State of the Field

Over the course of the semester, I have done a lot of thinking about how people decide what food to put into their bodies. Turns out, the answer, if it can even be boiled down to one answer (spoiler alert- it can’t), is quite complicated. Furthermore, choice actually has very little to do with why we eat what we do. There are so many outside factors including financial restraints, education and access limitations, familial influence, societal/ cultural influence, and even chemistry within the food itself. There is however, definitely choice involved also. I have come to understand that there is a sort of scale that determines how much of what you eat is determined by choice and that scale has a lot to do with socio-economic factors. That being said, people do have agency with regards to what they consume to some degree. If I were to attempt to boil it down the most important factor in a word, I would say health is what drives many of our (educated eaters’) food decisions (or at least what we try to make drive our food decisions).

 My definition of health in this context, however, is multi-faceted. Additionally, I can’t speak for anyone else’s choices. I can, however, analyze my own choices as a somewhat informed/ conscious eater. I can also generalize based on trends I observed throughout the process of writing this blog. Health, to me, in terms of food can refer to nutrition, sustainability (health of the land and health of the workers), social health, and financial health (for the farmers and yourself- shouldn’t buy food you can’t afford).

 As far as nutrition goes, I like the idea of eating a variety of simple, whole foods. I think Michael Pollan has it right in his philosophy, “don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Processed foods like Cliff bars for example, more closely resemble animal droppings than anything my great-grandmother would have eaten, and she would have most definitely been concerned by the radio-active color of Cheetos. In many ways Cliff bars are deemed much healthier than Cheetos, but they still come in a package, are processed, and are still pretty unrecognizable as whole foods. I’m trying to avoid both, but when I have no other choice, I’d definitely choose a Cliff bar over Cheetos.

This choice of mine is probably based on the idea that has been ingrained in me since I was really young, that Cheetos and other snack foods are bad for you. That is the way I was raised. When I was little, juice boxes and snacks like goldfish were only for emergencies. Seriously, we kept juice boxes in the trunk of the car incase the car ever broke down (before cell phones). It only happened once and that is my only memory of a juice box for years. I still don’t ever drink juice or even really snack- it’s just not how I grew up eating.

 This aspect of how family impacts food choices has always been really interesting to me. As a veteran babysitter, I’ve witnessed a lot of parents have food rules (no gluten, please sprinkle fish flakes over food at every meal, child cannot leave table until all vegetables are gone, nothing but vegetables allowed after 7 p.m., etc.).  This can be known as food policing. Thinking back to my own childhood, I realize that I was raised in more of a food-policing environment than food pushing (see here for a discussion of both). The idea of food-policing is a troubling one. After lots of discussion and reflection about eating disorders, I have observed that many people who struggle with disordered eating come from food-policing households. Food pushing households can be equally detrimental, though, as connecting food to comfort and love can tip the scale from nurturing to unhealthy pretty quickly.

 Why is it so hard to strike a balance in parenting kids about food? Well, probably because food is such an impassioned thing! It is often connected to emotions in ways we can’t untangle. Parents want to provide the best food and nourishment for their kids to help them grow up healthy.

 There is a lot of societal pressure for mothers to feed their kids the best of the best. They are judged by their peers if they feed their kids apples with too many pesticides or on the other side of the spectrum, if they are “that” parent that provides their own meal at birthday parties because they don’t want their child eating unhealthy pizza unlike the other heathens. This article has an interesting perspective on the intricacies of this debate. That brings me back to the image from my first post- a PostSecret post card from a parent admitting to feelings of guilt for purchasing fewer organic ingredients and therefore lying about it.

 

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There are other societal factors at play besides mothers judging themselves and each other. Religion, gender, and culture also play a role. This video highlights the basics about religious involvement in food choices, but what it addresses in more depth is the idea of gender norms in food. The speaker strongly conveys the masculine pull to eat what will make you strong- often red meat. This article also details the man’s plight in food choices (unfortunately only the abstract is free, but it still gives a good summary).

 I strongly disagree with the last statement, however. The author argues that “Women, on the other hand, appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices.” This is based off the fact that women’s choices didn’t vary with the amount of time it took them to decide what they order. I want to argue that it is even more ingrained in women that they are supposed to eat a certain way. I think it has just become automatic for women to order what is appropriate on the menu. When they are on a date, I assure you it is rarely ever a burger. I don’t really have any scientific data to back this up, but I have had conversations with friends about this for years. In fact, I don’t know any woman who can honestly claim that she doesn’t look at the salad section of a menu first. It is not just that women are so incredibly lettuce loving as a gender, but rather that is what society dictates we should eat. All dieting commercials, all health food advertisements, yogurt advertisements, and chocolate advertisements (anything “sinfully” good) are directed towards women. Anything meat or pizza oriented is directed towards men.

