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Don’t feel guilty about this all-American feast

This Thanksgiving, forget about the calorie-counting and carbon-crunching encouraged by food snobs. Let’s just eat!

Nancy McDermott

Topics USA

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The seasons are finally turning here in New York City. The autumnal display of October is mostly crunching underfoot now and the warming trend we’ve enjoyed for a few weeks has finally given way to winter’s chill. But that’s okay. It is early days. Our gloves are still in pairs, our coats and scarves are at the ready, and, besides, it’s Thanksgiving (today) and we are thinking about food.

The Thanksgiving holiday: always on the last Thursday of November, it punctuates the fall and marks the start of The Holidays, but unlike the succession of holidays that fall in December (Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza and New Year), Thanksgiving is celebrated by everyone. We brave the busiest travelling days of the year to be with our families, or they come to us depending on whose turn it is to host. It’s as if the whole country stands up in a mass game of musical chairs, everyone scrambling to land somewhere, somehow at a table with a turkey, even if that table is in a restaurant and peopled by folks who couldn’t get off work to make the journey home.

I will be arriving at my sister-in-law’s house bearing apple-cider roasted sweet potatoes and an apple pie. I already know the rest of the menu, even without being told. There will be turkey and sweet potatoes (of course), mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, tinned cranberry sauce and green-bean casserole (a tasty mix of green beans and Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup, topped with French’s fried onions). For hors d’oeuvres there will be slices of Cheddar and Pepper Jack cheese and pepperoni, Trisket crackers, potato chips with onion dip, bowls of Chex Mix for the kids or maybe some baked, stuffed clams from the freezer section of Costco. Dessert will be pumpkin pie, apple pie and maybe cut-n-bake cookies, courtesy of my nieces.

Some Thanksgiving dinners will be far fancier than ours, including exotic salads with ingredients like pomegranates or with puff pastry starters, but most are still variations on the classic theme, and though aspiring cooks sometimes manage to slip in new dishes there’s an almost palpable sense of disappointment when something popular, like the green-bean casserole, is pushed aside for a more worthy dish like Quinoa (pronounced, kee-wah), that ‘delightfully nutty’ and ‘authentic‘ grain-like relative of the spinach plant that Incas have been cultivating in the Andes for 6,000 years.

I was reminded of this annual turkey-tension recently when I won Martha Stewart’s Classic Thanksgiving DVD in a school raffle. According to Martha – and she ought to know – in her family (read ‘in most families’), ‘everyone still wants the classic menu of turkey and cranberry sauce’. Martha’s DVD features ways to ‘make those favourites even more special’ – that is, it shows how foodies can ‘get their gourmet on’ without alienating Uncle Fred or the cousins from Scranton.

But there’s another side to the annual comedy of the Thanksgiving menu these days, which reflects a broader discussion about food that goes far beyond the struggle over side dishes or the tension between food snobs and traditionalists. It’s a morality tale about food, agriculture and modernity.

On the one hand, interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high. Americans talk about food, blog about food and take photographs of their culinary creations. Farmers’ markets are wildly popular. The selection of cookbooks has never been better and there’s an emerging genre of foodie books like Julie and Julia (now a film) and The Recipe Club. The word ‘foodie’ is no longer just a term of affection for people who would rather have good cheese than sex. It’s a mark of status which implies a certain lifestyle and set of values.

And yet, even with the current vogue for good food, American food culture is, in many respects, still deeply weird and prone to moralising. Paul Rozin and Claude Fischler of the University of Pennsylvania famously showed Americans and French people photos of chocolate cake and asked them to say the first word that came into their minds. For most French people the word was ‘pleasure’. Americans most often chose the word ‘guilty’. And yet given some cake, the French ate just until they were satisfied while Americans were more likely to polish off the whole slice.

Fraught with angst, contradiction and confusion, Americans confront their food with ambivalence. The celebration of food in American society is always somewhat dampened by the popular belief that it is also making us freakishly fat, unhappy, anxious and/or sterile. It’s not surprising that many feel a bit conflicted about what to eat. And there are numerous moral entrepreneurs ready to step in and show us what to eat, and how to eat it…

I’m not just talking about purveyors of fad diets, celebrity chefs or outspoken critics of fast food culture like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) or Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me). I’m talking about one man in particular, whose critique of America’s food culture situates what we eat within a particular moral framework and cultural narrative. I’m talking, of course, about Michael Pollan.

