A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The American Food Paradox

Assessing our deep cultural ambivalence towards food and eating

I recently finished the memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, by the talented chef and writer Gabrielle Hamilton, and along with many entertaining stories, she provided me a moment of clarity and recognition. She puts something into words better than I have yet (always the hallmark of a great read!). Describing her experiences as the chef at a summer camp, Hamilton pinpoints with characteristic brio the problem with kids who’ve been raised as so-called “healthy eaters”:

Every session I had no fewer than sixteen girls with “allergies” to dairy and wheat—cheese and bread, basically—but also to garlic, eggplant, corn and nuts. They had cleverly developed “allergies,” I believed, to the foods they had seen their own mothers fearing and loathing as diet fads passed through their homes. I could’ve strangled their mothers for saddling these girls with the idea that food is an enemy—some of them only eight years old and already weird about wanting a piece of bread—and I would’ve liked to bludgeon them, too, for forcing me to participate in their young daughters’ fucked-up relationship with food…For the first time in probably the entire decade that had passed since I had seen or spoken to my mother, I thought warm and grateful thoughts about her. She instilled in us nothing but a total and unconditional pleasure in food and eating. (95)

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This is exactly the trend I find most troubling: at a younger and younger age, American children, especially but not exclusively girls, are being taught to worry about food. With the best of intentions, in some cases, parents are raising children who think of food in loaded terms—something to make us fat/healthy/skinny/smart—instead of as the combination of sustenance and pleasure that it is and is meant to be.

It’s worth pointing out that Hamilton’s mother is French; Americans’ fascination with French culture has always been linked how to how differently they understand and consume food. Food is deeply entrenched in French culture in quite a different way from ours, and the French don’t (or haven’t, until now) manifest the deeply ambivalent, love/hate relationship to it that Americans do.  Rather, French food is a source of pleasure, but not the kind of binging, guilt-ridden, supersized pleasure that Americans take in their (over) eating. Instead it’s a pleasure that’s linked to food as sustenance, food as cultural touchstone, food as communal experience. The recent flood of French-obsessed books, first on why French women don’t get fat and more recently on why the French raise children better than we do, has its roots in this difference as well: in America, we can’t understand how women can eat cheese and wine and butter and pastries and not get fat. We can’t understand how schools can serve hour-long, three course meals made from scratch to children. Who actually eat it. With knives and forks.

This incomprehension may be rooted in America’s Puritan origins: the colonists who came here were suspicious of bodily pleasures, equating sensuality with sin. But where there’s ascetic repression there’s always its flipside, and America today embodies more clearly than ever this dangerous duality: denying the pleasure of food on the one hand and gobbling it down with an unprecedented and greedy abandon on the other. We are more likely, as society, to think of food as medicine or fuel or even poison than we are to think of it as something good for our soul or our culture. We’ve had the good fortune to be a wealthy country for much of our existence, and the result is a relative surplus of food for many Americans. But this feast has gone on too long, been coopted by profit-making corporations, and lacks the built-in social controls that countries like France or Italy have to control their eating. Without a cultural context, American eating has gone terribly adrift.

Of course, it isn’t accurate to say Americans have no cultural context: on the contrary, we are a country with a vast and unique stew of cultures, as well as an increasing appreciation of the fine balance between cultural assimilation and preservation. Irish, Italian, Greek, Eastern European Jewish, Dominican, Cuban, Mexican, Chinese: each wave of immigration brings another wave of food and eating traditions crashing onto American shores. Perhaps it was this confusion of riches that resulted in the bland, homogeneous cooking that defined American food by the 1950s and 60s. All those traditions somehow canceled each other out; perhaps no one wanted to connect to the past, only to the present. Think of prototypical “American” dishes from those years and you have Foods from Nowhere: Tuna casserole? Green beans with canned fried onions? Even today, the only American meal with any historical underpinnings is Thanksgiving, and even that has devolved into a rote, clichéd meal as symbolic of excess and domestic friction as it is of any American food traditions. Not to mention that I can’t imagine the French including a televised sport as a major part of a holiday meal.

In recent years, certain segments of American society have attempted to reclaim long-neglected parts of our mixed-up food heritage, and other movements have begun to focus on family meals or to revalue the local and seasonal foods that once informed our diets. Between these two ideals—connecting food back to a communal tradition and reconnecting it to the places where we live—there’s some hope that the American attitudes towards food and eating can, in the long term, improve for the better. Food as medicine, food as guilty pleasure, food as fuel, food as forbidden fruit: we’ve tried all these approaches, and they’ve been collectively disastrous for us as a society. People no longer know what to eat, when to eat it, how to cook, or how to teach their children to do any of these things. The information explosion has only made matters worse, for the most part, as the media latches onto fads and spurious, ever changing studies on health and nutrition.

We can’t, despite our very American enthusiasm for appropriating other cultures, graft a French (or Mediterranean, or Paleolithic) mode of thinking about eating onto modern American culture. That is as false as trying to slavishly copy French parenting techniques, and would merely constitute another faddish approach, doomed to fail. Better to take a long hard look at ourselves and reclaim the food traditions we once had, as well as to create new traditions and attitudes for our children that put food in its rightful place. In my last post I wrote about what not to say to your kids about food—here is my suggestion for how to approach it in a truly healthy way. Make food neither a punishment nor a reward, but something you can enjoy together. Change the context, and treat eating as a vital but not over-significant part of your day. Somewhere between feast and famine, we can and must find a happy medium.

What I cooked this week and last:

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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