On Food

EAT
Poster, c.1943. Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

Food riots have broken out in Haiti, Egypt, Mozambique, and Bangladesh. In New York, eight million people look into the refrigerator wondering what to eat.

Rice prices soar on the international market as shortages trigger unrest among people for whom rice is a dietary staple. The packaging of the rice on my pantry shelf tells a story about pristine fields and rare cultivation. “To keep our rice select, we inspect each grain. . . . This may seem like a lot of extra work to you, but we care.”

“Care” is one of the fluctuating words of our time. As CARE, it is an international rescue organization; as demotic speech, a matter of whim and interest; in official talk (as of health care), it essentially means nursing or medicine. In one sense, I could care less if I have rice. In another, I care (and care for myself) a great deal: I put all kinds of worry and concentration into whether I will have white rice, brown rice, basmati, arborio . . . Does brown rice leave more of the fibrous husk (for health)? Is polished rice more suitable to the Cambodian cuisine I’ll cook tonight (for experience)? And should I have salmon, which, with its omega-3s, is said to be good for my brain, heart, and mood? Or tofu, with its cholesterol-lowering soy protein, its isoflavones and selenium? Thus from taste or “choice” we stray outward to a vantage from which the wrong choice at dinner looks like death, where care becomes ambassador for compulsion.

Two generations ago, progress in the realm of food split along dual tracks. For those who don’t yet have enough, the goal remains to gain plenty by any technical means available. For those whose food is assured, the task becomes to re-restrict it. This second movement has been underacknowledged.

Having had our food supply made simple, we devote ourselves to looking for ways to make it difficult. The more we are estranged from the tasks of growing and getting food, the more food-thought pervades our lives. It is a form of attention that restores labor, rarity, experience, and danger to food’s appearance (its manifestations in the market and at the table) and its refusal (our rejection of unfit foods, our dieting). This parallels the new complication of other phenomena of bodily attention, specifically modern exercise and sex. It will be objected that the care for food is a fascination only of the rich; this is false. Stretching from high to low, the commands to lose weight, to undertake every sort of diet for purposes of health, to enjoy food as entertainment, to privatize food-care as a category of inner, personal life (beyond the shared decisions of cooking and the family dinner), have communicated new thought and work concerning food to the vast middle and working classes of the rich Western countries.

I think there is something wrong with all this. Underlying my opposition is a presumption that our destiny could be something other than grooming—something other than monitoring our biological lives. Many readers will disagree. Their disagreement is only legitimate if they are prepared to stand up for a fundamental principle: that what our freedom and leisure were made for, in our highest state, really is bodily perfection and the extension of life. One of the main features of our moment in history, in anything that affects the state of the body (though, importantly, not the life of the mind), is that we prefer optimization to simplicity. We are afraid of dying, and reluctant to miss any physical improvement. I don’t want to die. But I am caught between that negative desire and the wish for freedom from control. I think we barely notice how much these tricks of care take up of our thinking, and what domination they exert.

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