Monday, 24 March 2014 | 32 comments

Good food/bad food

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:

I like Michael Twitty’s work. They did a nice profile of him in Garden & Gun magazine. He also keeps a blog here.

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.

Julie Guthman has done a lot more than just that “Yuppie Food” piece that I cited above. Check out this article, this interview, and her book.

§ 32 responses to Good food/bad food

  • yasmin

    oh my god, food anthropology. i was just thinking two days ago about how i need to get my “life’s work” (whatever that is) closer to food again.

    so i’m not sure if this relates, but i’m muslim and grew up with the concept of ‘baraka’ (blessings, goodness, wholesomeness) being or not being a part of food, depending on how it’s treated and used and eaten etc. and i get upset when people, in their efforts to make food ‘good’ end up alienating other people or types of food. because i can’t help but feel that all (i think?) food must be sacred and that its “level” of sacred-ness is very contextual and difficult to measure.

    i don’t have a direction i’m going with this, really. i’ll be back to this post soon to get into and read your links.

  • Great post Sarah! Reminds me of when Jenni and I traveled to Guatemala in 2011. We were really excited to try all sorts of local coffees, and the vast majority of what we found was Folgers! The “Yuppie Chow” piece is fascinating too! Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks! Also, hi Mr. Hotshot-Northern-Virginia-magazine-article writer :)

    • To add to the Latin American perspective, when I lived in Ecuador (2003, so a while ago), good chocolate there was a) difficult to find and b) extortionately expensive, despite the country producing some of the world’s finest cocoas. The stuff you could get at the supermarkets was… less than great. I think the availability issue has changed a bit, but it’s still expensive. This blew my mind at the time.
      But it also happens in non-developing countries. Some of Spain’s best produce gets sent abroad while the class-B stuff stays in-country to be sold on the local market.

  • Debbie Feely

    Yes! Elitist food trends make me nuts. Sheesh! Especially when the green of choice changes from year to year. Thanks for the commentary.

  • Very interesting post!

  • Great post & links. Very frustrating topic for me too. Why does everything have to have a label and convey social status? Why can’t we accept that we have to make up our own minds, industry is not going to regulate so we don’t have to think and if they do it won’t be with our best interest in mind? I worry that all this finger pointing and judging is just a distraction from the real point.

    To me, any company/person who obscures the truth about their product or industry such as lobbying to prevent truthful labeling, environmental and social policies, disclosure or choice about the product is bad. Otherwise, there’s a whole spectrum of good out there. What I like about buying local is that we need to shore up what indie entrepreneurship we have left. Small business is what this country was founded on – we need to keep options alive.

  • Food for thought, Sarah. (Sorry for the pun.)
    Provocative and bravely written. Thanks.

  • As someone who has a masters in anthropology and one in food culture ( from the University of Gastronomic Sciences) this is fascinating. What drew me to food was my time in Mozambique and Australia doing research and taking classes. And now, looking ahead, wanting to do my PhD in Anth. with a focus on food, this article really gives me something to think about. It tells me, how narrow minded I am and have become, and how easy it is to only think about the food culture that affects you, or the one in which you interact with, when those are all the result of older, other and possible more interesting food cultures. The progression is fascinating.
    thanks for your words. I really appreciate them!

  • Such good points! Thanks for writing this. It’s so easy to forget that much of our judgment about food is dictated by social trends, which are mediated through the filters of media/influencers/politicians, etc. Along the same lines, some of the foods that American culture touts as risque and luxurious, like offal, have always been staple, if not peasant foods, in other cultures. We seem to create our own algorithms, based on health, trendiness, etc., for what foods are acceptable or not — like coconuts for instance — definitely not local by any means, but because of the marketing around them (and their trendiness), they’re an exception to an otherwise general dictum… Same with avocados (currently caught up in Mexican drug cartels) & bananas

  • Y’know, I’d never really thought about how we identify with certain foods, but I guess it’s true.

    I have a strong aversion to “pretentious” foods, much like, I guess, my aversion to pretentious people. I find myself most drawn to one-pot peasant meals because they have lots of veggies but still taste good. Of course, I also like to mix all my food together, which appalls my mother (who eats each separate piece of a meal individually before moving on to the next piece).

    I agree that much of foodie culture today is total elitist, particularly as evidence by the fact that the people who grow all our fancy organic and high-quality chocolate, coffee, etc. can’t afford to buy any themselves. This is happening with quinoa in Peru also – quinoa used to be poor people’s food, but once rich white yuppies discovered it, it became more expensive and now the people who once lived on that healthful grain can afford the processed dreck Americans love so much which is so terrible for you. But it’s a status thing and it’s fattier and more sugary and saltier than a traditional diet, so the kids and young families go for it even when it deteriorates their health.

    Similarly, in Medieval Europe the wealthy tended to die younger than their serfs because of a diet high in fat, meat, sugar, and refined grain, while the peasants subsisted mainly on vegetables, whole grains, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Yay gout and heart disease! Oh wait…

    You always have to read labels of “organic” foods too. For instance, many, many brands of “organic” peanut butter contain palm oil as a stabilizer (since the peanut butter is not hydrogenated). Palm oil that comes from palm plantations carved out of the rainforest and harvested by slaves.

