The Anthropology of Food

Reader Contribution by David Wann
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Old Perspective: Food should be fast, easy, fun, and so cheap that it’s okay to waste it. Cooking doesn’t fit these criteria because it requires concentration, “extra” time, and engagement, so processed food is superior. The origins and quality of my food are not as important as their standardized, predictable consistency.

New Perspective: Food connectsthe grower, distributor and eater with the living system that it came from, in a chain of value that begins and ends in health and well being of both land and people.

Let’s visit Homer Simpson for a few minutes as our “average American” proxy watches TV and snacks. From the research of people like Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, we know Homer is thinking – in his colorfully primitive way – that if he has the chips n’ dip, he’ll also have the friends, the laughter, the adrenalin rushes, the companionship that he sees in the commercials and sitcoms. We know that unlike many Europeans and Asians – whose body wisdom directs them to stop eating when they’re full, Homer’s cue to stop will be when his beer is gone, the big bowl is empty, or the TV show is over. Homer will eat more M & Ms if they are different colors rather than just one color; more chips if they come in transparent packages so he can preview and crave them; and more fruit if it’s pre-sliced, even if it was sliced weeks ago and preserved in space-age packaging. In an age of excess, Homer forms a perception of how much food is “normal” to eat, then eats a little more because he feels he deserves it.

Unbeknownst to Homer, industry product wizards throughout the food industry strive for ultimate “snackability” that induces what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls “mindless munching,” in which the hand moves hypnotically back and forth between bag and mouth.These maestros of munch deliver an endless stream of products that don’t imply a portion size the way a whole apple or slice of homemade pie does, so there’s no obvious signal, or need, to stop.

Is “fun food” what we really want?Though it may seem overwhelming to change eating habits that have developed over lifetimes, complete with recipes, symbols of identity, and memories, change we must, because our mainstream diet is sapping our personal energy and health and stripping resilience from the biological systems we evolved with, and the culture we built. When we remember that the human diet has evolved over millions of years, we begin to think of “normal” in a more appropriate light. So, is Homer Simpson, a caricature of the average American, crazy?In a word, yes. Many are living in a candy shop psychosis in which we consider it a sensible trade to let the ice caps melt and the tumors take root if the Whoppers and PopTarts just keep coming. That illusion, however, is fading in a society that is beginning to see diet as a moral decision, related to essential human needs like vitality, social connections, fairness, security, kindness, and even sanity.In a world of changing values, people of the near-future may not respect us if we are mindless, self-centered eaters.

Mindful eaters avoid the empty calories of junk food in favor of high-value, high-energy food that makes each day go more smoothly. Why not bring our brains to the table and devise a few personal food strategies, such as:

* Don’t bring junk food into your house. Save healthier versions of chips, ice cream, and cookies for special occasions, and store them only as near as the supermarket. When you have a snack attack, have some fruit, a handful of nuts, or pop some organic popcorn in olive oil (sturdy cast iron or stainless steel pots work great because the popcorn doesn’t burn).

* If you have 30 years left to live, that’s roughly 30,000 meals! Why not make most of them satisfying, one week at a time? Identify a dozen or so healthy recipes and structure weekly menus. If it makes life easier, rotate your menus through the same days of the week, so you’ll know when to buy what.

* Forget about soft drinks; even diet ones. Picture Homer Simpson’s belly every time you crave one. Since Concord grape juice provides many of the benefits of red wine and tastes great, keep a few bottles in the fridge. Combine with cranberry juice and dilute with tap water for an inexpensive, healthy drink.

* Give a higher priority to fresh potatoes and lower priority to French fries, often drip-dried with saturated. Fresh potatoes have only about 100 calories per medium-sized spud and provide lots of vitamins C, and B, niacin, iron and copper – and six percent of the daily recommended protein. Great in breakfast burritos with “cage-free, natural” eggs, to get a good start. (Organic eggs are even better).

* Mass-produce healthy soups, sauces, salad dressings, and cooked, whole grain cereals in your own kitchen.Can or freeze them to save time, energy, and money as well as reduce packaging and greenhouse gas emissions.

* Allow yourself one luxury “treat” per shopping trip to deliberately avoid throwing in three or four.

* Create a “car pack” if you spend a significant amount of time in your car – a lunchbox with raw nuts, fruit, and high-end, healthy snack bars. Even more convenient than the drive-in, your customized car pack can save money, energy, and eliminate all that packaging.