 Culture plays such a role in how we think about food and eating. In this blog I have brought in the Spanish perspective and although I am not a native Spaniard, I did live in a very small city in Spain for five months surrounded by Spaniards and very few tourists. I observed their eating habits to be entirely different than ours. There were large differences between what we ate but the major differences lay in how we ate. Nothing was labeled organic or local, no one talked about sustainability- food was just food. There was only one variety of carrots in the grocery store so if you wanted carrots you just bought those. No one in my small city even understood what vegetarianism was or why you would ever choose that lifestyle. There were a few girls on my program living in homestays who were vegetarians, and really struggled because their madres would serve them tuna not understanding that tuna is considered an animal and therefore not eaten by vegetarians. They just don’t really divide food in the same categories we do. There was less of a focus on the food in general. They return home from work or school for lunch every day with their families because meal time is about socializing and catching up rather than fueling your body. They meet up with friends for a snack in the mid-morning or after work. The Spanish are not people who would ever eat lunch or a snack at their desk. In fact, there are even very few restaurants that offer take out options. It is all about sitting down and eating together. When deciding what to do for dinner- what restaurant to go to- the question was always asking more about what atmosphere are you in the mood for than what do you want to eat.

 Perhaps the Spanish have no version of this “new food activism” because they don’t need one. Outside of cities, everyone is a farmer. All the olives, olive oil, oranges, grapes, and wine come from local farms just because there are so many farms. They pride themselves on their jamón because their pigs are free to roam around and graze on acorns all day (which apparently makes for the tastiest meat and happy pigs). These aspects of what they eat are not really up to choice- that is just the way it works. Big Ag has not really left it’s mark on Spain yet, and the people are happy with that.

 Big Ag in the U.S. however, is another story. This awesome 11 year old kid already knows all about Monsanto and what we need to do to escape it’s grasp. New food activism is a large movement here and growing because there is a clear need for it. People are investigating the origins of their food because it actually does make a big difference. I think we are at a point now where if price was no issue, everyone would buy organic when possible.

 The unfortunate reality is that price is an issue. The famed Dr. Oz took a cost-benefit analysis position on the organic food phenomenon and found that the costs (of the actual ingredients plus time involved to prepare them plus time involved to purchase them more frequently) are not worth the nutritional gain. I’m sure this was comforting news to guilty middle to lower class mothers, however it is concerning to me. This proves once again that our food system is unjust. Dr. Oz even calls it “undemocratic”. This injustice affects what many put in their bodies. The injustice can stem from lack of education to lack of access to lack of funds and most often, a combination of all three, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone is able to be so “choosy” with their “chews”.

The state of the field, in my opinion, is improving. We have a class at Tufts called “New Food Activism”, news sources such as Time Magazine and The New York Times are bringing this dialogue to the mainstream media, 11 year olds are standing up against Monsanto, and there are policies trying to combat the injustice surrounding food and education in the U.S. It is important that this push continues. The more mainstream this becomes, the more choice can be a factor, and ultimately that is what I want. I want to see everyone have the freedom to choose their food and the education to really make that choice with all the facts in mind. While childhood/ familial food influences, religion, culture, and chemistry (the addictive nature of junk food) will most likely continue to influence what we eat and why, I hope that personal agency will have more to do with the story as time and this movement progress. The way things are headed, it seems as though, this increased choice will lead to increased health of the whole system: the individual, the mentality, the economy, the farmers, the land, the air, and the future. 

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Spanish Tapas: A Life Source or a Life Style?

In a previous post, I touched on the anomaly that is the Spanish diet. In summary, in the region I was in, it consists mainly of potatoes, eggs, jamón, and too much mayonnaise mixed with ketchup as well as croquetas, tortilla, and way too many french fries. The baffling part is that no one is fat. 

Eating is not necessarily about getting necessary vitamins or minerals, but rather sitting with your family or friends and recounting the day, talking (or shouting) about politics and current events, gossiping, and just spending time with each other. 

I recently found this article that perfectly reflected these sentiments. It is a comical article entitled “How to Know if you’re Actually Eating Tapas”. The qualifications refer in part to the food (small plates or raciones to share) and quality of the food (simple, not highly seasoned, no focus on presentation, lots of potatoes), but more to the situation and atmosphere.

