Between & Beyond: Food (Part I)

Everybody eats. Food is personal. Food is communal. Food is political. Food is philosophical. I quit eating poultry, beef and pork 11 years ago. I gave up cold turkey (pun actually intended) and never looked back. It was quite simple: I no longer wanted to eat it. As the following decade unfolded, I also quit eating fish, and I stopped eating dairy as well. But, I don’t want to make this solely about quitting meat. There’s plenty of information on the animal cruelty, environmental destruction, and economic imperialism associated with eating meat. I want to talk more about how we eat anything and what it means to the world.

Still, let’s stick with my personal choices for a minute: Once a semester, I get to teach the art of argument to my students, and I always make an example out of my diet. It works well because I have been steeped in the aspects of it for so long, and the choices of freshmen in college are pretty limited and automatic. Not much thought is put into what they eat, so poor logic and an ill-fortified argument are bound to be presented on their behalf. I throw out my claim: “You should stop eating meat,” and I ask them to defend their right to eat it. Almost invariably one of the first answers that comes forward is, “It tastes good.” The cousin of this response is often delivered by the lapsed vegetarians I know: “I just felt so much better once I started eating it again. I could tell my body needed it.” In both cases, we have the primary reasoning based on some personal benefit that ignores the larger ramifications of such a choice. Yes, meat tastes good, but does that give you the right to eat it? Similarly, heroin also makes your body feel good, but does your body need it?

Again, my point is not to squabble over the finer points of logic behind vegetarianism, but I find these primary defenses indicative of our relationship with food regardless of whether you eat animals or not. Like in most aspects of our culture, we tend to operate on pleasure and laziness. But if we were to break bad food habits, the results would be quite transformative on a personal and social level. We tend to eat what we know tastes good and what we know is easy to put in our face. Taste and convenience drive the majority of our choices, and are the links that make up the habitual chains that tie us to the way we eat.

So, let’s examine this idea of taste. Terence McKenna enlightened me to the concept of taste as an aspect of our evolutionary development. If you consider early hominids as hunters but mainly gathers, an image arises of our ancestors foraging around on plains or in forests, sniffing out food. A foraging creature must learn the land which supports her by trial and error. Our ancestors ate a bit of this and a bit of that, and then a bit more of whatever didn’t kill them and a bit less of whatever made them sick. The sensory input from our taste buds began as a tool of signification, but with the history of agriculture, information slowly transformed into desire. So, when we consider the term “acquired taste” from an evolutionary standpoint, all taste is acquired taste.

Our experience of taste in and of itself is habitual and the habits we develop can be, with dedication and will, altered. It’s true that even though our survival no longer depends on our ability to taste, we are drawn to certain tastes. Michael Pollan has made the case that salt, fat, and sugar are rare in nature and we are hardwired to seek it out. But this can be empowering knowledge instead of limiting knowledge. In my own case, when a craving for cheese strikes me, I know I am mostly seeking to satisfy my desire for salt and fat, so I can just spread a nice ripe avocado on toast and call it a day. Additionally, the concept of “emotional eating” adds color to the situation. Eric Schlosser exemplifies the common childhood connection to McDonald’s, but even outside of some corporate strive for taste propaganda, our emotions and memories can be tied to our taste experience. The concept of “comfort food” speaks to this. When we are stressed or sad or even bored, we are likely to indulge in food that has some sort of connection to our happiest memories.

So what do we do? How do we eat? I’ll explore that aspect next week. Basically, I have developed my own little food pyramid. It’s quite simple: it ranges from the least you can do to the best you can do. What’s interesting and maybe even unique about it is that it can be expressed as two different pyramids: Eating For Yourself & Eating For Others. Each contains the same ideas, but their order of importance flips when each goal is highlighted.