Monday, August 10, 2009


This post about the de-skilling of food production and consumption got me thinking about one of the biggest ways that that de-skilling affected America: women's labor, and what happened once food industrialization allowed women to not spend their days canning and grinding wheat. In the 1950s, the post-war food market gave housewives the "gift" of packaged foods (which eventually, of course, led to recipes centered around creative uses of those packaged goods). An essential part of "the feminine mystique" was about what happened when homemaking went from being considered skilled labor to being transparently not-as-skilled, what with all those food processors and washing machines. Homemaking is indeed very skilled labor, but suddenly all those women with educations and/or common sense realized they were bored when staring at the spin cycle. From that (plus maybe another thing or two), we got the women's movement.

And from the women's movement, we got the beauty myth, which has it that cultural overattention to women's appearance rose in direct proportion to the amount of actual power women had in society, in order to maintain status quo. So when we stopped relying as heavily on individual women to be skilled food producers, thus began our journey toward becoming de-skilled food consumers. But the slow food/organic/localvore movement has had popular and practical success in urging a return to skilled production; it's probably the most successful such movement in the culture at large. (Alice Waters might not quite be a household name, but she'll draw a larger crowd than any, say, artisan cabinet-maker.) So we -- and by "we" I mean a fairly privileged group of people who have the time, money, education, and social investment in eating a meal prepared entirely out of local ingredients instead of one from Subway -- are back in the kitchen again, men and women sharing a sort-of-equal stage this time around, happily chiffonading our fresh basil.

Except that the beauty myth still exists. So women are back in the kitchen, but poured into a size 4 apron. As evidenced by the popularity of Julie and Julia, it's not like modern proponents of the slow food movement are skimping on the butter. Au contraire -- the slow foodies I know (of both sexes) are sipping the cream from local cows and kissing dishes with (Dean-and-DeLuca-procured) olive oil. But the body imperative remains, and slow foodies aren't exempt. I'm wondering if this attempt at re-skilling food production and consumption is leading to a subset of overskilled food producers -- slow-foodarexics?

Ideally, the slow food/localvore movement would have its followers to naturally follow a sensible eating plan: Eat wholesome, nutritious foods when hungry; stop eating when you're full; eat from every food group. I'd like to think that's not even "ideal" so much as it is natural -- by paying attention to our food preparation, we naturally pay attention to our consumption. But paying attention to one's food has never been a problem for women who suffer from eating disorders. The rough demographic for eating disorders also happens to be largely the same group most likely to jump on the slow food train -- again, relatively privileged folks.

There's a leisure-time gap between the olden days we want to emulate, and the days we live in. Our approach to food is wildly different than that of our great-grandparents -- it simply can't be as, well, organic (mentally organic, that is). My grandfather recently told me a story about canning foods when he was a kid. He was canning food so that they would have food in the winter, not because it was a fun family activity or because the tomatoes were local (what else would they be?). Those were happy byproducts. He talked about the way the machinery worked, not about how delicious the finished product was. I don't know what was on his parents' minds when they were canning, but I'm guessing they were thinking about the sort of things I think about while mopping the floor. That is, they were thinking thoughts one thinks when one works. Our great-grandparents didn't put as much investment into food as we do because it was a chore. For us, it's a pleasure, so we look forward to spending a lot of mental energy on it. Which is an enormous part of the problem of the American approach to food. People assume that the reason we have an obesity epidemic is because people are undereducated about nutrition. That's true for some, but every obese or overweight person I've heard talk about their weight knows full well that an emotional engagement and preoccupation with food is what added on the pounds, not a lack of knowledge of the fattening properties of Ben & Jerry's.

So I wonder if localvorism isn't for some, in a way, a faint shadow path running alongside the trail of a full-blown eating disorder. If that sounds far-fetched, or even just utterly harmless, consider orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexics physically aren't usually in danger (unless it's accompanied by overexercising), but mentally they're swimming alongside anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive overeaters. I'm reading Living on Live Foods by raw foods guru Alissa Cohen, and she claims that when she went from a conventional diet to raw foods, she lost her obsession with food. This in a 500-plus-page book about eating nothing heated above 116 degrees. She makes her living off being a raw foods coach. And she's not obsessed with food? Similarly, how could slow foodies not be obsessed, or at least preoccupied, with food? Most people I know who align themselves with the movement (myself included) have a glut of cookbooks, and a blog reading list full of "food porn," and claim to "worship" slow food celebs like Alice Waters.

There's no doubt that the de-skilling of food production and consumption is an ugly path for the American diet. But we live in a culture that allows us the luxury of takeout, a culture ambitious enough to begin the industrial revolution that led us to this place -- a culture that now, as a result, leaves us with a lot of spare time on our hands. Time that is easily spent obsessing over food.

Slow foods at their best help us reclaim pleasure in preparing our own meals, pleasure in eating them, and pleasure in sharing with our communities of choice. But we're not a culture at our best, and I'm not sure if the glut of conversations and blogs surrounding egg custards in Perigordine sauce and pecan-encrusted skate put us any closer to being there.

No comments:

Post a Comment