As far as atmosphere: there should be no qualms about throwing napkins onto the ground (or weird, make-shift metal gutters under the bar), and you may bump your head on a pigs leg hanging from the ceiling. The people around you should be grumpy all men who would walk like this:

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The waiters should be curt, and you should be surrounded by a large group of friends that only gets larger over the course of the night. 

This article is mostly written tongue in cheek, and there were actually many negative comments (which really shocked me because after living in Spain for five months, I laughed and nodded along with each and every point the author made). Some said it was an “over the top” analysis, some said it was condescending, some said it was an “anglophile interpretation”, and some said it was absolutely accurate. 

Regardless, I think it is very telling that the definition of “tapas”, which is just often how the Spanish eat dinner daily, includes much more than just the food. They acknowledge that the meal is about the experience: the ambiance, the company, the conversation (and volume level)- not just the actual food consumed. 

The Iconic Farmer’s Daughter

 

 

 

 

 

Others in the class have posted about the infamous Super Bowl commercial God Made a FarmerFarmer’s have recently become more iconic than ever in a nostalgic, return to the land way, but there is another side to the story. 

Young farmers are turning up all over the country in traditional farming communities and urban environments alike. In this article highlighting the farming youth, 40 Farmers Under 40, 19 of the 40 farmers featured were female. The article highlights this trend, “They’re urban, they hold advanced degrees and they’re often female.” A New York Times article covering the phenomenon of young, highly educated people going back to the land after earning their prestigious degrees mentioned several young, male farmers, but focused mainly on one young female.

Our New Food Activism class is overwhelmingly female, when we had farmers as guest speakers a few weeks ago, they were all female so it is clear that women are involved in this field in very valuable ways. If this is so clearly the case, why are some people so slow to catch on?

I got this email from Free People a few weeks ago- I took a screen shot of the image:ImageAccording to their marketing, the farmer’s daughter is still the alluring woman in this industry- not the female farmer. This girl with her sultry eyes, lacy dress, and arm full of bangles is not giving off the vibe of helpful farmhand, but rather temptress. This idea is pretty widespread. Rodney Atkins sings his story of a relationship with the farmer’s daughter. “Just when I thought it couldn’t get no hotter, I caught a glimpse of the farmer’s daughter,” he sings and reminisces about how she got him through that grueling work because she was so pretty. And apparently Free People isn’t the only one to imagine a farmer’s daughter as dressed up and more glamorous than a farmer as Atkins remembers “draggin my butt to work with the smell of her perfume on my shirt”.

Personally, I thought this song was pretty funny, and probably only did a double take when I got Free People’s email because of this class. Understandably, the lingering smell of perfume is much more appealing to everyone than the lingering smell of body odor, and an upscale clothing ad romanticizing female farmers would be just as ridiculous as the farmer’s daughter, but still I’d like to see more representations of female farmer’s in popular media and advertisements. There are women doing great things to change the agricultural industry, let’s recognize the female position on a farm as something other than the temptress, farmer’s daughter. 

 

How hungry do you have to be to eat a horse?

The debate over the consumption of horse meat in the US is a historical one. Several individual states have banned the sale of horse meat for human consumption for years and congress agreed in 2006 by cutting funding to horse meat inspectors which in turn closed the last of the horse meat processing plants. That funding has recently been reinstated due to concerns over horse neglect and unsanitary conditions. The recent controversy about horse meat being found in all kinds of beef products (including Ikea’s meatballs) in Europe has started this debate all over again.

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Some of the concerns appear to be based on fear over the drugs horses are given that are not FDA approved for animals intended for human consumption. Others argue that these drugs are not any worse than what cows, pigs, and chicken are routinely given.

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I, and many others, have a feeling that the debate goes deeper than that. It seems as though part of this controversy is due to the fact that Americans are more morally opposed to eating horses than other animals (pigs, chickens, cows, deer, etc.).

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Humans feelings about eating animals vary immensely based on our relationship to the animal. Americans view cows, pigs, and chickens as indisputably inferior and thus have few qualms about eating them and changing their titles to something more menu worthy (pork, ham, bacon, beef, steak, etc.). However, many Americans would probably rather starve than eat a dog because we dote on dogs and welcome them into our families. The idea is similar with horses. Teresa Genaro, a Forbes contributer, explains the moral debate quite well.

