Food in the Public Square

The Collective Human Experience

Tag: Julie Guthman

Forests and Trees, Food Policies and Individuals

“Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision,” writes the agrarian studies pioneer James Scott. We have to choose to see and define things narrowly and if we want to control them. We have to choose to think of a forest as so many boardfeet of lumber to cut and sell, for example. Not a habitat for birds or insects, not erosion protection, not shade for rest or to burrow, not a food source for other animals but a stand of trees that can be cut into planks. Not the forest, but the trees. It leads to problems because it reduces our view. We may narrow our vision of the problems at hand, but only at our peril (that was Scott’s point). A more ecological view—which is wider, complex, and interrelated—would help us build a healthier world.

This narrowing tendency is true in the ways we talk about food issues too. It’s not a good idea. For instance, we can think about food and food choices as consumers. We can think of food issues by considering producers, the manufacturers that make most of our food, or the farmers before them, or gardeners. We can think of the processors who take harvested crops and convert them into aisles of processed goods. We can talk about kitchens and cooking as places to look if you want to address food problems today. We can focus on community, or family, or tradition. But we don’t think of all of that. It’s too hard. I get it. It’s too difficult for me too.

One thing people can do is to keep working on better ways to talk about things. So we can come up with better ways to think about things. So we could have a society that is wider, complex, and interrelated.

The Food in the Public Square keynote speaker Julie Guthman is a great example of someone helping point out what we lose when we frame things one way over another—when we narrow our vision. In this case, much of Guthman’s work reacts to a narrow sense of justice or culture or community. Consider that she’s cracked back at Michael Pollan, or at least at a certain narrowing of vision that can come from reading his work. More recently, in Weighing In, she’s argued against the ease of body mass index (BMI) and claims about obesity. BMI is another case of narrowing our vision of who we are as people, as bodies, as eaters. You are not a fully embodied person. You are a measure of body mass index. That reduces who you are as a person.

In most cases, probably all, Guthman has made the point that our food and politics are about more than just individuals. Which means the ways we address food concerns can’t just be about what we choose to do as individuals. I think it’s a narrowing of vision that leads us to think that the way to a better food system is through better individual choices. One of her articles, If They Only Knew , speaks to that misperception. She questions who “they” are, who says so, and whether simply knowing where your food comes from makes a healthier person. It’s more complicated. It isn’t so narrow.

It can certainly be easier to talk about individual choice—pick better foods; go to different stores; grow a lot of healthy things. Those are things someone might be able to do right now, today, after they read this. It is actionable and direct. (I think we can be working on that, by the way. This isn’t an either/or situation.) Yet, when you pull back and say that it’s also about policies and cultural context and economic pressure, it gets harder to know what the One Single Action I Could Do is. We don’t live in a world of unlimited options, so the idea that there are easy answers (narrow ones) is compelling.  To say the opposite—that food issues are complicated and long-term and cultural and political and historical—is a lot less satisfying because you come away not knowing what to do. But we can create ways to work on the harder problems.

Tellingly, Guthman’s work also makes the point that working on the harder problems requires more people, requires us to ask more about people (like me) using the royal “we” in blog posts, and requires a more pluralistic discussion. (I’ve written about this in other forums, asking for pluralism over centralization, asking to avoid narrowing the efforts we make about food in the public square.) Not only would we do better to avoid narrowing our vision of food, we would do better to avoid narrowing the range of people who are in on the conversation about food. I can’t say that’s easy to do, but I do think it’s the problem to address.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College

Julie Guthman’s “Cheetos”!

I can’t remember exactly when I first read Julie Guthman’s article “The Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.” (Cheetos are my all-time favorite snack, so I couldn’t help but fall for the title).  I was relieved and excited to hear that someone else felt uneasy with the “food revolution” Pollan seemed to be spreading. Let me be clear, it really wasn’t Pollan,the man, that was bothering me. He was a stand in for my concern with food revolution rhetoric as a whole.  So what, you ask, is my problem? It is true, I do have a contrarian impulse that makes me push against anything that becomes a “thing,” a thing that everyone preaches and follows without much reflection. But more thoughtfully, I sensed that what Pollan proposed as the answer to America’s “food problems”—that is local, organic consumerism, provisioned by small farmers like Omnivore’s Dilemma’s heroes, Joel Salatin and George Naylor—was generally only available to Americans in his social/economic class. His answer resonated with the well-off who longed for a certain type of consumer experience and a certain kind of moral/environmental life. But I never heard him honestly grapple with the class and racial exclusiveness of this solution that he pitched as universally correct.

And every time I read one of his new articles on food, he pushed another one of my buttons. This was the case when I fell on his 2009 NY Times piece Out of the Kitchen and on to the Couch.    

The premise of this article is that Americans are watching cooking on TV more than they are actually cooking, and that this is bad for us.  While this conjecture in and of itself is debatable and depends on a narrow definition of what constitutes “cooking,” his comparison of Julia Child and Betty Friedan made me see red.  Basically, he claimed that Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique made women hate cooking. Julia Child, on other the other hand, approached cooking with pleasure and creativity. She, not Friedan, should have been the model for women in the 1960s.  Boom, there it was. Feminism, bad; Gourmet cooking, good!  Feminism killed the family dinner; French gastronomy could save it. Yes, I know that is an over-drawn simplification of his argument, but I don’t think it is entirely off base.

I wrote an article in Ms. Magazine, titled Back to the Kitchen, about the back-handed anti-feminism I saw in this article. To summarize, I argued that working women have never had much time to express their cooking creativity. They have pieced together family meals from take-out, deli goods, and left-over breakfast, since at least the mid-nineteenth century.  Betty Friedan and second wave feminism had nothing to do with those pragmatic decisions. Also many women didn’t need the Feminist Mystique to learn to hate cooking. They hated it well before Sixties feminists began to point out the gender politics of household labor. In general, my article questioned the idealized farming and family past to which many food revolutionaries want us to return. 

Julie Guthman’s Cheetos article opened space up in the public forum for this critical engagement. I’m sure she will take us in new and provocative directions when she speaks at our Food in the Public Square Community Conversation on May 20th. Please check the website’s events tab for more on this day’s schedule.

– Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College