No one is better at is channelling the zeitgeist when it comes to America’s relationship with food than Pollan. The author of numerous books about gardening, agriculture and food, he is by far the most influential food writer in America. His books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, have sold millions of copies. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times on matters of food and agriculture and was the Pilates-Patrician’s choice for Obama’s secretary of state for agriculture.

Pollan stands out because he has managed to articulate an ethic of eating that is far more sophisticated than the usual dichotomies of organic vs non-organic or vegetarian vs meat-eating. Using farming and agricultural policy as his starting point, he shapes a narrative – part science, part romanticism – in which industrial agriculture, and corn in particular, has distorted the food chain, corrupted the land, impoverished our food and made us sick. And sometimes he has a point. His critique of nutritionism – the reduction of food to its technical components – is basically right, and his exploration of alternatives like grass farming are interesting, if not entirely convincing.

He paints a picture of food as a sort of healing tonic for the excesses of modern life, one that can be both enjoyable and in harmony with the Earth. He suggests that anyone with enough motivation (and money) can eat in a morally superior way. The problem comes when, having constructed a sustainable pastoral idyll, Pollan tries to figure out how to get people to change what they eat.

His solutions mainly revolve around convincing us to eat what he calls ‘real food’ – that is, food that hasn’t been overly processed; the fresher, the better. This means shopping at the farmers’ markets. But it’s not simply a matter of freshness. There’s a sort of accountability, he argues, in being able to interrogate the farmer about things like pesticides and crop rotation that restores ‘nobility’ to food.

It’s an idea that has captured the imagination of many people. Farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture – where you pay the farmer upfront for a weekly box of produce (sadly usually dominated by kale) – are all the rage. Foodies follow their favourite farmers on Twitter and some city folk are even keeping chickens.

Of course, converting affluent urban foodies was bound to be easy, but driving the masses away from the cheap, easy, tasty food we’ve come to expect presents a stickier problem. Pollan’s favoured solution involves labelling some products as edible ‘non-foods’. This would mean that products like sports drinks or foods without the requisite numbers of micronutrients would fall into a category of their own. By labelling them edible ‘non-foods’, he reasons, they could be taxed differently and prohibited from inclusion in any state-funded food programmes, such as school lunches or meals at military bases and federal prisons. More importantly, they could be excluded from the products eligible to be purchased with food stamps so that the poor would no longer be allowed to squander government money on empty calories. ‘Defining what constitutes real food worthy of federal support will no doubt be controversial’, admits Pollan, but, for him, it’s just the ‘tough love’ that at-risk Americans need.

Thinking back to the foods that make up my sister-law’s Thanksgiving spread, I can’t help but wonder how many would be considered acceptable by Pollan’s standards. How about the corn-fed supermarket turkey? The readymade stuffing? The cheeses? Where Americans once looked at dinner and secretly totted up the calories, the fats and the carbohydrates, how many now contemplate the origins of their foods? How local is it? How many trace chemicals does it contain? How ‘real’ is it? This hardly seems like an advance on our earlier hang-ups.

What Pollan and others have done is to transform a problem of American food culture into a problem with American food. It’s a problem that doesn’t really exist. Agricultural production can always improve and it’s fair enough to look for ways to up the quality and quantity of food available. But, ultimately, moralising about what we eat won’t enhance food culture, except perhaps in a narrow, priggish way. All it means that instead of being something we share with others, food becomes a yardstick by which we measure their virtue. Pollan hasn’t made Americans less pathologically obsessed with their meals. He has simply substituted one set of food–related worries for another.

Perhaps instead of worrying about the menu this Thanksgiving, American foodies should consider that the key to food culture isn’t simply the quality of the meal, or its style of preparation, but the society that surrounds its enjoyment. It is precisely in the act of sharing our cultural riches in the form of good (though not necessarily more worthy) food that we raise the standards of food for everyone.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

James Panton and others gave thanks to America. Rob Lyons reviewed Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food, and didn’t swallow Paul Roberts’s theories in The End of Food. spiked, in association with the UK Food and Drink Federation, launched a debate on The Future of Food. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics USA

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