What We Talk about When We Talk about Food


Or rather, what don’t we talk about? And who isn’t talking or listening or at least overhearing? From all sides these days comes the question of sustenance: Obama pledges to improve food safety as India sets up soup kitchens for malnutrition and Gwyneth Paltrow drafts a “family cookbook.” World trade talks lock over agricultural tariffs as tomato harvesters petition to end slave labor and scientists debate the merits of transgenic grain. General Mills refuses hormone-treated milk, Cadbury’s Chocolate plans to minimize cow burps, the Peanut Corporation of America declares bankruptcy. Movie theaters welcome Food, Inc. and No Reservations, Super Size Me and Julie & Julia; on TV, “Top Chef” and “The Biggest Loser” fatten their ratings. What dishes one consumes or refuses, what food products one buys or boycotts, constitute an expression of style, statement of politics, reflection of values, index of environmentalism, pledge of allegiance, and measure of health. Chew carefully, then. Swallow. Wonder when this got so complicated.

To a degree, it has always been so. “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” Brillat-Savarin challenged his readers in 1825, and his wisdom if not his brio was already old hat. Human meals serve those mixtures of raw and cooked that make up anthropological codes. Nearly every prescription or preference blends irrational faith and scientific requirements, as Marvin Harris shows in his fascinating Good to Eat: look long enough at a seemingly arbitrary food rule (cloven hooves, sacred cows) and one can probably discover a self-preserving logic behind it, but look hard enough at an apparently sensible directive (a glass of milk, a handful of supplements) and one will like as not detect a prejudice posing as sense. Omnivorous and hungry, body and spirit, we sit down at a table spread with necessary choice; we cannot eat to live, that is, without in some measure living to eat. As Laurie Colwin once put it, then, cookery books will always “hit you where you live.” What seems distinctive and disquieting now, what seems to have increased in the two centuries since Brillat-Savarin shot a turkey in Hartford or even in the two decades since Colwin roasted a chicken in her New York apartment, is the number of volumes hitting us combined with the force of their impact. A nation with a lot of food books is a nation without much sense of food, as The Economist recently pointed out. Michael Pollan pinpoints the same contradiction at the start of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: the market for writing about eating is a people who do not know how to eat. In what spirit, then, are we to read the remaining pages of Pollan’s book, the best food reportage of the last decade and a touchstone for the current preoccupation with better dining? Is our attention a path out of darkness or a perpetuation of neurosis? How are we to approach a contemporary shelf that runs from The End of Food to The Engine 2 Diet to The Face on Your Plate, that describes both The United States of Arugula and Fast Food Nation, that serves a Righteous Porkchop as it asks What Would Jesus Eat? and questions The Gospel of Food, that tells us How to Cook Everything, What to Eat and why Food Matters?

With awareness of history, maybe, as well as attention to current events: seeking cultural criticism as well as specifying culinary changes. The general question of culture seems to lurk behind many contemporary confusions over diet; such anxieties are particularly pressing, moreover, in a country that has long identified its culture by the very lack of one and that has often been justifiably ambivalent about this condition. America’s absence of tradition precludes the sophistication of the Old Country while maintaining the egalitarianism of a New World. The condition twists anyone who tries to describe “American food”—in the face of well-defined cuisines from France or China or Italy or India or anywhere. America means an exhilarating mixture, a country where bagels, ramen, hummus, and pizza are consumed without prejudice by citizens without passports. It is a place where an improvised ground-beef sandwich with a German name can become the most popular dish. But then, America also means a confusing equivalence, a country where pizza bagels, pesto hummus, and picante ramen are as authentic as any other version. It is a place where an indistinct assembly-line beef patty is the only common taste. Perhaps the two descriptions exist symbiotically, perhaps belief in diversity demands a resistance to standards. To promote a national cuisine may be to betray our national principles.

