Discover more from Future Watch: an anthropological pov
006 Culture Problem: bad food
celebrating the good life with bad food
American culture was once a hotbed of dangerous eating.
Americans were consuming terrifying quantities of sugar, fat, salt, adulterants, and preservatives. Bad food was created and certified by American values. We created bad food to celebrate the good life. Bad food was our reward for working hard. It was one of the secrets of living well.
So yes, American culture had created a problem. It had created a dangerous diet.
I wrote about in my new book The Return of the Artisan.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
Imagine this. We are piloting our brand-new 1955 Plymouth up the long driveway of the Delamarre Hotel and Resort Complex in McArthur, New Jersey. Bell hops spring into action. Our bags are whisked away. With spouse and kids, we are here for a week, creatures of absolute, if temporary, privilege at one of America’s best middle-rank resorts.
We can afford a week here because life is good. We were recently promoted to regional supervisor at our electronics firm Hi-Fi-Stereo-Engineering. We have recently moved from an apartment in Canarsie, Brooklyn to our brand new suburban home in Hempstead, Long Island. The house, a ranch style bungalow, is still waiting for the lawn and trees to fill in but inside it’s stuffed with new kitchen appliances, drapes, rugs and furnishings, many made out of new plastics and miracle fabrics. In place of pride is our fresh-off-the-assembly-line color TV from RCA.
The memories of the war years are fresh, but we are working hard to forget the horror and privation. It helps that America is growing spectacularly. The mighty industrial engine built to supply the war effort is now turning out consumer goods of new quality and rising quantity. Science and technology is making good on the promise of progress. Disposable income rises steadily. Personal mobility is, for the middle class, a structural fact of life. Intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Newton Minow are inclined to scorn our good fortune, but really who cared? Modernist confidence, personal advancement, and the apparent triumph of the American economic model make this a happy, exuberant time.
The Delamarre Hotel and Resort Complex encourages our belief that 1950s America is the best of all possible worlds. It is outfitted with not one but three swimming pools, not one but two restaurants, both a full-size golf course and a miniature one, a “real” night club, and a race track for go-karts. Let me repeat that: a race track for go-karts. If we like, we can pick up a courtesy telephone and order a meal anywhere. An army of waiters stands at our beck and call. We can drink anytime we want. We can smoke anywhere we want. This is a place dedicated to the consumer’s absolute happiness.
There is one small worm in the apple. Well, it’s a big worm, really. The Delamarre is a toxic place. It’s so toxic it might as well be sitting on an abandoned uranium mine. The ugly secret: the Delamarre is dedicated to the willing consumption of dangerous substances.
In the next 6 days, we will consume impressive quantities of sugar, fat, salt, sun, chlorine, nicotine, and alcohol.
Here are the rough estimates.
Two adults over six days will consume:
6 bottles of wine
12 after-dinner drinks
12 breakfasts with eggs, bacon, large orange juice, toast with lots of butter and jam
12 lunches with giant Dagwood sandwiches with highly processed luncheon meat, French fries and a soft drink or two
12 dinners with steak, baked potato, sour cream, bacon bits, and salad richly dressed with still more bacon bits
12 desserts, as caloric as possible
24 hours of sun exposure
6 hours of chlorine exposure
24 cans of soda (diet, what diet, this is 1955)
24 candy bars
By my inexpert calculation, this makes our stay at the Delamarre, repeated over a life time, life threatening when not actually death-defying.
The family may have arrived in a brand new Plymouth but some of them must have felt like leaving on a stretcher. In the short term, this was an unhealthy diet. It was a recipe for diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammation and cancer.
Run the clock forward 60 years, and we see an American culture that challenges much of what is on the Delamare menu.
When I talk to mothers talk about breakfasts, they routinely say things like, “Well, a glass of orange juice! You might as well give your kids a bowl of sugar.” They look askance a soft drinks, breakfast cereal, almost everything that comes in a package, the stuff that’s shelf stable, and “anything that contains an ingredient I can’t pronounce.”
