BELOVED FANTASY OF A BLISSFUL PAST
Some time ago, speaking of matters of fat with someone very dear to me, she said something that gave me pause. We were discussing, in general, the Keys starvation experiment in Minnesota during World War II. You can find information on it here. I noted the absolutely princely number of calories allowed to the subjects compared to what dieters (particularly women) are permitted today. She was unaware of the studies (I sent her links later), but then she brought up that perhaps food was more pure and less processed then (with the implication that it was less fattening).
I get where she was going with that. High-Fructose Corn Syrup wasn’t around then (although corn syrup as well as sorghum syrup were widely used in cooking), and neither was Aspartame; and yet, it is never that simple. In that moment I felt like was like contemplating an onion, with its many layers, or the bulb of a tulip, planted for Spring. I wish we had been able to continue the conversation. That statement contains within it a very modern fantasy which contains some grains of truth. This fantasy, in the hands of the fat-hating intelligentsia and food cognoscenti (as usual) can become yet another stick with which to beat fat people just for existing.
I have kept thinking about the phrase since then and, as I keep reading fat-hating food and health articles and comments in My Hometown Paper (the New York Times) I have found the name for that tulip bulb of my contemplation: The Beloved Fantasy of a Blissful Past… a fantasy of a time when no one was fat… A time when all food was local and pure and unspoiled… A time when people ate their ethnic foods and the evils of the Western Diet were yet to claim their victims...
That time has never existed. It has no more existed than some alternate world in which elves and humans coexisted in perfectly magic harmony. It is a beloved fantasy which feeds the delusion that all ills can be cured if only we could go back to some never-specified time when these ills did not exist. In this fantasy, if only our food were more pure, more local, all cooked at home, and to paraphrase the words of Edina Monsoon (in Absolutely Fabulous) so fresh and organic it still has composted horse manure on it, we would stop being fat and all of our problems would go away (1). Our food would not be as fattening.
We cannot go back to a time that never was. Fatties would not cease to exist if one could only stop grocery stores from selling sugared cereal, or if a given fast food joint refrained from using soda with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There is no silver bullet. The quest to eliminate fatness by returning to that imaginary blissful past is a quest that is born to fail, taking with it the health of fat people, because we could never be nutritionally correct enough to bring it to fruition (2) . It is another baseball bat with which to smite the fatties, another way to be “concerned” about fat people’s health. Our image, our very being, is used and will be used to illustrate what happens if we eat “processed” food and we ignore the call to return to the blissful past.
The problem is these messages are powerful. They are delivered by those who have been anointed by the press as the cognoscenti. They are delivered by those whose skill at food preparation is exceeded by their ego and fat hate. They are delivered by those who place themselves upon a pedestal of “common sense” (eschewing facts) and whose opinion about fatties is sought by the media regardless of their actual qualifications. We are demonized as symbols of all that is wrong with food – but we know it never is really about health anyway.
In a series of posts I’ll be talking about food in the U.S. and occasionally from others countries for context. I am doing this because I’m tired of getting beaten by the stick of food correctness. I believe we need to look at the facts about our food culture(s) to dispel myths and to stave off the messages that come from the fantasy of a blissful past. In the same way that we look at pictures of fat people to see that, yes, there WERE fat people back then, we need to look at facts about food in historical context to counteract the moral opprobrium that a can of mushroom soup will garner from the cognoscenti.
I will draw from what I’ve learned from the impressive record left behind by American and English homekeeping authors of the 19th and 20th centuries (who were often learned in home economics and nutrition) who documented in a way that no statistic could the challenges that people had getting food on the table and how the fortification of foods along with new processing technologies and growing techniques helped our civilization to do that. I will also draw from my own experience as a person existing essentially within two food cultures, and what that has meant for me. What I aim to do with this framework is to offer into our evolving conversation a historical and cultural point of view about the American food culture as it evolved that can help dispel the myths about processed foods, while leaving room for exploring what some of the more modern developments in food processing may have reasonably have meant for human digestion and nutrition. I’ll also talk about the grain of truth that gives the fantasy its power.
In the meantime – what is your food culture and what might the term “processed food” mean within its context?
How would YOU define processed food within the American food culture?
Have you encountered the Fantasy of a Blissful Past and, if so, how?
See you in the comments!
(1) See Kate Harding’s very seminal essay on the ”The Fantasy of Being Thin” . She describes precisely the fantasy that if we could only lose weight, all the problems in our life would magically go away.
(2) A number of posts and comments on BFB, as well as a number of blogs in the Fatosphere have brought up the fact that you can be a perfect vegan and still be fat.