Joe Pastry, Food Swinger?

If you haven’t seen or heard about it yet, go read the essay over at Policy Review entitled Is Food the New Sex? by Mary Eberstadt. It’s long, you’ll need to dedicate a full half hour to it, but it’s well worth the time for all those who’ve ever wondered how people nowadays have become so incredibly uptight about food and the ingredients that go into it. I’ve often ventured the odd (usually very odd) hypothesis as to why contemporary society has become so food-obsessed, but being just some fool blogger from Kentucky, have never come even close to advancing a thesis this coherent.

Drawing a direct line between the human appetites for food and sex, Eberstadt’s essay is largely dedicated to comparing culinary and sexual attitudes of the 50’s to those of the present day. One of the most entertaining and enlightening sections is entitled Broccoli, Pornography and Kant (is this woman talkin’ my language or what?), in which she compares two hypothetical 30-year-olds, one from each era. On the one hand we have Betty:

Much of what she makes comes from jars and cans. Much of it is also heavy on substances that people of our time are told to minimize — dairy products, red meat, refined sugars and flours — because of compelling research about nutrition that occurred after Betty’s time. Betty’s freezer is filled with meat every four months by a visiting company that specializes in volume, and on most nights she thaws a piece of this and accompanies it with food from one or two jars. If there is anything “fresh” on the plate, it is likely a potato.

[T]here is little that Betty herself, who is adventurous by the standards of her day, will not eat; the going slogan she learned as a child is about cleaning your plate, and not doing so is still considered bad form. Aside from that notion though, which is a holdover to scarcer times, Betty is much like any other American home cook in 1958. She likes making some things and not others, even as she prefers eating some things to others — and there, in personal aesthetics, does the matter end for her. It’s not that Betty lacks opinions about food. It’s just that the ones she has are limited to what she does and does not personally like to make and eat.

On the other, Betty’s 30-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer:

Jennifer has almost no cans or jars in her cupboard…[she] pays far more attention to food, and feels far more strongly in her convictions about it, than anyone she knows from Betty’s time.

Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. She tries to minimize her dairy intake, and cooks tofu as much as possible. She also buys organic in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store. Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty’s was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular. Jennifer has nothing but ice in her freezer, soymilk and various other items her grandmother wouldn’t have recognized in the refrigerator, and on the counter stands a vegetable juicer she feels she “ought” to use more.

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

Having documented Betty’s relaxed attitudes about food and Jennifer’s moralistic approach to food, Eberstadt then examines their opinions about sex — and finds them, likewise, completely reversed. Why? Well, it’s a bit complicated, however in a nutshell Eberstadt theorizes that the reversal comes from anxiety about the consequences of the sexual revolution, and the human need to construct a strict morality — if not around sex, then around something very closely related to sex: food.

It’s a very interesting argument. Whether you buy it or not, it’s hard to deny the comparisons she makes between pornography and present-day food television and journalism. Seen in this light, elegantly photographed food magazines become the culinary equivalent of skin magazines and food blogs like homemade photocopier porn. I wonder what that makes

I’m the furthest thing from a moralist about food, as anyone who reads me regularly knows. I take a free love approach to everything from HCFS to trans fats, which I guess makes me something of a food “swinger”. What about format? Well, not being that big on finished food “money shots”, I’m pretty much just a technical guy that likes to work in some laughs along the way. Which in Eberstadt’s universe, I guess, puts me somewhere between Playboy Magazine‘s Forum section and a manual like Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask).

OK, I’m really wierding myself out now. Mind if I stop?

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