Indeed, those principles of welcome are particularly linked to food, since the original culture of the American colonies depended on the culturally original fact of agriculture itself. Anthropologists regard the beginnings of crop cultivation and animal husbandry, 10,000-odd years ago, as the start of human civilization, and America would grant a fresh version of the same to those who claimed a piece of wilderness and planted a furrow of seeds. If one squints at the race and gender restrictions that narrowed this plan, not to mention the Native cultures that it nearly eradicated, the idea still glows with a Robinson-Crusoe-ish confidence, an Enlightenment belief in which the unlimited freedom for self-fashioning begins with the back-to-basics fact of self-nourishment. To feed oneself is to govern oneself. Jefferson suggests as much in his explanations of the farmer-citizen; practicing what he philosophized, he legislated for the new republic while raising everything from artichokes to yams at Monticello. In 1782, Crèvecoeur could draw on Jefferson’s suppositions when he published Letters from an American Farmer; when his book asks, “What then is the American, this new man?,” the title has already answered. Its plainspoken Farmer James even concludes a blissful reverie on American life with a hymn to American soil. “On it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens . . .” he explains. The statement still echoes: when Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, just this past January, wrote a New York Times op-ed about “soil loss and degradation,” their forward-looking and scientific advocacy invoked an age-old and ideological trust in our literal land.

That trust, though, has long been eroding. Jackson and Berry’s column presents only the latest criticism of a manifest destiny run aground in sprayed soybeans or a frontier closed by lagoons of feed-lot manure. The wide-open vista of the eighteenth century, in which anything could be grown, has yielded to the overstocked aisle of the twenty-first, in which everything can be bought, and the idea of agriculture as individual opportunity has devolved to the reality of agriculture as consolidated business. That means “fencerow to fencerow” planting of species engineered for their ability to be grown at high yields, transported vast distances, and turned into multiple products; it means routine doses of hormones and antibiotics that allow animals to fatten on unnatural feed to unnatural sizes at unnatural speeds; it means confinement of creatures in environments that amplify pollution, disease, and cruelty while lowering nutritional quality; it means application of pesticides without regard for long-term effects on the ground or air or water. It means transgenic research intending principally to increase the sale of chemicals as well as seed patents intending principally to commercialize and limit a resource once shared and renewable. It means, moreover, food corporations economically powerful enough to ensure protective legislation and negligible regulation. Drawing on the expertise in Pollan’s and Eric Schlosser’s books, the movie Food, Inc. provides an efficient snapshot of this system, and it can horrify a viewer from many even moderate perspectives: one does not need to be a PETA activist to wish that the pigs in one’s bacon did not chew each other’s tails off from stress, or a Green Party member to suspect that large amounts of nitrous oxide worsen climate change, or a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether a national agency headed by former employees of the industry it scrutinizes will really protect consumers. The failure of industrial food therefore marks a point of near unanimity among today’s food writers, from reporters like Paul Roberts and biologists like Marion Nestle to activists like Raj Patel and epicures like Judith Jones. Most agree, too, on some depressingly basic reasons why Americans since World War II have tolerated that failure: food now is cheaper, more plentiful, and easier to eat. In the absence of other standards, these are easy to measure and easier to enjoy. Cultural nullity marks a remarkably potent lack.

Can we reverse this absence? Can we refute or reform Big Food by filling in the blanks of a food tradition? Many hope so. Like Schlosser’s, Pollan’s work reminds us that the phenomena of present-day agriculture are far from necessary; they exemplify not only a global trend of industrialization and a wartime history of chemical production but also a postwar federal policy of particular emphases. The Omnivore’s Dilemma explains that New Deal farm programs strove for steady farm revenues and adequate grain reserves, but 1970s inflation spurred the Nixon administration to change course, privileging large output and lower prices instead. American farmers would now be paid to produce as much as possible of single species, corn above all, government monies making the difference between a price target set for commodity crops and the fee a bushel actually fetched on the market. These disbursements encouraged farmers to cultivate more and more—using more petroleum-made fertilizer and diminishing more rich Midwestern topsoil while they did so—as they earned less and less for that cultivation. Recent price volatility only emphasized that this system is unsustainable economically and politically as well as environmentally. It endures, though, in large part because it ensures that agribusinesses have access to malleable commodities at rock-bottom rates; multinational corporations can then make billions by turning corn into foodstuffs that will be advertised heavily and sold cheaply. The kinks in this twisted narrative mean that American taxpayers support some of the most profitable companies in the nation so that American consumers will pay less for their inefficient and unhealthy goods. Among these are the iconic elements of a fast food meal, in which corn makes the sweetening syrup for the soda and ketchup, the corn-fed beef for the burgers, the starchy corn flour for the buns, and the partially hydrogenated corn oil that crisps the fries; among these, too, are just about every item on the inner shelves of the grocery store, where corn forms those strange ingredients-list stragglers like xanthum gum, crystalline fructose, and ascorbic acid. Corn is part of baby food and beer, cold cuts and crackers, coffee cups and contact-lens solutions, batteries and cardboard boxes; as we pick from a stylish multitude of items—about 320,000 edible products are on sale in American supermarkets—we digest a bland uniformity of substance. We seem happy to do so, moreover, quick to swallow the promises of a PowerBar or Happy Meal —and however purposeful, the rapid evolution of our food in the last two generations depended on such insensitivity. The changes could therefore serve to emphasize Pollan’s initial point, America’s problematic absence of “deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating”; the vacuum, we find, has not provided the space for diversity to flourish so much as a field for industry to rampage. With his follow-up book, In Defense of Food, Pollan therefore makes a simple recommendation: “eat more like the French,” he tells us. “Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks.” If we lack a food culture, we should simply borrow one.

