of the viewer and demonstrate the ways in which the meanings of food shift, are contingent upon their context. Meaning does not inhere in any particular product. The owner of the fridge and the other products contained within help construct a web of meanings, interconnected and interdependent.

 

 

 

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But, what about “refined” fat?

“The hysterical crusade against fat has become a veritable witch hunt. With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s ban on supersize sodas (now temporarily thwarted) and the first lady’s campaign to push leaves and twigs (i.e., salad) on reluctant school children—all in the name of stamping out obesity—it is fat-shaming time in America. Yes, there are countertrends, like the pro-fat TV shows of Paula Deen and Guy Fieri. But in the culture at large, eating that kind of fat has become a class-based badge of shame: redneck food (which I say as someone who likes rednecks and redneck food). It isn’t food for someone who drives a Prius to Pilates class… 

But there’s another world of fatty foods, a world beyond bacon and barbecue—not the froufrou fatty foods of foodies either, but basic, earthy, luxuriant fatty foods like roast goose, split-shank beef marrow and clotted cream. In the escalating culture war over fat, which has clothed itself in sanctity as an obesity-prevention crusade, most of these foods have somehow been left out. This makes it too easy to conflate eating fatty food with eating industrial, oil-fried junk food or even with being or becoming a fat person.”

 

This recent article from the Wall Street Journal opens with a seeming awareness of the ways in which class identities are inscribed on our food choices, noting the fact that “fatty” foods (and obesity) are often aligned with lower class status. It’s true, I think, that the effort to curb obesity and promote healthier diets for Americans has often come with some not-so-coded messages about class progress.

Though I’m glad that Ron Rosenbaum is drawing attention to this issue, the next turn that he takes is shocking. He’s asking that we please not lump the kinds of “luxurious” fats that congeal in the arteries of the culturally and financially elite in with the greasy, cheap oils that drip from the fingers of the great unwashed. Perhaps I overstate. But, the language in this piece is strongly coded. Rosenbaum takes care to differentiate the kinds of fats he’s championing from both the more “nouveau,” trendy fats of the “foodie” set and from the ubiquitous “redneck” fats that he sees being condemned in the news media, choosing food examples that emphasize tradition (roast goose), high culture (clotted cream), and the kind of claims to simplicity that often mark an assertion of “naturalness.”

I don’t think I’d argue with the basic content of Rosenbaum’s argument. I do think that the way we talk about fat (and all food groups) in this country needs to be more nuanced. The demonization of any macronutrient is foolhardy and the way that class has been used as a nutritional goad is shameful. But I worry that Rosenbaum isn’t really helping matters, he’s just drawing more dividing lines.

(Of course, I think it’s important to know who your author is and I remembered reading another food-related article penned by our dear Rosenbaum. This Slate article on “The Unbearable Whiteness of White-Meat” is a thoughtful, incisive look into the racialized histories of the way we consume white and dark meat. It’s certainly not perfect– note the almost compulsive denigration/mockery of the hippie eater– but it’s a good read, nonetheless.)

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Allan Savory on Using Livestock to Address Desertification

This TED talk from biologist/environmental/”holistic manager” Allan Savory addresses the growing problem of desertification of grassland ecosystems by suggesting a radical solution– using “livestock mimicking nature.”

 

He’s talking about putting tightly packed, roaming, grazing herds on land in order to work to reverse the effects of desertification. Livestock have long been blamed for environmental degradation, but Savory has a concept that would use these grazing herds in a strategic fashion and his facts and figures are convincing.

This, to me, is an example of the kind of gray area thinking that is really necessary in the food activist movement. The answer is not no livestock or livestock, but how the livestock is being managed. Of course, the kind of immobile and chemical-laden techniques that govern industrial livestock production has a devastating impact on the ecosystem, but Savory (loving the food name…) has a plan that requires a paradigm shift. Roaming herds could not be a part of the food industrial complex as it is, but could contribute to local food economies in highly effective ways.

It’s also nice to hear a scientist talk about the social impact of their theorizing and Savory does a lovely job connecting poverty, hunger, and climate change…

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A Progressive Movement for Conservation

What do we mean when we talk about conservation? Are we speaking about values? resources? biodiversity? cultural norms?

