Via Chas Clifton, an article by Rod Dreher on the intersection between food, class, politics, and culture, and some of the weird eddies and patterns thereof. His article is specifically about the breed of “fuck you, nanny liberal” conservative that takes perverse joy in eating the opposite of what the “blue elite do”- junk food rather than arugula and organic grass-fed beef. I agree with Chas: read it all, and some of the comments for good measure (they remain surprisingly civil, or have for as far as I’ve been reading), not least because it’s resistant to excerpting and this post will mostly be a collection of thoughts in reaction.
- Several of the commenters brought up a point Dreher didn’t, which is that our food culture- and that of many other nations- is a relic of a time when the average citizen would spend most of the day on his or her feet, sometimes working so hard as to require two or three times the calories to get through the day at “maintenance” that the average citizen with a desk job does. The diet associated with the South and Midwest isn’t saturated in fat and starch because Southerners and Midwesterners are particularly more stupid or indulgent than other regions, it’s because they were the agricultural center of the nation and eating the greens without the pork fat or broccoli instead of mashed potatoes would have been about as productive to the average eater as eating steam. There were still sedentary people, and for that matter fat people (including fat people doing just as much of the physical labor as the skinny people), but the average working life was still not one that primarily involved sitting still.
- A common strain of thought I saw in the comments (firmly to be expected from something aimed squarely at a conservative audience), was the idea that obesity is running rampant because we’re moving more and more to more government- and insurance-funded health care, and thus obese people don’t bear any “costs” for being obese. I regard this as utter bullshit. Being obese IS a cost, and a steep one; insurance and Medicare aren’t funding liposuctions or any sort of magical fat-loss, or even doing anything more than somewhat mitigating the health problems associated with morbid obesity. You can’t pay your way out of crippling arthritis, runaway diabetes, sleep apnea, or doing ordinary errands being a giant and daunting physical challenge, even with someone else’s money. These aren’t inconveniences, being very obese is miserable compared to being thin or even moderately overweight. That isn’t even going into the social costs, which…
- …Dreher doesn’t seem to believe exist. I know it’s pretty much standard for conservatives to see themselves as standing athwart a wholesale abandonment of personal responsibility, but the degree of divergence between the America I live in and the one he apparently does is so great as to make me wonder if we’re inhabiting parallel dimensions. In the one I live in, being fat is regarded as not just undesirable but essentially sinful- perhaps the fact that Dreher agrees with that view in a classic-Christian sort of way is why he doesn’t see it as standout or as another cost associated with obesity. Being fat is like extending a blanket invitation to the world to remind you that you are, and usually accompanied by either a lecture on self-control akin to the one Dreher delivers or instructions that seem to assume that you were raised by wolves and have absolutely no idea that cake is fattening or that you should move around some. Befriending or being family to someone who is noticeably fat is like having a permanent ticket to a movie consisting solely of the world’s rudest people offering the most gratuitous abuse or obvious advice. For whatever reasons obese people are obese, because that state is not sufficiently unpleasant as to be discouraging is clearly not it.
- Speaking of cake, a brief pause for a minirant: What IS it with the cake? I eat cake on exactly two occasions, my own birthday or the birthday of someone sufficiently intimate to me to want to include me in that night’s meal. The vast majority of other people that I know, fat or thin, do pretty much the same. Literally the only person of my acquaintance who has such a sweet tooth they eat cake on a semiregular basis isn’t fat. Is there a secret town in America whose population consists of fat people who subsist solely on cake, donuts, and bacon?
- Moving on to the actual topic at hand, one observation I had is that not only did we essentially lose a generation or two of Americans in which knowing how to cook a variety of nourishing foods from scratch was a bog-standard adult life skill that everyone acquired in the family home, we did a switcheroo on the class associations of this skill. Immediately postwar during the prosperity and technology boom of the fifties, cooking became associated with the lower classes and immigrants who couldn’t afford food that was largely pre-prepared or prepared by someone else- or at least, not having to do much or any cooking for yourself became associated with wealth and status. Sometime around the eighties, yuppies kicked off a home cooking boom in which the type and cost of ingredients scaled up a good deal (setting the origins for those Whole Foods shoppers in the class-warfare game), and cooking from scratch for yourself became associated with wealth and higher class in itself. Knowing how to turn a bag of rice, beans, and maybe one dubious piece of meat into a hearty meal for six became a lower-class thing; then later knowing how to turn the same ingredients (with the price of the meat much higher for its new associations- have you seen what oxtail costs lately?) into a delicately spiced meal for two became the mark of the food snob. Meanwhile relying largely on preprepared or processed food remained the middle norm.