What about creating or continuing one of our own? This may be more complicated. Consider the question of a foundational American dish: not the hamburger, certainly, which did not appear until the late nineteenth century; not apple pie, either, since it is virtually identical to an old English dessert. The best candidate may be none other than the villainous corn: when Plymouth Pilgrims stole some kernels from a Native-American cache, and later learned from Squanto how to cultivate them in fish-fertilized soil, they encountered a New World novelty and staple that probably saved them from starvation. The crop was already planted deep in the economy and faith of several much older civilizations on the continent; as Betty Fussell suggests in her ample The Story of Corn, its multiplicitous history gives it a good claim to be the most basic American foodstuff. Our version of a baguette or bowl of rice may be a meal-and-water cornbread —served as the hoecake that European settlers learned from Native cookery, baked in a pan to make a skillet bread that refuses to waste drippings, cooked in embers to form the ash cake that slaves took to the fields. Or turned into johnnycake, the name of which may mispronounce “Shawnee” or “journey”: cornbread, it turns out, was an early fast food. A different sort of corn builds the fast food of Pollan’s and Schlosser’s analyses, a hybrid bred for yield, tenacity, and raw material rather than taste, nutrition, or human consumption. Our horror of fattening syrups and acidosis-ridden cattle can therefore be divided from our affection for cornpone wisdom and respect for pre-Columbian corn gods. Yet it is a small travesty of industrialization that we should have to make that separation, to look with suspicion on an interesting strain of our history—to look with suspicion, perhaps, on our agricultural history itself. The modestly touching film King Corn suggests as much through its story of two young men who travel to Iowa and plant an acre of their titular crop; though the exercise is didactic, akin to Pollan’s purchase of an industrial steer, it is also autobiographical, since the two documentarians happen both to have ancestors who farmed in the same Midwestern town. As they narrate corn production now, these filmmakers elegize the farming that it replaced, diverted from the cultivation of human sustenance to the production of industrial surplus.

One brisk solution, it would seem, would just be to grow good food again: choose a tasty breed of corn, plant it, tend it; pick when ripe, shuck, steam, and eat. Raising one’s own dinner does seem the most blatant opposition to buying from industrial agriculture, and Pollan has consistently urged readers to pick up a hoe—fittingly enough, since he came to food research through an interest in gardens and botany. If this is not feasible, one should buy from a Community Supported Agriculture system or a farmers’ market, thereby supporting non-industrial cultivators who grow as close as possible to one’s own backyard. The spread of this widely-urged practice made “locavore” a recent “word of the year” for the OED and spurred Michelle Obama to break ground on a White House garden just this March, though the best indication of its popularity may be a current Campbell’s soup ad that mentions “relationships with family farmers” while promising that “[w]henever possible, we source our ingredients from farmers located within 100 miles of where our soups are prepared.” Even marketing bromides, though, cannot diminish the important goals of the locavore movement, which hopes not only to promote traditional farming but also to protest the carbon footprint of transported foodstuffs. Petrochemical-free produce, local eaters point out, can still guzzle a lot of oil, and there is nothing sustainable about organic raspberries brought from Chile to Connecticut. Food miles should therefore matter more than food additives to the ethically conscious consumer. The movement even acquired its own manifesto-memoir when Barbara Kingsolver published Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an account of one year in which she and her family ate only what they could grow on their Virginia farm or acquire in its immediate vicinity. Kingsolver’s book again echoes America’s “dangerous” lack of food culture but does not wish to adopt one from overseas; she intends to develop one from “a place, a soil, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging.” Somewhat like the narrators of King Corn, then, she seeks reform by reclaiming her roots; she moves back to her native state to plant five-color silverbeets and breed heirloom turkeys. Her philosophy advocates a terroir with an American twang.

