It’s no secret that I’m troubled by a lot of dictums that accompany food culture nowadays. I end up coming home from travel all keyed up about it, though. There’s nothing like a little perspective to show you how inadequate a lot of “food rules” are.
The party line of virtues that popular food rhetoric deems “good” includes food that is, among other things, locally produced, organic/sustainably grown, processed as little as possible, and/or homemade. Applying these concepts as a meterstick in other settings can make your head spin a bit. In Tanzania, I have found eggs at the market from Dubai, even though you can’t drive 50 feet without seeing someone’s “urban chicken”. In parts of Mozambique, refined white cane sugar is a local product. Some of the most famous coffee in the world is grown in Kenya or Indonesia, but you can’t get your hands on it in-country (although I think this is changing!). Most ex-pats in sub-Saharan Africa have housekeepers who double as cooks: this is “home cooking”, right? Does it still count, even though they aren’t doing the cooking (nor do they even necessarily know how to do it)?
And of course, you certainly don’t have to leave the country to get this type of perspective. Food culture is so inextricable from culture as a whole that there are food anthropologists, people who study the nexus of food and society. Some of them research kwashiorkor in kids in remote east African cultures. Some of them study food deserts on Native American reservations or in East Baltimore.
Some of them, though, study our demand for kale. The sanctimony surrounding food nowadays comes pretty strictly from a subset of white elites (I always reference this 2003 article, “Yuppie Chow” by Julie Guthman, which I think is brilliant). While I’m sure many of us consciously choose some of our food because it’s healthier or more supportive of our local farmers, I guarantee we also do it because we identify with it and the way it’s represented in media. It’s the way of our tribe. That’s fine! But I am deeply unsettled by going one step further: conflating white, affluent people’s food of choice with the idea of “good food”—in stark contrast to everything else, which must, logically, be “bad.”
Do I think we should try and eat as ethically and as healthfully as we can? Yes! By all means, yes: I love those things and celebrate them. Do I think the lines between fast and slow food, healthful and bad-for-you food, from-scratch and pre-prepared food, or, in short, good and bad foods, are so easily drawn? Nope.
. . .
I thought I’d list a few voices that are more articulate than I in the realm of food, culture, and dissecting what it all means:
Rachel, who I met when I was in Ghana last year, writes thoughtfully and conscientiously about food through the lens of living in Ghana while she does her linguistic anthropology fieldwork on her blog.