'Food for Thought' is weighty subject

When we recall our warmest memories of the past, chances are that food is involved – the holiday meal with our extended family, the romantic dinner with a spouse-to-be, or the exotic fare that was the highlight of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

Yet the day--to-day eating habits of folks today seem designed to be as un-memorable as possible, leaning towards pre-packaged, homogenized fast food – ready-to-go or easy-to-cook meals packaged to be eaten by one.

The adage that “we are what we eat” is not only true, it’s a gross over-simplification. What we eat and how we do it is a decision with enormous ripple effects.

The link between fast foods, for example, and almost-epidemic obesity is hard to deny. (Not surprisingly, some class-action lawyers are already declaring this to be a plot, hinting that litigation against food providers may follow the tobacco industry model). The marketing of brand-name food shapes the appearance of many of our cities – a trend Bainbridge Island has tried mightily to resist by ordinance. And the fact that meal-time is becoming an individual rather than a group activity threatens to impoverish family life.

Nor are the consequences of our food choices limited to our own communities. As anthropologist Sidney Mintz contends, under the catchy title of “Coca-colonialism,” American fast food and its marketing can act like an invasive species abroad, driving out indigenous cultures and traditions.

Fast food is a meaty subject, worthy of serious consideration. And it is being treated as such in this month’s humanities inquiry “Food For Thought,” which grew out of last year’s “Culture and the American Character” symposium. (Event listings can be found at www.artshum.org.)

Organizer Kathleen Thorne explains it this way:

“Food for Thought” will look at our increasing reliance on fast, ready-to-eat, single-serving food products that can be prepared in minutes and that eliminate the necessity of family members to eat at the same time, or even the same food. What does this say about our values and priorties? Is this trend even more evidence of our manipulation by a marketing industry that stresses the saving of time, convenience, attractive packaging, hygiene and predictability over our need to create, share, and interrelate? Why does the average weight of Americans keep increasing, even as dieting, exercise and healthy eating become more popular”?

In most cultures, food is valued “because of its taste or nutritional attributes, or because it reinforces important social, family or religious standards.” But, Thorne argues, recent studies suggest that at least among American college students, food is “regarded as fuel, to be ingested with dispatch so as to make time for something else...and time seems to be the shortest commodity of all in modern American life.”

What and how we eat, and why, is a topic worth exploring, and we’re looking forward to these events (especially if there’s a buffet).

And we once again extend our thanks and admiration to Thorne and BIAHC for providing the kind of challenging and insightful – but non-caloric – enrichment that gives the island its special flavor.

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