This down-home moralism seems at times to be needlessly folksy or tonally skewed (Americans are “sure enough in trouble,” for example, and food conglomerates are “carpetbagging”). More often it presents an oddly traditional progressivism, with up-to-the-minute biology linked to essentially conservative appeals. One might say the same about locavorism in general, a practice that moves ahead by harking back: as James E. McWilliams describes in A Revolution in Eating, New England colonial settlers also depended on “the establishment and cultivation of a year-round kitchen garden,” and the success of these plots allowed an agriculturally inhospitable region to achieve “the remarkable accomplishment of feeding itself by itself.” McWilliams usefully sets this food economy next to its opposite, the sugar plantation system of the West Indies, which depended on the cultivation, processing, and sale of a single commodity. Cash crops versus food for eating, trade dependence versus local autonomy, large businesses versus small gardens, and exploitative labor versus family farming: the contrasts line up in the twenty-first century much as they did in the seventeenth. Today, therefore, when garden-based gastronomy again beckons as an alternative to morally-tainted monocultures, local provisions seem an advance that returns to our values. McWilliams argues, in fact, that New England agriculture led to a genuine American food culture—but one that did not prescribe dishes and manners so much as imbue an attitude of simplicity and self-sufficiency. If Americans have wandered from these feelings, or if our weakness for grab-and-go feeding has perverted their essence, we can take our reusable sack to the farmers’ market or our ash-and-steel hoe to the garden and remember the Crèvecoeur who wanted his children to be “good substantial independent American farmers.”

But does this new-old food culture provide the solution to contemporary troubles? It is appealing and logical, but that does not mean it is practical or effective—in a world made irreversibly more populous, interconnected, and complex since Crèvecoeur’s time. Environmentally, even, the verdict on locavorism appears to be equivocal; though fuel consumption provides an easy-to-read gauge of environmental impact, transportation actually matters less than production when figuring the carbon footprint of dinner, and the greenest production may well be some distance away. It is also worth considering that not all residential locations are equally positioned with regard to farmland or farmer access, making purely local distribution inefficient if not impossible in some circumstances. And beyond these logistical questions looms the problem of scale: can local and/or organic farming produce enough? Enough not only for swelling American cities but also for burgeoning populations around the world? Just as Pollan urges us to eat more like other cultures, many other cultures are trying to eat more like us—to eat more, that is, and in particular more animal products. Meat consumption has doubled in Brazil and quadrupled in China since 1980. No one wants a sustainability that risks starvation, and the food crisis that erupted into violence last spring made it plausible to consider whether the world doesn’t need more of the high-volume thrift that industrial agriculture does best.

The evidence suggests a different conclusion: that sustainable practices provide a better chance at a future free of periodic food shortages assuaged by ineffectual promises and stopgap supplies. The lessons of the “green revolution” prove to many that business-as-usual farming does more to perpetuate poverty in the developing world—through weakened local soils and economies —than to eliminate hunger in at-risk populations. Meanwhile, scientific studies and practical experience show that low-or no-chemical polyculture can achieve yields comparable to industrial, single-crop systems; smaller operations may be better, even, at weathering climate fluctuations and resource shortages. It is a trickily achieved success, though, more labored than the spray-and-wait model guaranteed by agribusiness and more sophisticated than the plant-and-pick cycle imagined by many locavores. It means a mid-size farm with an active farmer managing a team of workers who engage in time-intensive cycles of daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal monitoring: Michael Pollan describes such complexity through the work of Joel Salatin in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who has a part in Food, Inc. as well, and Paul Roberts shows the same through details of Takao Furuno in The End of Food. Though the results may look quaintly traditional, in both Virginia and Japan, these farmers’ success owes as much to intelligent science as instinctual harmony. The post-farm process will require just as much up-to-date thinking, moreover, if we are to find regional distribution more efficient and applicable than the once-a-week sale or stand. In addition, sustainable farming for large populations will demand some complicated changes in food policy: a revision of American agricultural subsidies, to start, so that the products least beneficial for people and the planet are not the same being artificially lowered in price, and some scrutiny of trade protections, so that regions around the world have a fair chance at food security and market competition.

