The Omnivore’s Paradox

I want to expand a bit on the ideas that Maura brought up in her most recent post by bringing forth an idea that seems particularly relevant.

Paul Rozin wrote about the Omnivore’s Paradox, which points out that there is a contradiction in humans regarding food. Omnivores, he states, have a drive to find new food and new food sources (which he terms neophilia), yet at the same time they have a fear of the hazards that new foods and new food sources bring (known as neophobia).

Let’s put this in context with the human race, say, 200 years ago. Food sources were unreliable and storage was less than efficient, so there was greater need to discover new foods, new food sources, and even new food technologies.

Nowadays, the developed world has little to concern itself in regard to food sources. We, as a whole, get fed on a regular basis, and even on the coldest days in February there’s fresh food to be had, something nearly unheard of 200 years prior.

What this means is that as we have no need to seek out new food sources, there’s no need to expand our palate beyond what we can find in our dependable food source…namely supermarkets and local restaurants. Why risk culinary displeasure or illness when you know that the food you know will bring joy and “health”? Right now, America is very much neophobic. Sociologist Claude Fishler noted this when he wrote “modern society develops in such a way that it tends to increase the anxiety of the paradox instead of regulating it”.

My interpretation is that the more secure one’s food source, the more anxiety one gets when confronted with new and different foods.

So if we’re so comfortable with the food we have at the supermarket, why the recent trend in Organics, Farmer’s Markets, Slow Food, Locavorism, etc, etc? There are several reasons, but they all seem to point back to a repudiation of Mass Produced food. This presents itself in the following ways; from small farmers being bullied and bought out by agribusiness; to people realizing the environmental impact of CAFFO’s and Pig Farms; to foreign countries dismissing (and in some cases, fighting) American institutions such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto, to even a handful of people remembering that food simply used to taste better before we started buying it pre-packaged and vacuum sealed.

I don’t want to dismiss globalization at all. Cheap international travel has allowed for huge collections of people to visit overseas to areas of the world where Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse are few and far between, and people are forced to eat foods local to the area, where they discover that “Hey! This isn’t all that bad!”

Of course, this is still a small percentage of the population. As much as I enjoyed reading David Kemp’s “United States of Arugula“, I had distinct trouble with his basic premise, that we’ve already become a ‘gourmet’ nation. There’s too much evidence to prove otherwise.

Instead, I think that because there is such a large population of neophobic eaters here in the United States, it makes the neophilic that much more obvious and more interesting.