Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sinful indulgence: Puritan residue in food discourse

sinful cake

It seems I've had a bit of a break from blogging but I'm still going strong on the thesis.  This post may come out a bit academic because it's based on what I'm writing at the moment.  Basically, I've been thinking about the way people often talk and think about food as 'good' or 'bad' - as though there's an implicit moral value judgement.  I think this is left over from the religious roots of Western culture, there's something absurdly puritanical about the idea that what is good is hard work and not particularly enjoyable (healthy food), whereas anything pleasurable, a sweet, fatty indulgence for example, must somehow be sinful.  Perhaps this partially explains the promotion of bland foods like grains and the public execution of saturated fat.

puritanical pyramid

This is what I wrote a few days ago as part of my thesis:

According to Warde (1997) health was rarely a concern in recipes in 1967-8, only four percent of recipes recommended food because it was healthy.  This was before concerns over nutrition escalated; in the 1991-2 sample sixteen percent of recipes made reference to the healthy nature of foods.  There was a common assumption that healthy food equated to light food which would (hopefully) equate to a lighter physical form.  Health (nutritionism) information was increasingly supplied, alongside recipes, about factors such as fat, fibre and calories following the trend of increasing obsession with health and healthy eating, particularly prevalent in the middle class and often more of a concern for women.  Warde asserts that this reflects government propaganda campaigns encouraging healthy eating (bio power!!!). 

This kind of compromise is discussed by Warde in his book Consumption, Food and Taste (1997).  “Comfort food” is a common term used to describe the consumption of (usually unhealthy) food for emotional pleasure rather than bio-physical health.  This may be a way that lay discourse patches the divide between good and sinful foods – allowing for some emotional pampering on the part of the unhealthy food, but just occasionally.  Warde calls this:
“one of the most important mixed messages regarding contemporary food. We should eat healthily; but not if it makes us sad.  Implicitly hedonistic consumption is justified in terms of what the mind and the body need.  This juxtaposition of indulgence and bodily self-discipline identifies a profound contradiction.  Its only resolution is by eating something different tomorrow.  Bangers and mash is for a special occasion, when feeling blue; and that is a most important condition in the world of self.  You deserve to be happy, and to be comforted when not.  The indulgence may be craved for a transgression of the rules.  Ultimately, this is a tale about good and evil, and what is being encouraged is evil.  But you can be forgiven because you feel miserable; if you aren’t happy, try sin!” (1997, p.79)

bangers and mash

Obviously, this is still in a very rough state, but it highlights the point I want to make about the oddly religious overtones in contemporary food discourse.  I wonder if people prefer to think in terms of simplistic binaries like "good" and "evil" even though the complexities around food are always contradiction these kinds of value judgments.  

On a lighter note, I want to share something hilarious that I found in a book by Jeremy MacClancy called Consuming Culture:

            Marinating Mussolini
            (The Flavour of Fascism)
To Filippo Marinetti, Futurist poet and leader of the Italian avant-garde, the future lay with the future and not with some glorified version of the Italian past.  So down with out-of-date ways! And up with electricity, aeroplanes, machines, velocity!
The new age promised by Il Duce demanded a new cuisine.  Out with staid recipes and tired culinary formulae! In with new harmonies, unexpected flavours, and gastronomic surprises! Down with Bollito, Ragu Bolognese, and Fettucine ala Marinara! Long live ‘Drum Role of Colonial Fish’, ‘The Ox in the Cockpit’, and ‘Raw Meat torn by Trumpet Blasts’!
If, Marinetti argued, ‘our virile proud dynamic and dramatic peninsula was to advance, then habits had to change. ‘Since everything in the modern civilisation tends towards the elimination of weight and increased speed, the cooking of the future must conform to the ends of evolution.’ In other words, pasta – that staple of the nation’s diet – had to go.  A barbaric and piggish food, it weighed down the body and benumbed the spirit, establishing a dictatorship of the stomach and bringing on a seductive sense of indolence that neither plebeians nor intellectuals could resist. It was a waste of time to struggle for the health, agility and freshness of Italian intellectuals if this gut-rot blocker was allowed to bar the way: ‘Today we need to remake the Italian man, for what point is there in having him raise his arm in the Roman (Fascist) salute if he can rest it without effort on his bulging stomach? Modern man must have a flat stomach, under the sun, to think clearly.’
            Not everyone was convinced.  In Naples they protested in the streets. In Aquila the women signed a petition in support of their beloved food.  In Turin a conference of chefs tried to debate the issue: it ended in violence.
            Enraged magazine editors attempted to discredit Marinetti by fabricating photos of him eating spaghetti.  The Duke of Bovino, Mayor of Naples, declared pasta a celestial food: ‘The angels of paradise eat nothing but vermicelli in tomato sauce.’ This merely confirmed Marinetti’s suspicions about the monotony of life on a cloud.  Better to be a Futurist with your feet on the ground and your fork stuck into ‘Steel Chicken’ or ‘Roars of Ascent’.  Patriotism required nothing less.
Fabricated: Marinetti eating pasta

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