How did we do it? Well, culture did it. Americans, as a collectivity, inspired by cultural innovators and early adopters, managed to nurture and then unleash an artisanal revolution that took the American kitchen by storm.
This revolution challenged most of the characteristics of the Delamarre menu. Smoking is vilified. Alcohol consumption is much reduced. Soft drinks are mocked. Processed meat is an object of suspicion. Fried food is less dominant. (Try finding sometime fried at Chipotle.) Highly caloric food is scorned as “empty calories.” Candy bars…candy bars? Who eats candy bars anymore? And then there’s the sun and the sun tan. These were a big part of the Delamarre proposition. Now we hide from the sun.
This revolution threw off a new set of values: “wellness,” “eating natural,” “eating clean,” “respecting the planet.” Fifty perfect of Americans now identify as “foodies.” And these values radiated out into Barre, Yoga, Pilates, Peloton, and other fitness regimes. Our week at the Delamarre used to consist of sitting at the pool, with an occasional game of tennis or golf. Now it’s a frenzy of activity. If we are still visiting the Delamarre, we are almost always on the go.
It’s hard to overestimate how big a change this is. In around 50 years, our culture changed one fundamental piece of how it defined the world. Food and eating. Fitness, bodies, clothing followed suit. Sugar, salt and fat continue to fight a rearguard action in the national economy and most of our diets. But the jig is up. The word is out. We are moving on.
There is much more to say here. Chiefly the HTH (how the hell) did this happen? How do our culture transform itself?
All I want to say at the moment is “look, we created a revolution.” And I think this says that almost anything is possible. There is no part of a culture that cannot be reformed, perhaps even transformed. (Clearly, this is a grand claim and it would take years of carefully analysis to prove or disprove. My apologies for working without a full diligence!)
The artisanal food revolution is heartening. We have solved some really, really big problems. The artisanal revolution gives us proof of concepts that we can solve more.
001 Culture Problem: the “Failure to Launch” kids
002 Culture Problem: vibe shifts in decline
003 Culture Solution: fluidity as an adaptation
004 Culture Problem: decline of the water cooler
005 Culture Solution: big pictures
006 Culture Problem: bad food
007: Culture Solution: good food.
Where are we so far?
There are some really serious problems here. Signs that is to say that Kieran Healy was right when he suggested our culture was now a source of instability.
We have kids for whom there are no traditional rites of passage, the ones they need to reach adulthood. So 001 says that some part of culture is broken.
This problem appears again in 002 (vibe shifts). Here we see that the mechanism that helps create small moments of consensus (aka “vibes”) may be compromised.
In 004, we glimpse one of the reasons this might be so. We are no longer sharing the same events and occasions (the tentpoles and water coolers) that help us build consensus and recalibrate as a culture.
That’s 3 case studies to Mr. Healy. (I really hope Healy feels like being a good sport about this effort to treat him thus. No disrespect is intended.)
On the other hand, 003, fluidity, is good news. It tells us that we are cultivating the ability to redefine ourselves. And this means we have a formidable means of adaptation.
The bad news is that the fluidity that serves some people as an adaptive device provokes a different reaction in others. It scares the dickens out of them.
Too often, we scorn these people. Clearly the sensible solution is to bring them in on the plan. (And why, for God’s sake, did we think this would just happen on its own?)
There’s good news too in 005, big pictures. It looks like we are getting better at grasping the the concepts and visualizations we need to see our turbulent culture and imagine alternative futures…and more solutions.
That’s 2 case studies that do not support Healy’s argument. Culture is broken, but it is fixable. Maybe.
Today’s post, 007, bad food, should supply powerful grounds for Healy’s suspicion. Bad food was a particularly ugly accomplishment of American culture in the 20th century. It is clear evidence our culture encouraged or endured unleashed forces bad ideas and reckless practices. But somehow we prevailed!
It’s a tie: three case studies to Mr. Healy and three to an anti-Healy position.
Watch this space for 007: Culture Problem: good food
(coming sometime this week.)
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