Foodism and the Search for Significance

When my grandparents sit around and mutter, as old folks do, about “young people these days” (they are quiet people, but I know they do it), I wonder how often they grumble about the food fads that preoccupy their grandchildren. It’s true that young people in my generation are strangely obsessed with food and diets. If you’re on the paleo diet, you’ve sworn off dairy and sugar in favor of nuts, vegetables, and grass-fed meats, in an effort to recreate the diet of our ancient ancestors. Macrobiotic dieters eat mainly whole grains, beans, and plants, seeking through their eating habits a balanced mindset and a healthful life. Search long enough, and you’ll find people who follow countless other eating plans, limiting themselves for as many reasons to vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free, fat-free, or organic fare.

Many ordinary eaters dismiss these diets and dieters as faddish, snobbish, paranoid, even idolatrous—and definitely too concerned with their culinary choices. William Deresiewicz on The American Scholar and Stephen Poole from The Guardian, expressing their academic, Platonic disregard for the body, deride “foodies” for giving food the devotion that belongs only to art, and maybe religion.

In my grandparents’ day or earlier, the monomania of foodism would have seemed absurd. Now, in a time when grocery store shelves are stocked with every color, and an impossible variety of restaurants crowd the street corners, the preoccupation with food makes some sense. Amidst the industrial era of plenty, my generation feels an absence, a lack of they know not what, that festers like an un-healing wound. They desire to discover and perhaps recover some meaning they have lost, and food has become the inevitable place of focus.

Don’t under-estimate the urgency of this search for significance in food and food choice. The question, “How is eating connected to physical, social, and emotional wellbeing?” informs the more pressing question, “what does it mean to live well?” Although more ancient cultures may have dealt with the second question in terms of the first, people are realizing that, in our own time, they have lost hold of the answers to both.

Amidst growing interest from academic departments, a few writers have engaged these questions, including 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas; Julian Baggini; and, most famously, the Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry. All three argue that food is no minor part of the human experience; rather, it is central to the secret of what it means to be human and to the formation of human relationships.

In an article on the “Ontology of Eating,” David Goldstein traces Levinas’s ideas about food as they evolved throughout his work. Levinas believed that enjoyment, more than any other activity, orients the human subject, creating one’s sense of self among other selves in the world. “For the I to be,” writes Levinas, “means neither to oppose nor to represent something to itself, nor to use something, nor to aspire to something, but to enjoy something” (Goldstein 37).

The enjoyment one experiences when eating good food to satisfy hunger—a need and yet more than a need—represents all other enjoyments. One cannot give in response to another’s need unless one has first felt and understood the need and its satisfaction. Thus, from this enjoyment spring all human compassion, sharing, and relationship. Goldstein and Levinas both insist that there is nothing absurd in the questions, “How does eating, as embodied people in the world, make us what we are?” and “How does eating relate me to my neighbor?” (43).

All the problems outlined by the recent documentaries on the food system, such as Food Inc. and Food Matters, might be summed up by saying that the ultra-efficient infrastructure of factory farms, distant distributors, and giant supermarkets de-values both the products sold and the act of eating itself. In The Pleasures of Eating,” Wendell Berry notes that people have been allowed to forget the origin of their food, which is the land and its farmers. For typical consumers, food is mostly

an abstract idea—something they do not know or imagine—until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table. . . . And the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as, first, a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.

The neat packages, shipped from anywhere and nowhere to your grocery store, encourage you to forget that eating is more than the re-fueling of a machine.

Berry and Levinas suggest that eating is meant to lead both to enjoyment and to self-giving engagement with other humans. This conclusion doesn’t have to mean spending more on fine dining. It might lead in a number of directions. It has pushed me back to traditional values in my perspective on food and economic behavior. You might call me another fad dieter, a locavore: someone committed to buying food in as whole a form as possible, from sources as close as possible to the farm where it was grown.

Granted, I am not a purist. I still cook with flour, oatmeal, and beans, though I haven’t found local sources of these ingredients. But any food type that can be found nearby, I buy locally; and I try to avoid packaged, processed foods. Finding good local fare is not as difficult as it sounds, even in the winter. Right now, in mid-winter Maryland, my refrigerator and freezer are stocked with apples, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, parsley, spinach, turnips, mushrooms, and eggs from a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture) program.

People often protest that eating locally-raised foods costs more trouble than it’s worth, since shopping and food preparation take longer, and the place and season limit the variety of produce. But many local eaters embrace these obstacles as part of the adventure, arguing that they have in fact increased their appreciation of their food and the place where they live.

For one thing, I like knowing that less fuel and chemicals were spent in producing and transporting my food. But the enjoyment reaches beyond mere relief from environmental guilt. The creativity needed to concoct dishes that appeal to my family, as well as knowledge about the people, place, and season that ripened my food, all contribute to our enjoyment in it. The energy I spend finding and cooking local produce, dairy, and meats is an investment in my community, in my family, and in the health and pleasure we will receive from our meals together.

This fall, my son discovered what I already suspected, that investing yourself in your food increases its value. Like most two-year-olds, he is a picky eater. He used to turn up his nose at squash and pumpkin, no matter how many appetizing additions I mixed in. Then one day in November, I picked up some pumpkins from a nearby farm stand, chopped them in half, and let him help me pull out the seeds and stir them with oil for roasting. He watched, fascinated, as I cooked the seeds and pumpkin in the oven and later pureed the orange flesh. That afternoon, he gobbled the roasted seeds and ate two bowls full of sweetened pumpkin. Ever since, he has looked at pumpkins, wherever we see them, with a kind of reverence—the same reverence we all might have for the gift of food, if only we chose to get our hands dirty. 

*Also posted on Humane Pursuits

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