Often, I find that the language about food (and specifically, farming) turns into language about America, its past and its future. We talk about conservation, but the terms become slippery and it’s not clear what meanings are being communicated.

For example, I recently saw a bumper sticker that said: “EAT BEEF… the West wasn’t won on salad.”

Ultimately, that’s a statement that seems to be about conservation. It’s about preserving a kind of American spirit through dietary choices that communicate strength, masculinity, and fortitude. The salad, here, is coded as wimpy or girly; it’s not the fuel one needs for conquering or “winning” the West (or anything else).

It’s interested to consider, though, what is being won in the West. We’re talking about land. Specifically, we’re talking about consuming land, about expanding into new territory, extracting resources, and evicting that land’s prior inhabitants. Is this really, then, a model of conservation?

Land conservation is about learning how to do more with the land that you have, using practices that allow for the continued extraction of resources for generations to come. The model of continued expansion allows for sloppiness when it comes to resource conservation. If we can also get more, why be careful with what we have?

Of course, it’s not fair to read that attitude onto all of meat eating, but it does seem that the current model of raising and slaughtering livestock in this country is entirely environmentally unsustainable (from the perspective of land usage, water usage, grain/soy consumption, etc…). At it precisely the current model of livestock production that is pushing this message. While this is now a bumper sticker on the cars of individual consumers, the slogan was coined by the North Dakota Beef Council in 1990.

The “other side” also uses language of conservation in ways that bear examination. While doing my usual scan of my favorite food blogs, I came across a short film about the Peconic Land Trust’s Farms for the Future Initiative and was really struck by what seemed to be talk of a very different kind of conservation.

The Trust works to help new farmers find conservation land in Long Island and the short film, called “Growing Farmers,” features mini-biographies on a few of those farmers. So, the language of conservation has been established here as an environmental term. The goal is to keep farmland in production and to help sustain a local economy with environmentally-minded agriculture.

However, the language is also about conserving a lifestyle. These are new farmers, but the whole film opens with a lament over farming families losing their land. The tradition of farming is clearly established as an honest, hard-working profession and its loss is not just a loss to the environment. It is an emotional loss, as well.

The stories chosen highlight this emotional connection to farming and, I’d argue, the staunchly “American” values it carries. Chris Browder is the classic banker-turned-farmer story. He talks about the toxicity of his prior work environment and about the passion that he feels for the land. Alex Balsam and Ian Calder-Piedmonte talk about the sense of self-respect they derive from being farmers. They talk about the endlessness of the work, the long hours and the cyclical nature of the seasons, with pride. Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow emphasize the unexpectedness of their profession. They’re young, attractive women who worked in foreign policy, but they talk about their desire to really do something and the fact that they found that sense of fulfillment in farming.

That’s a running theme- the quest for meaning, the talk of “doing something real.” In this film, then, conservation is also about a kind of return to an older America (perhaps just as imagined as the virility/masculinity in the America of the old West). These new farmers are talking about abandoning the hectic, fast-paced lifestyle of the city and moving to a slower, agrarian beat. They are turning away from a model of endless progress and, instead, trying to show the value in a more cyclical model.

Baldwin and Merrow drive this point home when they bring a group of children to their farm (another blog for another day… why is it the women who are shown bringing children to their farm?) and discuss the importance of passing this on to future generations. The seeds are saved, the land is conserved, the profession is preserved, the values remain.

 

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The Sexual Politics of Meat

Pamela Anderson Poses for PETA

Carol Adams’ early 1990s work, The Sexual Politics of Meat, addresses the historical relationship between meat-eating and the oppression of women, by locating both within in a patriarchal system in which meaning is divorced from materiality, violence is both accepted and hidden, and women and animals are both rendered dispensable for male consumption.

