Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Food culture

I must admit, I have a little bit of a literary crush on Michael Pollan - that wry voice, the honesty, his eyes (well, not totally literary) ... and mainly the ways he pulls everyday life apart and puts it back together again. The Omnivore's Dilemma was a staunch and intelligent book, but I've enjoyed In Defense of Food a little more. It's looser, less confronting - more of a chat than a charming lecture. Pollan's argument is that we have lost sight of food, focusing instead on its discrete elements as they are defined (and misunderstood) by scientists and nutritionists; in uncovering the mysteries of food, science has mystified our eating. Under the sway of nutritionism we rely on labels and experts, unable to trust our nose, our taste or our bellies. It's a broad brushstroke kind of an argument, and I do feel it lacks nuance and in particular doesn't adequately acknowledge key structures like class, gender, and movements like slow food and organics (which are also classed and gendered), but I think nutritionism, with its intended and unintended consequences, is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary, Western food culture. Underpinning Pollan's solutions is the reclamation of our traditional food cultures.

So I'm thinking about my own food cultures, and what Al and I are passing on to our kids. Food-wise, we don't come from sophisticated stock. The German side of my family has given me a real love for sauerkraut, wurst and obst-torte. The Irish has been lost - my grandmother was a 1950s hostess with the mostest, all devils on horseback and cream of mushroom soup. In our own childhoods, neither Al nor I knew asparagus, mushrooms or beetroot could be had fresh (aah, the tinned champignon). I have no memory of ever ingesting a vegetable as a child. And yet we've both emerged relatively bonny and eating widely and well; indeed, we both love food. I don't know how this happened to Al (he was allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted, for heaven's sake) but - and this will surprise my long-suffering mother, who for years has put up with our 'jokes' about her cooking - I attribute my own excellent eating habits to my parents.

Food as fuel is important, of course, but culture comes from the meanings and practices attached to what we eat and in this, my parents excelled. It's the fodder for dinner party humour now (fodder - food; geddit?) but the food rules and practices I remember gave us a sense that food was something to be shared. It wasn't mysterious and it wasn't external to our family; it was part of the common everyday. We didn't pick this up as kids, and my parents might not have deliberately created that message (Mum, Dad, comments?) but that is what I've taken from my own family's food culture, and it's what I'm now giving the girls.

I still worry about the lack of cosmopolitan fare (although not as much as I did a year ago) but here's the thing: my kids like to cook, they know that food is eaten at the table, together (albeit often sullenly, reluctantly, whiningly), and they know where food comes from and how to make it. Food's not mysterious, it's not good or bad, and it's defined by taste and colour, not lists on a packet. When I grit my teeth as the girls break the shell in with the egg when they help me make a cake, when I pull on the gumboots and step through the dusk and drizzle to grab some greens, when we sit down together at the table, when I take a moment to be truly thankful for what I have received, we are showing the girls that some of our most precious knowledge lies in the mundane.

This is what I tell myself to steel my nerves as the girls yet again sniff the smells in the kitchen and declare them to be delicious, look at the food and declare it to be delicious, and then eat two grains of rice and a pea.


Ariane said...

I loved this post. Beautifully timed for my current round of soul searching with respect to my relationship with food and my self-image, but also very familiar. Thanks.

Do you reckon those kids just refuse to eat because they know how exasperating it is to us? :)

Actually, my eldest magically starting eating (most) dinners about when he started school. I suspect they will all get there in the end.

innercitygarden said...

I find the kid will eat pretty much anything at 11am, and pretty much just weetbix or bread at dinner time. So long as I remember to give him leftover dinner food at early lunchtime, we're good.

Having never gone on a diet is a disturbingly lonely position. I'm glad I developed an early scepticism for food that comes with health claims. Low fat yoghurt full of sugar is a perfect example of the problem. Great big vats of natural yoghurt is my response.

meggie said...

An excellent post about our food. Children can be disappointing with their likes dislikes & lack of appreciation. I look back on my upbringing -plenty of 'starving children would be glad to eat that'. Luckily I mostly loved vegetables, & everything we were given.

Wendy said...

You write beautifully. Very happy to have discovered your blog this morning. :)

nutmeg said...

Hi Kris. I have been absent from the blogs for a while but have just spent a pleasant time catching up on yours.

I have to agree with you about Michael Pollan. I was lucky enough to see him twice in May at the Sydney Writer's Festival. After the first talk on Friday I went into the book signing area to find him sitting all alone and (lucky me!) had quite a bit of a chat. I'm glad to have had this time as his book signing line on the following day was out the door!

And he is as compelling in person as he is on page. I have added may of his (loose) "recommendations" to my food buying mantra, especially 1) don't eat/buy anything that your grandmother wouldn't recognise and 2) avoid foods with more than 5 ingredients on the label. Just two good principles that when applied help one avoid processed or what Michael calls "edible food-like substances"!

I am having an extended break from my blog (many reasons why) but would love a chat about this sort of stuff any time - anothernutter@gmail.com. I have a lot of other great book recommendations on assorted related topics too ;-)

Ingrid said...

I fully believe that food is structured by society, having lived in a few different ones. So many people just do what others do. Where I live, it is common belief that children should be drinking a cordial drink, make from fruit at home, but made with about 60-70 percent sugar. This is considered healthy and they don´t understand why people can drink water. The juice was made traditionally without sugar as a vitamin C drink (sugar got added over time) My children were considered neglected as I didn´t want to rot my children´s teeth. I still can´t get my husband to smother on lashings of butter or dripping, as this is what farmers needed to keep themselves warm here in winter. It is not as cold and people don´t work so hard (as well as having heating on line) but diet has failed to changed in many ways.

Kris said...

Ingrid, I think of these things every time I make bread and butter pudding: the frugality of using up odd ends of bread with stuff that would have been always on hand on a farm, and the need for fuel for the workers is at odds with the place it now takes in my own kitchen. Also jam and salami - necessary and frugal once upon a time; slightly less so now.

As for kids and food: I think it's often a power thing (though I don't discount taste and preference, either) and Al and I are very careful to avoid making a big deal of the fads and small amounts. The girls are healthy and strong, which kind of supports Pollan's argument against breaking food down into its constituent, microscopic good and bad bits and trusting instead our instincts - I think kids have good instincts if they have food (and not food like substances) from early on.

Nutmeg - you are very lucky. But even as I think of meeting the man, I have butterflies. I think I could not have an extended chat but would tumble over words before gushing horribly.

Wendy, thank you. Kind words are always nice to linger over.

innercitygarden said...

I'm inclined to think that our culture of finishing what's on your plate, of eating it because the starving children in Africa would be grateful for it and so on, teaches kids to stop listening to their bodies and what they need. If you eat til you're not hungry any more you're fine (so long as it's real food), if you don't even remember what hungry and full and 'enough' feel like, you're in trouble.

We had big thick pancakes for breakfast this morning, with warm berries (frozen berries, heated in the microwave with sugar) and cream. I try to make sure all meals happen with a bit of performance and joyousness, regardless of what we're eating. I want my kid to learn that food is fun and family, not counting effing points or reading labels (reading labels is a supermarket activity unfortuantely).