- It’s easy to focus on morbidly obese people who have flagrantly excessive and calorific diets and damn well know it and are suffering dramatically from the physical consequences, but in my experience this actually consists of a very noticeable minority. Most of “fattening America” seems to eat pretty similarly to the America that hasn’t gotten all that heavy. Maybe all the fatties are hiding in closets at night eating boxes of bacon-donuts, but most Americans who have a weight problem and don’t fall into the “fuck you Michael Bloomberg, I’m taking this 20-piece chicken bucket to my grave” camp seem to be if anything more conscious of what they eat, and that it should be smaller portions of not-cake, than folks who aren’t carrying around a gut. (This effect is perhaps only apparent to anyone who has been on a diet and watched lots of perfectly normal-looking folk eating things the dieter’s doctor has told them will make them physically become the Death Star.) Again: “eat less, move more!” and “you just need to be shamed more/told not to eat giant gobs of sugar and butter because clearly you don’t know” do not seem to be working.
- …Which is not to try and claim that diet, class, or our cultural eating patterns DON’T have anything to do with it. Being obese is miserable and you will catch hell for it, but eating is something very basic you have to do several times a day, and the habits we form with respect to what reads as “food, yum” to you, how often you eat and in what contexts, and where you get your food form very early and are tremendously ingrained because eating and drinking are the most basic things organisms MUST do to get on. They are difficult habits to change because evolution favors doing what worked well enough the last time to get fed, and novelty-seeking in times of abundance (which are now a more or less permanent feature of life for first-worlders) carries a lot more costs than benefits.
Which is ALSO not to say that we can’t lose weight because hardwired evolution brain is controlling everything we do, but changing our eating habits is actually pretty difficult. The background desire to do so is low to begin with, which then doesn’t help when you also have to cope with doing something radically different three or more times a day to satisfy a basic physical need, every damn day, for results that are slow to appear and give positive feedback. Throw in the fact that our appetites tend to calibrate around “the usual” as opposed to “what we actually need” (which can lead to undereating as easily as overeating- the habit matters most) rather than what we actually need and it can take a long period of new habits to recalibrate, and “fuck it, I’m having some chicken nuggets” becomes a pretty understandable temptation, even absent the class warfare.
Oh, and all the usual sources trying to give us advice on how to diet and exercise and lose weight are also full to the brim with bullshit it’s hard to recognize unless you already have a pretty good background in nutrition and physiology, so even if you make a superhuman feat of self-control you may not get good results anyway if you were following bad advice. (Free hint: one weird tip will never work.) To make it even more fun, some of those people giving out ludicrously terrible advice have M.D. after their name. A type I diabetic of my acquaintance was told after diagnosis in adulthood to eat a low-fat diet, to spare their heart, a low-carb diet, to keep their blood sugars under control, and a low-protein diet to spare their kidneys. Pointing out that this left literally no macronutrient options on the table for consumption in abundance enough to keep a young adult alive did not seem to register.
- I’ve done a lot of bashing on Dreher here, but I actually agree with much of what he wrote- just not with his fat sinners, thin moderates paradigm. He’s dead bang on that cooking is a disappearing skill, and that cooking quality ingredients from scratch is actually much cheaper than primarily living off fast food and preprepared and processed food, because the base ingredients are pretty cheap and the ones that aren’t aren’t meant to be the bulk of the meal unless you’re throwing a luxury feast. The treatment Jamie Oliver got in Huntington DID have a lot more to do with class warfare than with what was actually benefiting or hurting the schoolchildren. (Saying this makes my teeth grind, because Oliver makes my teeth grind and I happen to think his own attitude of re-educating the ignorants is part of the problem… so inconvenient when people respond with spiteful ignorance right back.)