None of these practices fit exactly under “organic” or “local” banners; none can be measured on strict rulers of food miles and fertilizer. It may be that small amounts of chemicals are better than none, for example, and it is probably the case that some trade is better for growers and eaters everywhere. Even Kingsolver’s family refused to give up coffee and olive oil, not to mention spices, capers, cashews, raisins, and a box of tangerines. Those New England kitchen gardeners, moreover, did not refuse to buy and sell their foodstuffs. But then, if we want to find a traditional path for our way forward, if we want our progressive consumption to be a cultural reclamation, it may be wise to step outside the opposition that Kingsolver labels as “Tom Jefferson against King George”: small-scale farmers versus giant corporations, or New Englandy plots versus Southern-ish plantations, or local integrity versus non-local corruption. We might focus on a different and less documented American gastronomy, symbolized less in apple pie or fast-food burgers or even cornmeal cakes than in a Carolina dish called hoppin’ John. Its versions range, though always based on rice and beans; various kinds specify cowpeas or pigeon peas or red peas, mixed in differing proportions with the grain, and sometimes with onion or pork and sometimes without. The eponymous John, too, shifts in his explanations: perhaps a mispronunciation of the French pois de pigeon or a corruption of Hindi- and Malagasy-rooted words for the dish’s ingredients. As McWilliams concludes in a nice summary, hoppin’ John’s “authenticity comes from its versatility”; it’s a meal of cosmopolitan poverty that assumed traces of African and Middle Eastern custom, carried them along American slave routes, mixed them with Native practices, and preserved them through ingredients that could be gleaned or cheaply raised. Hoppin’ John demands that one improvise. It presumes, though, that such ad-hoc localism manifests global attention and historical awareness: renewing a testimony of trauma and endurance, exile and assimilation, preservation and hybridity. Not to mention a recollection of the labor exploitation that has always shamed the United States’ agricultural production, from the conditions of African slaves then to the conditions of undocumented aliens now. Dishes like hoppin’ John could predict a sustainable food culture that is less a retail option for the comfortable American consumer than a pragmatic attitude for the hungry world citizen.


Hoppin’ John models a sustainable cuisine in its facts as well as its philosophy: those peas replenish the soil they grow in, for example, as well as provide a good cover crop for polyculture rotations and grant a tasty, nutritionally dense source of meatless protein. This last seems particularly important, since if we ever do achieve a sensible food system of worldwide application, the most basic change for the American diet will be a large reduction in animal products. Inconvenient but indisputable facts remind us that raising meat is a wasteful way to produce calories, however closely such husbandry weaves through our culinary heritage; even local, grass-fed, traditionally-tended cows need a big stretch of field and long span of time—time during which they consume energy and emit chemicals—in order to reach steak-readiness. To redirect resources into edible grains, legumes, and vegetables is to decrease climate-changing pollution while increasing both the health and quantity of available nutrition. Critics argue that certain environments support only animals or that certain sustainable farming practices depend on livestock: certainly, the most sensible use of the earth’s resources probably includes some harvesting of flesh. But the reasonable amounts dictate much less of that flesh than the 200-plus pounds per person per year that Americans consume. That is more than twice the global average, as Roberts points out; contrast India, in which the yearly meat ration is about 12 pounds and an estimated fifth of the population undernourished, and one faces a picture of gluttony more basic than any indictment of American industry. Or simply reflect that an eighth of American households are food insecure. Hunger will always be a problem of politics as much as of supply, but those politics will always in turn be influenced by consumption patterns. A vow to eat lower on the food chain lacks the satisfaction of a locavore label while nonetheless mattering more to localities everywhere.