    Agricultural labor reform is SORELY needed in this country, too. Did you know that children as young as 9 can work in the fields for less pay than adults? Child labor is legal in agriculture, and when your parents are migrant workers from Mexico, Latin, or South America who get paid under the table and you move every few months? Good luck going to school. It’s sickening.

    The saddest thing in the world to me is that not only are there people starving to death in this world, there are also people dying by inches due to malnourishment because they can’t AFFORD healthy food.

    Yuppies with their $9/pound salad mix and their $6 lattes transported by polluting jet planes and picked by slaves and children can suck it.

  • How interesting: unwittingly, you and I wrote about the same thing (sort of) in different modes today. I approached mine through a food poem I call, “To the Next Superfood” and you approached yours from a food anthropological perspective. It does irk me royally how sanctimonious we can be about food. And, this is coming from someone obsessed with it. I’ve become equally mystified by all of the baggage we bring to the dinner table. It riles me up enough to write a poem and consider how “good food” should be available for all but struggle with my own ability to access and afford food that my neighbor cannot. Living in California, near a Farmer’s Market where 3 bundles of organic kale go for $5 and they take SNAP helps. That a cooking class I led in a housing project turned their nose up at kale demonstrated the disparity of a polarizing ingredient. I’m of the ilk that in order to encourage “good food” eating, access and education go hand in hand. And, my little knowledge of cooking can be a source for community good (just as much as my openness to learn from those I’m teaching).

  • Bec

    Wow, thanks for writing such a nicely put article about this troubling issue… I agree with all you have said. There is a very ‘affluent, white, OECD-dwelling’ point of reference that seems to be the centre of proclamations about what is good food and what is bad food. I came to eating wholefoods firstly from being a vegetarian to reduce environmental impacts, and then seeing the horrors of packaging and the damaging food system. Others who I know, who share a very similar diet, are this way because of – from my perspective – social status desires and very self-focused health concerns. It’s difficult, too, to distinguish these things, and what can we say about legitimacy of choices? I think that in the interests of ‘sustainability’ as an over-arching (though nebulous) goal, the health and wellbeing of individuals contributes to the same of society. So perhaps in someways there is a bit of truth to the argument of ‘good food’ – though it fits with a broad and flexible category of reduced impact and heightened health. I guess it’s just when this becomes a dichotomy between local and non-local organic and non-organic (which is far more complicated than it sounds, too), and seasonal v. out of season – these things become far less about critical thinking and far more about conforming to the idea of ‘good food’. As the psychologists tell us, as soon as we put a label on something and identify with it, we vilify outsiders, engage in groupthink, and overall have diminished abilities to make well-founded choices. Well, this became a bit of a brain dump so sorry about that! But thanks for the ‘thinking fodder’ :)

    PS in case you are interested, I wrote about the troubles of taking a complex issue and turning it into a simplistic axiom, particularly about seasonal food:

  • This really helped articulate some of my feelings around food (particularly the big paleo debate). This line in particular struck a chord: ‘The sanctimony surrounding food nowadays comes pretty strictly from a subset of white elites.’

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post.


  • Sarah, this is an amazing post on such an important topic. I lived in Buenos Aires for a short while in 2007 and was shocked by the lack of exotic fruits for sale in the supermarkets given Argentina’s tropic North (and I did find out that all the melons, kiwi, pineapple etc simply get exported, to leave most Argentineans with apples or grapes only). While intuitively I am in favour of people eating seasonal, organically (and locally) grown food, I am fully aware that this is not a choice available to everyone but I think it is sad how preachy many people can be about their yuppie diets. In case you haven’t come across these two authors, I would highly recommend you have a look at both Jay Rayner’s A greedy man in a hungry world and Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Nation.

    Jay Rayner is a famous UK food writer who wrote a book looking at the common food myths we have started to take as gospel – that local is always better, that seasonal is better, that we should all be eating organic etc. He debunks a lot of those myths by providing evidence how those diets might provide a healthy lifestyle for a select few but how it doesn’t provide a solution for the growing world food crisis.

    Carlo Petrini is the founder of Slow Food and the University of Gastronomic Science in Bra, Italy, and wrote a wonderful book about the kinds of food we should be eating (good, clean and fair) by showing the impact across the world of our constant request for out of season fruits and vegetables and the price pressure on farmers as we spend less and less of our salaries on food.

  • I am just realizing now that the plural of “dictum” is possibly “dicta”. But that sounds weird…maybe “dictums” is okay? Agh!