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We view horses more as pets or beautiful animals to admire than food. Joel Stein succinctly sums up the illogical nature of this debate, “It’s not that I don’t think killing horses is cruel. It’s just that I think killing chickens, pigs, sheep and cows is equally bad. Morality based on aesthetics is pretty shallow.”

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In many ways, eating horse meat is more ethical than other meat consumption. Horses tend to lead a longer, happier life than animals bread for consumption. They are prized for their health and beauty and are thus well taken care of. They release less methane than cows, and do not degrade as much land. Additionally, when is variety a bad thing?

The FDA unapproved drug use is a problem, but one that I am sure with some regulation we can fix. Other than that, I see no good reason why horse meat should be excluded from the American diet.

All pictures found from: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/horse%20meat

Terroir: A Taste of More than Place

Amy Trubek leads the reader on a historical, cultural, and technical journey through the complex world of “terrior” or the “taste of place” as she defines it. Trubek focuses on wine, cheese, and maple syrup in France, California, and Vermont. Through these specific places and examples, she explores different viewpoints, traditions, advantages, histories, and futures of the ideas of product differentiation based on specific place (be it France, or Vermont, or this small eastern corner of this particular orchard).

I felt the writing was a bit repetitive and could have been more powerful if it was a more concise overview, but I understand that terroir is a difficult concept to put into words- especially for an American audience. That being said, by the end of the wine section, I had a clear sense and emotional feeling about terrior. My interpretation of terroir is broadly a quality inherent in a product that cannot be replicated or explained. Though Trubek mostly proved this through physical qualities of soil that affect the taste of wine, cheese, meat, or produce, she also touched on the artisanal qualities as well. To me, terroir is more than a taste of place, because it embodies history and tradition. I do not think that two people could produce identical tasting wine from the same grapes. I am a firm supporter of the value of craftsmanship and tradition and the additional value that adds to a commodity.

Perhaps personally, I found it difficult to relate to place as the main driver of terroir because I do not find myself firmly rooted in place. My roots are stronger in family and tradition. I found myself connecting to Trubek’s description of terroir through my experience at flea markets. The goods I find at flea markets have the same indescribable quality of tradition that connects me to the items in a way that mechanized production cannot. Emotionally, I felt a connection to the wine producers staying true to the old ways. I related to the sense of fear that the traditions will die with this older generation, because I feel the same about flea marketing. I try to learn all the stories I can about objects from the past so I can preserve them and I hope there are others like me trying to learn as much as they can from the experienced wine-makers to preserve the production of wine with attention to terroir.

I realize, however, that not many people have the same visceral, emotional connection to this idea of terroir. I think this is because it is so closely related to knowledge and values. If you don’t know the stories surrounding production, you cannot feel as connected, and if you do not value that information you will not seek it in the first place. In places like France and Vermont where quality and locality are valued, the desire for products with terroir is natural. I went to Burlington, Vermont a few weeks ago and noticed that just about every menu boasted at least one item with “Vermont cheddar cheese” and/or “Vermont maple syrup”. I even ate a “Vermont omelet” that combined both of these flavors.

It seems as though terroir in the U.S. today is more focused on marketing strategies than true craftsmanship. In Vermont it seems as though people really to appreciate the quality of Vermont cheese and syrup that is different than anywhere else, however I do not get the same impression about those products sold outside of Vermont. Outside Vermont, the focus on terroir feels more like a marketing tactic. I think that this is because culturally, not everyone is raised to value terroir.

I think that this goes back to Bourdieu’s ideas about the taste of luxury and the taste of necessity. I was surprised that Trubek did not include more of this theory. She did acknowledge that taste preferences are centered around social class and that in France, there has historically been a stark contrasted between food and drink for the elite and for the peasants, but she did not carry this analysis over to the U.S. For me, that was a real gap in her analysis. Terroir and locality are closely tied to new food activism in the U.S., however, Trubek failed to explain the social class stratification that goes along with this. Craftsmanship and quality have not been strong, traditionally American values for the food system in quite some time. As she noted, we are often much more driven by convenience, abundance, and price. Those who are aware of terroir in some sense are those who are privileged enough to not worry about convenience, abundance, and price- they have the taste of luxury.

I appreciated that Trubek showed some social enterprise ventures that strive to make local, quality food more widely available at restaurants. That hinted at the future and potential for the notion of terroir to spread, but I would have liked to see more of that. I was left wondering where she sees the future of terroir, if terroir can be widely understood and valued or if that would diminish its appeal, and how she’s sees this force so oppositional to globalization continuing to operate in an increasingly globalized world.