Less meat is an old proposition, though, which means that it is not a popular one. American animal consumption has only risen in the three-plus decades since Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet and the two since John Robbins published Diet for a New America. Reduction efforts battle a strong sense of preference and entitlement bolstered by particularly effective advertising campaigns, in which mustached celebrities and Copland’s music push animal products as a medical or national duty. Not to mention a governmental food pyramid with misguided labels for “meat” and “dairy” categories, which are also a triumph of an industry’s public relations: for example, the National Dairy Council and National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board spent millions on the research and advertising that recently helped to increase the daily dairy recommendation—even though milk remains far from medically necessary and may on balance be harmful to many. Still, the fewer-animal-products position may have a second chance yet to get popular, since it was recently taken up by Mark Bittman, the well-known New York Times writer; he begins his book Food Matters with the premise that decreasing meat, eggs, and dairy matters most. Bittman frames this culturally revolutionary argument, moreover, with a culturally accessible particularity. Though he speaks forcefully about planetary impacts and industrial practices, he does not pay much attention to global sociology, and he includes his own first-person journey toward better cholesterol, smoother sleep, lower blood sugar, and smaller size. One should reduce meat, he tells his readers, not just for environmental virtue but also for individual health—as well as an unmentioned but obvious measure of individual vanity. “Lose weight, heal the planet,” the book promises, the two motivations seemingly equal.

A focus on health is unassailable, since the shifting welter of nutritional epidemiology shows vegetarians to be on the whole better off than meat eaters. Bittman’s approach, though, seems not just accurate about general food science but also indicative of American food talk. We want to hear about personal choices, and we want to know how they shape us personally—especially how they might help us to a thinner shape. We ask what we should put on our plates rather than what we should write to our congresspeople. Marion Nestle thus followed Food Politics and Safe Food, masterful explications that recommend “political commitment,” with a book called What to Eat—spurred, she says in the introduction, by endless questions from readers about “what affects them.” Pollan, too, followed The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a book of the same sort of answers, even though the rare criticisms of Dilemma wanted more politics or economics. Both What to Eat and In Defense of Food offer valuable advice with effects both political and personal; we really do “vote with our forks,” as Pollan says, or practice Nestle’s “democracy in action” at dinner. Small-scale actions add up, as Bittman rightly emphasizes. Plus, one can more easily cast a ballot for organic broccoli at a local cash register than effect an opposition to the farm bill in a session of Congress. Yet it is nonetheless a little odd to pass from Pollan’s complex indictments of industry to his simple advice that readers eat meals “at a table”; the lack of a sustainable food culture suddenly seems less like a public dilemma than an individual deficiency. It can therefore be addressed through the self-governing force of a single, pithy commandment: Bittman’s plainspoken “vegan until six,” Pollan’s haiku-ish “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Nestle’s slightly less wieldy “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”

Such personal counsel may lead in the right direction with dubious baggage; just as pernicious as political indifference may be a subtle denunciation of those who lack self-governance. Consider the fervor over America’s obesity “epidemic,” a “disease” affecting poor and minority citizens disproportionately. It does not take much to discern that food companies encourage lower-income malnutrition when they make the least healthy energy the cheapest to buy. Five hundred calories from a “dollar menu” cost less than 500 calories of fresh vegetables while providing what looks and feels like dinner; this meal, moreover, requires no skills, tools, appliances, or time to prepare. Which would you choose if you were a cash-strapped worker leaving a long shift at a minimum-wage job and heading home to an apartment where utilities may or may not be functional? That is, if you even have the choice of vegetables; the poorest areas, especially the poorest urban areas, tend to be those with the fewest groceries and the highest density of fast- and convenience-food outlets. In one of the more calmly harrowing parts of Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne describes what these “food deserts” mean when he narrates the three-hours-plus bus journey of one city mother who wishes to buy some iceberg lettuce and apples. It may be more effective, as well as more reasonable, to address such environmental pressures rather than to stress individual willpower: a recent experiment in France, as reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, shows that successful reversal of childhood obesity comes when everyone in a community feels involved and accountable. In America, by contrast, public health often seems to mean a discussion of other people’s bad choices.

