My Food Beliefs (redux)

After thinking about the post on Monday, where I state emphatically that one has to know why one is writing about food, I realized that there needed to be a bit more to it than that. One should (at least I hope) have some foundation that influences the “why”. This would be some sort of moral or ethical standard which guides the writer into exploring the avenues that they have chosen to go down.

And then I realized that I had written about exactly this topic before, but it is absolutely worth bringing up again. If we’re going to play in the genre, it’s interesting to understand what motivates us to do this.

When I sat down to actually think about what “I believe in”, it turned out that there were several themes/agendas running through my head. Here’s what I had come up with so far.

  1. Food is Life – This is pretty straightforward. You need to eat to live.
  2. Food is Cultural – What you eat represents who you are as well as the environment in which you inhabit.
  3. Food is Class – What you eat is defined by the allotment of resources available to you.
  4. Food is Politics – The food choices you make within your resources give credibility to the producers and suppliers of said food.

These are high level beliefs, and each relates to one another in a variety of ways. For example, when I give a more specific belief.

  • Obesity is more complicated than “we eat too much” – Sure, at it’s root it is because we eat too much, but it’s also because, as a culture, we have shifted from an active work environment to a passive, less physical, work environments. It does help that we are inundated with images telling us how delicious processed foods with high volumes of fat and sugar can be.

The above relates to health (obesity), culture (advertising, work environment), and one could probably make cases for politics and class. So as you read the below, try to keep the above high-level items in mind, for those, more than anything, shape how I think about food.

So here it is, a few things about food that I believe. It should also be noted that none of these are hard-wired into my psyche. Given enough evidence, it is well within the realms of possibility that a) I could be wrong. And b) I could change my mind on any number of these issues. Ready? Here we go.

Food often works its way from the lower classes, up. – Historically speaking, the foods that enter and stay within our cultures tend to be ones that are eaten on an every day basis. We eat far more peasant food than we realize. Italian, Mexican, Tapas, French, the variety of regional Indian and Chinese cuisines, and yes, even Sushi, all have their roots as food for the commoners.

Related to this is this belief:

Food rarely works from the upper classes down – Here’s a quick bit of trivia. Lobster, caviar, bone marrow, and sweet breads are all foods currently associated with the upper class. All of them have their roots in the lower classes. There are likely exceptions. Sashimi comes to mind. But these are the exceptions.

There is an huge exception here, of course – the influence of spices, the quest for which ended up altering the planet in a massive way (think the era of colonization, and you’ll just start to scratch the surface).

What does this mean to me?

Upscale dining signifies very little – All of this talk about five-star restaurants and $1500 meals means very little in the grand scheme of things when it comes to food. Yes, there’s an entertainment value, and certainly the skills of the chefs are to be commended and commented upon. But their influence on day to day eating is probably negligible to everyone except those who eat at these types of places.

But boy do these places serve great meals (for the most part).

Conversely

Mid-scale and low scale dining signifies quite a bit – The recession hits, and Bennigan’s closes, Applebee’s sell off 66 of their stores, and the Cheesecake Factory reports a 36% drop in third quarter earnings. When people have money, they eat out at places like these. When they conserve money, they stay at home or start eating at cheaper places. For example, McDonald’s has seen sales go up 8% for October. I’m willing to bet that teriyaki and taco truck sales are up here in Seattle.

The quality of the food aside for a moment, what I’m trying to say here is that if you want to see which foods represent food culture, look towards mid-scale and low-scale dining.

All of the above affect the way that I write about food. If you were to look under the surface of any writer, you’ll see some aspect of this (albeit related to the genre in which they frolic).

The problem that B.R. Meyers has is that when he tries to understand these motivations of other food writers, he keeps running into the same themes, and these themes run counter to what he feels makes for a good moral foundation of our country (or something like that.)

This is an interesting problem. Because it means that somewhere between point A (the writer), and point B (B.R. Meyers) the message may be getting muddled, unless, of course, Meyers is correct. I don’t think he is, or at least he’s missing the bigger picture.

The theme I get from the riotous din of food writers is this – we need to pay attention to our food choices. Sometimes this is packaged in such a way that it comes out – “hey, this food is good! You should try it!”, which isn’t all that effective, when one thinks about this approach for a moment or two. Other times, this theme comes out along the lines of “Our animals should not suffer, and we should only eat natural foods!”, which is presumptive philosophically, and quite possibly irrelevant when it comes to the largest fact we have to deal with when it comes to food – how do we feed 7 billion people?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we can all agree that it’s in our best interest if all of us pay attention to our food choices. The difficulty is thus – if the message to point B is muddled, and food writers, as a whole, are coming across as arrogant, self-indulgent foodies with no ideas of the issues on the larger world stage, how do we change that?

Know your beliefs, respect them, and then write towards them is a start. The second – understand the mediums in which you work, and how effective they may or may not be. But that’s an entirely different problem, and should be a topic for another post.