Adams argues that a feminist stance on meat-eating is a vegetarian stance, one that calls attention to the life of the animal that stands behind the meat and one that also points out the ways in which male vitality and virility seem to rely on the consumption of meat, a blood sacrifice. She draws parallels between this consumption (making a clear case for the relationship between meat-eating and masculinity with ethnographic data, literary analysis, and sharp cultural criticism) and the language with which women are often referred to. As Anderson’s ad for PETA (shown above) shows, it’s quite common to refer to women by their parts. Women are reduced to an alienated set of anatomical objects- a “pair of legs” or, even more meaty, “a rack.”

The basic concept of fragmentation and alienation as tools of violence (what Adams calls the phenomenon of the “absent referent”) clearly relates to both women and animals and Adams makes a good case. However, there are aspects of her argument that gave me pause. On the one hand, it seems clear to me that there is a historical relationship between patriarchal power and reification or “thingification” through isolating the parts from the whole. On the other hand, I am not certain that the process of alienating a living being from either their constituent parts or the products of their labor is inherently patriarchal. To me, it seems inherently capitalist. Now, there’s definitely an argument to be had as to whether capitalism is necessarily patriarchal, but I think it’s worth considering if the consumption of animals in a non-capitalist system could be feminist.

I think where Adams’ argument breaks down a bit is when she starts to consider inherent commonalities between women and animals (or women and nurturing/vegetation/sustainability). Structurally and historically, it seems fair to consider women and animals in a similar (or analogous) subject position (at least, in the Western world). However, I bristle at the idea that, as a woman, I have a natural relationship with anything. I don’t think that “woman” is a natural category, honestly.

But perhaps that’s neither here nor there…

To link things back to Pamela Anderson up there, I’d like to address Adams’ proposition that a rejection of meat might be a part of a woman’s assertion of control over her own body. Anderson has argued that she’s presenting herself on her own terms, that she is “using her own body.”  Interestingly, this seems like the kind of language that Adams identifies as part of the system of patriarchal fragmentation in which the body is a thing to be used. Anderson feels that by sexualizing herself, somehow, she has gamed the system. On the outside, however, she’s still a bikini-clad sex symbol on a billboard.

Adams also addresses a way in which women can take back their power, can claim autonomy over their bodies. She discusses rejection of meat as a way for women to assert control, claiming that by “refusing the male order in food, women practiced the theory of feminism through their bodies” (Adams, 163). The body becomes the tool of protest. I struggle with this idea, as someone who cares deeply about the ways in which women often turn their lack of control into a mission against their own bodies. Food choice becomes the place where the otherwise powerless can take a stand. That’s a stage that toddlers go through. That’s a symptom of disordered eating.

Now, as a vegan who believes that her food choices are political choices and who is deeply interested in reclaiming control of her own body, I would never make any blanket statements about a woman’s choice to eat or not eat meat. I’m just sitting over here and struggling with these ideas and struggling with what to put on my plate.

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The Cleanse (Femininity, Detox Diets, and the Myth of Purity)

Last week, when writing about extremism and dietary identities, I linked to the popular detox program called “Clean.” I returned to the site for some further research and was suddenly struck by the promotional images.

This diet “cleanse” is clearly not just marketing a set of powders, supplements, and recipes, but a carefully curated lifestyle. The target audience is an already slim, affluent woman, whose spotless kitchen (chrome accents, of course) is sleek and modern, but whose dining room table is looks like it could have been hewn from a tree (one that just fell all by itself, not one that was cruelly chopped from its roots) just days ago. Her friends are also pleasantly slender and their casual lunches are carefree and serene.

Nothing about this woman suggests extremity. Her smiles are all quite contained, her style is non-committally crunchy, she probably does gentle yoga in workout gear from lululemon. The diet itself, though, is quite extreme. Replacing two meals a day with a 63 calorie shake and sticking to a strict elimination diet for lunch, the cleanse promises full body “detoxification” (although it is unclear exactly what toxins are being “flushed”). It seems to be more than that, however. Clean appears to promise purification- moral, spiritual, physical, and aesthetic.

The surfaces in the promotional material gleam as brightly as the central model’s white skin. She is pristine (lighter in pounds and dollars, as the 3-week kit of supplements costs $425).

