In America, one would be hard pressed to find a town which did not support at least one McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s. Pizza parlors are a necessity in college towns. Ice cream shops are abuzz with customers of all ages after dark. And hey, who ever heard of a movie without popcorn?
The increasing visibility and importance of food in our culture has been a phenomenon. Food began as a necessity of life. It was the source of energy, which allowed the body to grow and prosper, and for hunters and gatheerrs to survive. In modern times, the role of food in everyday life has taken on a life of its own, from the blue-ribbon palate pleasers tickling taste buds to political statements drawn in chocolate to social drinking. The resulting uses of food are as diverse as the different foods it encompasses and as inseparable from a person’s daily life as breathing. How can something so simple as energy-intake convey have become such a large and varied part of everyday life?
Food as a family affair is largely determined by the family’s lifestyle; conversely, knowing a family’s eating patterns says a lot about their lifestyle. Sitcoms portray meals as a leisurely occasion for the family to sit down together to enjoy savory foods fresh from the oven, which the loving wife has been tending for the past two hours. Then reality sinks in. The increasing popularity of TV dinners, microwave gourmet, and prepackaged snacks caters to a family without the time for such luxury. Why cook when you can heat up a frozen entrée of teriyaki beef or homestyle apple pie in just four minutes? As the tendency for both spouses to be employed full-time has increased from 33% of families in 1972 to 67% in 1998, according to the National Data Program for Social Science, consumption of convenience foods has swelled as the concept of nutritional family meals has become too time consuming to be practical. The proliferation of fast food restaurants has also catered to a culture of families on the move.
As Eric Schossler's 2001 best-seller Fast Food Nation details, the average American eats two fast food burgers and two orders of fries every week. Consumers spend over $110 billion on fast food annually and ninety percent of youths consume at least one Happy Meal per month. On an average day in 1998, 21% of American households ate some form of takeout or delivery. Fast food restaurants package food, and brand loyalty, with cutesy jingles sung by clowns and novelty collectible toys that no kid should be without. The Happy meals of McDonald’s and Burger King’s “Big Kid’s” meals have raised the question of food from a level of bare sustenance to a question of pride. Doesn’t the sound of having a “Big Kid’s meal” make you feel…well, big, macho, cool? Brown bag lunches are pale in comparison. For a vast portion of impressionable youth, fast food and brand loyalty have risen up as a status symbol of sorts from its humble origins as an energy source.
But why settle for value meals if you can afford gourmet? The various tiers of restaurants cater to different classes of people based on age, income and expectations. For instance, the diner look of a Waffle House or a Denny’s seems to attract more of the working class while four-star steakhouses such as Outback Steakhouse or Lone Star are frequented more by the middle and upper classes as they can afford the experience of full service and a meal cooked by professional chefs. In choosing a favorite restaurant, a person is hinting less at their food predilections as at their income levels. For instance, both Waffle House and International House of Pancakes (IHOP) serve the same basic meals: waffles, pancakes, toast, sausage, bacon and other such breakfast stuff. Waffle House is cheaper than IHOP, and yet, when craving a plate of eggs and bacon I don’t think to go to Waffle House if I have access to an IHOP. Why? My best answer would be because I can afford the higher quality, (which may solely be a fictitious perception of mine) and along with that the higher esteem, of eating at an IHOP. The division of class among restaurants is a question of socio-economic status and affects all restaurant goers, from the casual diner to the self-proclaimed “foodie” for whom eating is a source of infinite pleasure.
Ah, yes, the foodie. At foodie.com, the word is defined as a person for whom eating is a hobby. The trademark of the foodie is that he or she cannot bare the boredom of eating to live; instead, they live to eat, resulting in a vast love for all things culinary. The website contains tips on baking: from macroscopic ones, such as how to tell when brownies are baked, to fanatically detailed entries, such as “How to use cold to create a flaky pastry.” Got what it takes to be a foodie? Take the quiz at forfoodies.com and find out. The eating craze has branched out so much as to warrant a cable channel (aptly dubbed the Food Network) whose programming is dedicated solely to food (think Iron Chef), and tours packages for the sole purpose of acquainting oneself with the local cuisine of exotic places. These gourmet tours, such as the ones offered by Luxury Tours, typically start at about two thousand dollars, airfare not included. The expenditure of thousands of dollars solely for food knowledge shows that we have come a long way from the modest herds of cattle and fields of corn that our ancestors survived on.
And yet others pride themselves on a simpler lifestyle. People who eat “close to earth” restrict themselves to raw or unprocessed foods; sample entrees include raw veggies and fruits, unflavored milk and eggs. Chocolates, sweets and other manufactured goods are considered stigmas, signs of corruption of nature’s bounty. “Close to earth” is not to be confused with vegetarianism, which comes in many shapes and sizes. In the realm of vegetarianism exist true and semi-vegetarians and vegans. No vegetarian eats red meat, but semi-vegetarians might consume poulty (semi-vegetarians) or seafood (pisco-vegetarians). Among the stricter vegetarians, some see fit to eat dairy and eggs (ovo-lacto), others dairy but no eggs (lacto) and still more eat no animal products whatsoever, including honey. The last group is the vegans. To these people, what they eat is a source of identity and pride. For some, the diet lets them feel that they are saving the animals, that they are being good people. For others, eating healthy is the draw. Here, the choice of food connects vegans together, demarcating a section of the population in almost the same way as a religion does.
Food’s transcendence of its original purpose into an identity, hobby, status symbol and profitable market commodity has been nothing short of astounding. Chocolates on Valentine’s Day tell you he’s sincere; dinner is a typical cookie cutter date in which food is a portal to romance. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire cause visions of sugar plums to dance in “their” heads. Business luncheons, birthday cakes and ice cream, cotton candy at the circus…everywhere we turn, food is there to greet us, whether it be a clown hawking fast food or an ice cream stand on the beach. And with such an invasion have come numerous problems.
Two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight. One in three are obese, and 15% of children are obese. The consequential onslaught of type II diabetes, knee problems from the added stress, heart trouble, and general lack of well being has been costly and shows little sign of slowing. And out of the trouble has emerged a $40 billion diet industry, an industry that raked in less than one billion a mere decade ago. As the relationship between food and culture has changed, people have found themselves increasingly victimized by its penetration of many everyday activities and events. The blame of the resulting epidemics is not solely the result of this fascination with food, though; it is also a result of lack of self-discipline in an era where food is no longer a scare resource. The threat in modern times is not death from lack of food; it is death from too much food in a culture obsessed with it, and accordingly, people must come to terms with the new role of food in their lives before they can begin to conquer the problems which have arisen from it.
As food has become increasingly available, society has found new ways of playing with it, spinning out brand loyalty, hobbies, programming and cults dedicated to food. Before people embrace these new food novelties, however, they must first as a culture establish the terms of their new relationships with food. Only then can we both enjoy the delights of the kitchens without destroying our health and self-image in the process.
The sources referred to in this paper are: foodies.com, forfoodies.com, Eric Schossler's Fast Food Nation (2001), “Body Image Statistics” womensissues.about.com/cs/bodyimage/a/bodyimagestats.htm, “Overweight and Obesity Fact Sheet” www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/obesity/calltoaction/fact_adolescents.htm, “The Emerging 21st Century” cloud9.norc.uchicago.edu/dlib/sc-42.htm.