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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