These visual signs become overt when such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow share their testimonials, praising the program’s power to provide “mental clarity

Eliminating dairy, eggs, gluten, red meat, processed foods, most oils, nightshades, condiments, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine, the diet relies heavily on fruits and vegetables and such ingredients (commonly lauded by the nebulous entity of the organic, hippie, food conscious movement) as lentils, green tea, nuts and seeds, and coconut oil. These dietary suggestions, however, do not come attached to an environmentalist or animal-rights agenda. Instead, they promise “lightness” and “release” (interesting code for bowel movements, so often taboo for women to speak of) and a motion toward “the CANI principle — Constant and Never-ending Improvement.”

The language of the program treats food like an addiction, speaking in delicate terms about various “triggers” one might have and the ways in which eating can often take place during emotional times. While these issues are quite real, the target audience does not seem to be those who are struggling with such addictive behaviors as binge-eating disorder or compulsive over-eating.

Instead, it seems as though this program (and I am only using this one as an example because of its commercial success- there are countless other programs with similar messages) is marketing a kind of physical and emotional lightness that is particularly aimed at white women. There is frequent talk of being calm and balanced, not allowing the extremes of emotion to govern your actions or appetites. Self-containment is prized.

The Clean Manifesto is also full of admonishments to question one’s impulse to eat. If one stops and thinks about it, is one really hungry?

Hunger will fall away and a sense of serene “empowerment” will take its place. This is the dangerous kind of “empowerment” women are told will arise when they turn their desire to control their environments back in on themselves. Such scholars as Susan Bordo have long theorized the relationship between patriarchal control and anorexia and evidence has been found linking the prevalence of fasting/eating disorders with historical and geographical incidences of loss of female control.

While a 3-week detox diet is by no means necessarily disordered eating, the language and imagery of the Cleanse is striking in its emphases on purity and self-containment. The diet doesn’t just market health; it markets a particular brand of femininity.

Next week, I’d like to explore some of the relationships between masculinity and fad diets (perhaps delving into the paleo diet or examining the phenomenon of the raw food dude), but it’s worth noting that all of the testimonials offered on the Clean website and the models featured are women, but that the diet itself was created by a man and the two other founding partners are also male (and their mini-biographies are well worth a read!)

Just a little food for thought…

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The Nutritional is Political (But Maybe Not How You Think…)

I tell people that I’m a political vegan– my choices are determined by my commitment to environmentalism, human rights and labor laws and not by sentimentality. But a recent New York Times article has me thinking about the ways in which our food choices align with the political climate of our times.

In The Land of the Binge, Frank Bruni suggests that the kind of extremism he sees trending in people’s dietary choices is somehow linked to the kind of extremism he also sees in the political world- the kind of bipartisan inflexibility that has made our legislature embarrassingly newsworthy.

He argues that “America these days is an immoderate land of fixed opinions and outsize fixations. More and more we wallow: in our established political philosophy; in our preferred interest group; in our pastime of choice; in whichever health routine we’ve turned into a health religion.” Here he makes the linkage to food much more explicit, citing the fixity with which individuals seem to cling to dietary labels like “gluten-free,” “paleo,” or “organic” with a moral ferocity and, as Bruni says, “not always because they have an affliction compelling them to.”

What I find particularly interesting is not Bruni’s argument that Americans are living in a climate of extremity  that dictates both their political and nutritional decisions, but that he sees both political and food choices aligning strongly with an individual’s sense of self. Though he’s making an argument about food that hinges mostly on examples of food fads (such as poutine, “the hipster douchebag dish of 2012. “), a sense of a growing disparity in the foodie movement between hedonistic joy in fat consumption (bacon maple doughnut, anyone?) and ascetic transcendence in juicing, raw foods, and macrobiotic diets (the number of programs marketing themselves as “clean” is astounding), and a romanticized notion of a past in which people were more moderate eaters and more moderate voters.

I’m sure that there have always been currents of extremity in American nutrition and dietary choices, but the Bruni connects political party affiliation and food choice in a way that feels striking to me. You don’t just vote Republican, you are a Republican. Similarly, you don’t just eat vegetarian, you are vegetarian. Bruni doesn’t have enough evidence to convince me that this is a new thing, but it’s certainly an interesting thing and, for me, rings true. 

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