The assumed “bad” of those choices, too, bears some examination, since denunciation of obesity bespeaks more than medical concern. Extreme overweight threatens the human body, certainly, as does extreme undernourishment; a diet of refined sugars and saturated fats will probably increase health problems as it also, most likely, enlarges one’s waistline; and the statistics on diabetes in America are indisputably dire. Yet a knee-jerk equivalence of plumper figures and poorer chances neglects good evidence that people of many different sizes, including some in the “overweight” band of the charts, can exist in excellent health through a long existence. Books by Paul Campos, Barry Glassner, Gina Kolata, and J. Eric Oliver collect this data, along with important reminders about the genetic determinations of body mass; sociological studies by Abigail C. Saguy, meanwhile, demonstrate that the discriminatory emphases of much obesity reporting put the topic closer to “moral panic” than measured policy. It seems worthwhile to consider that even those BMI tables prophesying an overweight apocalypse, as well as diagnosing NBA stars as obese, are evolving documents reflecting compromise and presuppositions as well as candor and proof. History recommends this caution not only with dire weight predictions of decades past but also with old stories of skewed nutritional advice: in his accounts of American food, for instance, Harvey Levenstein describes how early-twentieth-century “malnutrition scares” coincidentally found immigrants’ food choices to be most at fault. Cuisine has always divided the few from the many.

We would do well to distrust the tendency, therefore, not only in the attention to obesity but also in the general concern with sustainable eating—which has often been reasonably taken as a badge of elitism. Advocates are quick with the defense: yes, it may cost more now to buy the organic or local stuff, but such a diet will save money on medical expenses later, and the difference in price and quality will encourage healthy reductions in portion size. “Pay more, eat less,” Pollan explains. This advice, however, may seem useless to those who already pay more for necessities than they can afford, and other writers do not match Pollan’s sensitivity to the “shameful” fact of poverty. In a New York Times article last year, Alice Waters asserted that Americans could buy better groceries if they sacrificed their “third pair of Nike shoes”—clarifying her audience, perhaps, if not expanding its socioeconomic range. Other advocates beg similar questions when they describe sustainable foods as more economical; Kingsolver, for example, totals her family’s grocery bills near the end of her book and concludes that locavore habits are highly thrifty. Her family managed that thrift by knowing or learning how to plant, weed, butcher, preserve, and cook as they reaped the benefits of a root cellar, second freezer, bread maker, food dryer, ice-cream machine, “curing shed,” and outdoor oven—not to mention the land for their garden. Moreover, the simple cost of carrots or Cuisinarts or cheese-making classes does not address the subtler calculation of spent time: time to find and shop for local and organic products, that is, and to research recipes and techniques that use what is available, and to prepare dishes from scratch, pack leftovers, clean up afterwards. Dining sustainably demands repeated unpaid effort; it therefore presumes a schedule as well as a budget with discretionary spending.

Or it presumes a person whose schedule comprises nothing other than repeated unpaid effort: a homemaker, in other words, and a figure long assumed to be female. This obvious fact seems worth stating if only because the topic of gender seems the largest silence in all of our talk about food. Several food writers do point out that American women spend less time on food preparation—from about 13 hours a week in 1965 to about a quarter of that today—as they make up a greater share of the paid workforce. Few, though, consider adequately the cause of these changes: not just a regrettable slide in real wages, demanding two earners to make many budgets’ ends meet, but also a welcome rise in real opportunities, allowing women to choose roles beyond the kitchen and family room. That is, the women-cooking-less trend probably constitutes a progress that cannot or should not be altered. How do we therefore make sure that someone in each household remains willing and able to fix a decent meal? Bittman argues that men will cook more, and they are slowly doing so—yet a 2008 study concluded that women still prepare about 78 percent of homemade dinners, and American women still do more than twice as many hours of housework overall as men. Discussions of ethical eating need to address such statistics, as well as the policies and prejudices that they adumbrate. Otherwise, the quest for a food culture can veer too closely toward an indulgence of reactionary chauvinism; after all, as Pollan quips at the start of In Defense of Food, food culture is “really just a fancy word for your mother.” (It still is, for many of the mother-country cuisines that we envy; only one in ten Frenchmen manages the family meal preparation.) Our national hunger for a local and organic apple pie should be more than a yearning for a mom at home to bake it.

