Really, I should’ve titled this “The Choice Between Food As Culture and Food As ‘Everything And Anything Else’,” because it’s not exactly where the blogger was going with this, but there’s a point to be made here, nonetheless:

To see food as simply good or bad nutrition also medicalizes it, underplaying all the other reasons people eat.

Alice Julier, a sociologist and head of Chatham University’s Food Studies program, wrote this in an article called “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All,” in regards to the idea of taxing junk food and soft drinks. The article is about how the obesity epidemic serves social and political purposes in much the same ways as poverty: as a means of masking larger structural problems. Julier argues that when obesity is the focus of the discussion, it places the blame on those that are fat, as opposed to the problems in our society that do not allow access to healthy food.

For me, this quote is an important distillation of something that I think about often, and that those of us involved in food studies and the food movement at large need to think about more.

I look at the way that I and many of my cohorts seek out local, organic food, yet drink Diet Coke, and we use recipes by Alice Waters that celebrate “clean,” “simple” foods yet will also make Betty Crocker recipes that call for Crisco. I don’t see this contrast as a bad thing, but I think that we need to examine the privileges we have that allow us to make these choices. The fact that we have some level of disposable income, access to education, and enough to eat every day are just some of the factors that create the environment in which we have these choices—and that’s something we shouldn’t overlook. [source]

If there’s one thing that I complain about – loudly – it’s the fact that The Food Movement, in all its good intentions, ignores the fact that often choice – or lack thereof – is the real barrier for many Americans, not simply ignorance or blatant rejection. So if anything, I appreciate the fact that “choice” makes an appearance in this post.

That being said, I’m a little frustrated by other parts of it.

The quote, “To see food as simply good or bad nutrition also medicalizes it, underplaying all the other reasons people eat,” to me, is disingenuous. Is it wise to see food as simply good or bad nutrition? Sure. But offering up that sentence as if it’s proof positive that there’s a problem with “medicalizing” food at all is equally unwise, to me.

Now, mind you, “medicalizing” (this is such a cute term) our food has left us susceptible to seeking out nutrients, as opposed to seeking out the original sources of all nutrients: fruits and vegetables. The fact that a sweet potato can’t wear pretty packaging that says “I fight cancer! Eat me with butter!” or “Look! No trans-fats!” has left us thinking that the processed product with the pretty labels that say “No trans-fats… even though I do have a little in here, but don’t look at that!” are better for us than the things that the eco-system has created specifically for our nutritional benefit. In one hand, it’s easy to see why we’ve grown so unhealthily in the past few decades. In the other, it’s hard to understand why this makes total and complete sense.

Hippocrates said, once upon a time, “Let thy food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be thy food.” He knew then, and we know now. We can’t deny its importance.

We can talk about food in terms of merely nutrition, but nowhere else are we more aware of the fact that food is culture personified than we are here, at BGG2WL. As one dear reader commented:

Food speaks to nationalities, cultural roots and family traditions as much as anything in the world society. So to change our eating habits is truly to change our lives and step onto new ground. It is a radical thing for some people.

When I look at communities like my own, I see the problem that Julier sees, but in reverse: a collective that rejects the notion of healthier eating – thereby rejecting the medicinal benefits of such – simply because the cultural capital of Eating  The Way We Do is so important. And really, think about the remnants of Black tradition and culture – our religion, our families, our everything was broken down and stripped from us in an effort to demoralize us and keep us captive. One of the most obvious things that couldn’t be taken from us was our food knowledge – the very thing that didn’t require dialogue to teach. I mean, c’mon – once you know how to make gumbo …it’s like riding a bike.

This entire post makes me think back to a few weeks ago, when I was dining with a loved one who prepared a pretty awesome dinner for my daughter and I. We sat together, we ate, we talked, we laughed… the entire set-up lasted about an hour or so, before I decided to get up and get a little bit more. That’s when I was told, “For some strange reason, it makes me happy to see you enjoying my food,” at which point I replied “Oh, there’s nothing strange about that at all.”

Food is a representation of love. It’s a part of how I love my daughter. That’s right. I said it. It’s how I go out of my way to ensure that she has an enjoyable experience. It’s how I make sure she is properly nourished. It’s how we enjoy one another’s company – every time I pull an herb or spice out of the cabinet, she asks to smell it; every time she sees me mixing something, she asks to taste it – and it’s how I teach her about the kitchen. This… thing… that I do for her several times a day every day brings us closer. She feels cared for by receiving, and I feel nurturing by giving. There’s no way around that.

In that same vein, I also think it’s equally dangerous to the dialogue to characterize food as merely emotional. Boy, I could hear the arguments, now. “If food is merely emotional, then that’s just one more thing fat people can’t control: their emotions. Ugh!” I think that’s what annoyed me the most about the assertion the quoted post makes. That a grad student sucking down diet soft drinksgross, by the way – with organic TV dinners who can, assumedly, afford both and has a choice and chose totally different ends of the spectrum… is implying that “medicalizing” food doesn’t help. Considering the collective built around this blog, I’d have to disagree.

We’re aware of the medicinal benefits of real food because we live it. I’m a staunch advocate of broccoli because, damn it, I ate it daily and have a lot to show for it. I’m pretty damn adamant about people not making excuses for not making the sacrifices necessary for making healthier food choices because, damn it, I do it every day and I have a lot to show for it. We know these things. We know these things. We also know that some of us have had to convert family over to the green side, and lots of them have enjoyed the ride. Food can be enjoyable and healthy. This point must be hammered home.

All that being said… as with all things, a balance must be struck. Should food be medicinal, strictly? Of course not. Should it be deemed strictly an emotional experience? Not at all. It is both, without a doubt, and they go hand in hand every time. I can put every ounce of love I’ve got in preparing an amazing dinner for my little one and I, knowing that it consists of purely everything she needs to grow healthily, and not a single chemical more. Both mentalities can co-exist happily in the same household. It doesn’t have to be so polarizing. Most people reject polarizing stances anyway not only because of the discomfort that comes with change, but because it’s off putting. More often than not, people are more offended by zealots than they are intrigued by them.

Can we encourage healthy eating, foster a love of cooking as well as cultivate a sensible knowledge of how to embrace fruits and vegetables? Can we flip the food movement into understanding all of the reasons America’s relationship with food is so dysfunctional, and try to keep those reasons into consideration when it tries to offer up solutions? I’m hopeful.