The Raw, the Cooked and the Half-Baked

There are many agendas and themes in America’s food politics. One major current, with various tributaries, is the obsession with “natural” and “healthy” foods, always presented as the counter-balance to “unnatural” and “toxic” food.

It is time for some political theory.

Trying to get a handle on this obsession took me on a wild tour of Western thought and the Intertubz, including Rachel Carson, the Green Revolution, the invention of breakfast cereals, slow foods, Jack LaLanne, Smoky Bear and Woodsy Owl, Monsanto, fundamentalism, Godzilla, global warming, ADM, Malthus, Freud’s Das Unhemliche, left wing paranoia, and a lot of really, really foul kale and brown rice recipes. I ended up with Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Raw and the Cooked) and their sociological and anthropological examinations of how humans construct a social fabric based on opposing conditions of what is allowed and what is not allowed, and thereby protecting the Beloved Community. In the context of American food politics and culture, a new moral language has emerged, entangling our gustatory habits in its web of sacred and profane. It carries with it a vision of human life – a rusticated city on a fruited plain.

Consider some of the word pairs.

  • Healthy/unhealthy
  • Natural/unnatural
  • Organic/chemical
  • Fresh/processed
  • Clean/toxic
  • Wholesome/toxic
  • Local/industrial
  • (Hand) Crafted/Corporate
  • Fresh/frozen
  • Slow food/Fast food
  • Farm(er)s/factories
  • Cleansing/polluting

It is a huge topic that ties together the various food tribes, an amorphic cluster of emotionally laden words, usually deployed in simplistic arguments that present a dystopia  (understood to be our current state and the immediate aftermath if we Do Not Act Now) and a romanticized future of happy cows and healthy people who live simultaneously in NewYorkSanFranPortlandia (yes, the cows as well as the people) and internet-connected Mayberry (With summers in Tuscany, of course), and always carrying a massive cargo of moral judgments.

We’re looking at an edible landscape increasingly rendered uncanny by the de/reconstruction of it for reasons other than eating. How can we look at this? It will take multiple approaches: A sociological study, a linguistic analysis, a political critique, a culinary deconstruction, an exegesis of the psychological proclivities of people living in a state of paranoia.

It has roots in the Greek concept of eudaimonia – good life/human flourishing – and can easily be tracked back in the American context to Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarianism, Battle Creek, Michigan and the rise of Kellogg cereals, specifically Corn flakes. Industrial foods in America are deeply rooted in the quest for physical health and spiritual well-being. A hundred and fifty-odd years later, it has become a hallmark of a certain portion of the cultural left’s conceptual apparatus, having picked up a crucially important discussion point from environmentalism, namely the use and abuse of chemicals, particularly agricultural chemicals, in the mid-20th Century. There’s also an element of sci-fi in its fascination/repulsion with the Green Revolution and bioengineering, always modeled on Soylent Green. It uses pseudoscience to deploy a narrative of nature as pure, wholesome and our salvation, and to castigate as “unnatural” more complex considerations of the interactions of humans and our environments. It should be viewed as an intellectual and cultural cousin of 19th Century Romanticism, a nostalgia for a past that never was. It is, at base, the left’s most powerful trope of anti-modernism.

The fundamentalism of the right rests on God. The fundamentalism of the left rests on Nature. They enact much the same pantomime and seek a similar type of control over the unwashed/impure/lesser denizens of the world, those who are blind to the truth. To try to shift the focus away from their narrative construction of binary good and evil is to be in league with their particular demon.

In the case of the left, this demon is usually Monsanto, aided and abetted by McDonalds. Never trust the clown… It is the emotional core of Fed Up, the aggravating parochialism of locovores, the deep reason why any one of its adherents care about obesity (hint, obesity legislation is a means to an end), and a major stumbling block to rational approaches to constructing a more humane food culture.

Food paranoia is part and parcel of Fat Land Living.


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Posted in Culture, Politics

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