  • Terry Covington

    (It is either dicta or dictums for the plural and yeah, it sounds weird either way.) I so admire it when you write about these issues; it helps to educate us all, and get us thinking. Many, many interesting comments here as well. In the past couple of years, Rolling Stone Magazine, the New Yorker, the NY Times, and the BBC (among others) have had really fascinating reports about the growing investments (by rich folks, naturally) in “commodities” we all should share — food and water among them. Even water. It boggles the mind. Matt Taibbi, in one Rolling Stone piece on Feb 12 of this year, said: “Allowing one company [like Goldman Sachs] to control the supply of crucial physical commodities, and also trade in the financial products that might be related to those markets, is an open invitation to commit mass manipulation.” But to get more to the points of your post here, I am really glad you said “white people,” because it is still rich white people who control more of the commodities around the world, although that will be changing. Sarah W. in a reply just above points out that agricultural labor reform is sorely needed in this country. I spent some years going to secondary school in an agricultural community in Oregon, where some of my classmates were migrant workers’ kids; well, the kids were workers, too. Sometimes they were able to stay the year in school, many times they moved every few months, following the crops with their families. There are so many issues here, including even the issue of monocultures like the banana crop, GMO crops, and hunger. One thing you mentioned which just blew my mind was the statement about “food deserts” on American Indian reservations. If one thinks even for a couple of minutes about why that would be — and how the very idea of a “food desert” would have been unfathomable to a tribe living on their own land and a couple of hundred years ago — one begins to understand how complex, culturally, economically, and politically, all of these issues are. I so appreciate the references for further reading from everyone!

    • Honestly, I probably just should have said that this was about “race and food” but wasn’t brave enough. (Thanks for the reassurance about “dictums”!)

  • I have had a post of my own brewing in my head for a few weeks now, responding to the “outrage” over the proposed revisions to industry food labeling; specifically those folks in the whole foods, sustainable, local, etc. food niche who are outraged that calorie information will be more obvious while GMO labeling is absent.

    Now: I write a blog about eating locally, ethically, sustainably, seasonably. I obviously include myself in the clan of (mostly white elites) that think and care about food in this way. But I also recognize that our clan is tiny: my blog’s Facebook page has about 3K fans. McDonald’s? 30 million. And while I think that there are lots of good reasons to care about things like seasonality, sustainability, and whole-food-cooking-from-scratch in our food system, I can also recognize that they are so far down the list of a vast swath of the American population, not to mention the rest of the world, as to be practically invisible, and understandably so.

    What makes me crazy is not that people care about eating well – whatever the definition of “well” in their particular tribe – it’s the myopia that refuses to see any other possible definition of “well” even in wildly different cultures, lifestyles, or economic circumstances. The myopia is bad enough, but when it is whipped into a froth of self-righteous indignation and smug satisfaction; well. It’s enough to fuel many a cranky blog post. :)

  • shilpa

    Such a great post, Sarah! When I visited my parents in India a few years ago I was shocked to see Washington apples in the most remote places in India. Washington apples were so much cheaper than apples grown in Kashmir. And last year my parents said that the price and availability of pomegranates had been affected so much as it was the “in” fruit in North America.

  • Yes, Julie Guthman!! (I’m a Berkeley kid, and she is a hero of mine.) And yes to so much of this. I have about twenty responses that I want to spell out, but the main thing is just thanks for writing. I love that you are always willing to use your platform to pose questions and invite critical thinking from your readers. Living in California, we see the constant flow east of giant refrigerated trucks carrying organic mesclun mix, no doubt headed to Whole Foods stores nation wide. Organic has nothing to do with local, human-scale, real food – just like organic doesn’t mean ethical, or sustainable. It doesn’t mean living wages, or low consumption of fossil fuels, or diversified crops grown in living soil. It doesn’t even really mean free from pesticides, not always. That said, the organic movement started in a good place, and there is no reason we can’t still embrace that call to protecting our planet and our food. We just need to remember that food shouldn’t ever be about trends or labels – it should be about nourishment, ours and that of the farmers and laborers and soils that sustain us.

    Keep preaching sister :)

  • eva

    Such a great post and great comments as well. Congrads on your Saveur nomination. Well done! You have my vote.

  • Sarah b

    Love this. I love that you present difficult, thought-provoking topics on your blog, not just recipes without questioning. Just read through that Julie guthman article. This really hit home for me, as I did a masters in environmental studies with a focus on food and social movements. I don’t think I read this article specifically, but I know I’ve read some of her other work, as well as many of those she referenced. I never completed editing my thesis, and got sucked into the restaurant industry. Now I’m looking at going back to school for holistic nutrition, and while I am always aware of the privilege in my food choices, it’s not something I often actively consider anymore. This definitely sparks my interest and intellect again! And adds some new questions for me to reflect on in pursuing a holistic nutrition degree.

  • Julie Guthman’s articles were really interesting. They help to balance all the Wendall Berry, Barbara Kingsolver that got me interested in caring about food and the environment in the first place. And her work especially resonates because like you, I have seen and lived outside the yuppie bubble, which makes me think about food a lot differently. Did you know that the Spanish word for banana in Honduras is actually “minimo”? Not banano (the usual term) but minimo. It’s because they send “maximos” to the states and all that’s left are the “minimos” — the small, brown things.

    I don’t know if it’ll interest you but have you ever read any Moritz Thompsen? He doesn’t write about food so much but he’s a farmer and Peace Corps volunteer that writes so very well and as Guthman advocates for, does a lot more listening and watching than he does “helping”.

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