A glance at the past, again, might provide other options. Kingsolver regrets that women of her generation “gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life” and “received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable.” But the gains and losses of postwar feminism do not seem so clear-cut. Laura Shapiro, whose histories of women and cooking in America are as indispensably researched and lucidly written as Pollan’s books, shows that the picture of stay-at-home cook was largely mythic even when Kingsolver was born in the 1950s, more useful in marketing a cake mix than describing a country. Many wives and mothers were already scribbling their grocery lists on office timesheets, and most were already trying to manage their nurturing routines in a smaller measure or faster pace: that effort lasts straight from the midcentury popularity of Poppy Cannon, author of an “Eat and Run” column and The Can-Opener Cookbook, to the current ubiquity of Rachel Ray, host of 30 Minute Meals and writer of Every Day convenience. Shapiro’s work and others’ also suggest an interesting paradox, however: it was among such pressures that sustainable eating took root. The decades that witnessed a gender revolution also saw the start of a food renaissance—in America’s first attempts to master the art of French cooking, for instance, and then its first inklings of a California cuisine, in an initial curiosity at organic agriculture or a maiden expedition to a Williams-Sonoma store. The strains of elite gastronomy that led to today’s “foodies,” in an historical narrative that David Kamp tells in The United States of Arugula, put new emphasis on kitchen arts at just the time that women were leaving the kitchen. One could see this as a backlash—cooking must be deemed complicated or privileged so as to seem worthy of an educated woman’s time. (Betty Fussell’s lively and furious memoir, My Kitchen Wars, supports such a thesis.) But one could also regard this as an opportunity—cooking can be separated from traditional roles and freshly assessed. The second view regards our perennially mother-less, culture-less condition as a continual chance for real improvements rather than an historical exile from imagined satisfactions.

Of course, industry can easily prop up the imaginings instead, especially when it hawks greater convenience as traditional fulfillment. Swanson’s first TV dinner allowed the 1950s homemaker to serve up an aluminum-airplane-tray square of Thanksgiving turkey. The food industry can exploit the desire for improvement, too, especially when it promotes greater processing as healthy or progressive. Carnation’s “Instant Breakfast Essentials” invokes “clinical evidence” to prove to the twenty-first-century homemaker just how essential its breakfast is. Shapiro’s Perfection Salad provides a genealogy for this latter type of marketing through the fascinating history of American “domestic science” at the turn of the twentieth century—another moment when the perceived emancipation of women accompanied a distinct complication of cooking. Since equality had been achieved, women should apply their autonomy in work “to which their femininity best adapts them,” as one female professor described the “third phase” of feminism she perceived in 1898; this feminine labor meant housework, naturally, and cooking above all. But the homemaker’s tasks were to be thoroughly modernized through the scientific, rationalized techniques worthy of a liberated era. This approach supported the adoption of standard measurements and an attention to food health while also leading to the acceptance of standardized cheese products and a vulnerability to health claims—to the “nutritionism,” as Pollan calls it in an adaptation of Gyorgy Scrinis, that now fortifies white bread with the very vitamins its processing took out. As more attention to food, these days, seems to lead to worse eating, Shapiro’s empathetic analysis of an earlier era’s mistakes helps to define more clearly the contemporary self-defeat.

It also helps us to imagine a less futile way forward. Industrial food may not be eradicated through trickle-down taste, as Kamp argues—by gourmands’ good habits catching on more broadly. But it may be enfeebled by an emphasis on taste in general, as Shapiro implies—by a focus on flavor gradually shifting consensus. Taste, Shapiro explains, is exactly what turn-of-the century gastronomy sought to eliminate when it pursued its goal of “[c]ontaining and controlling food”: meals should be nutritive, hygienic, and attractive, this school of thought advised, and cooks should be knowledgeable, thrifty, and efficient, but the experience of eating was safely beside the point. (Students at the famous BostonCookingSchool, in fact, were not allowed to consume the dishes they prepared.) Harvey Levenstein describes the same trend more broadly in his own culinary history of the early century. A nation was thereby taught to distrust the sensual intelligence that would walk away from a salad of baked beans and whipped cream—or that might today turn back from a carton of “yogurt with fiber” or a package of “turkey bacon.” One does not need to research the manufacture of maltodextrin or the method of “mechanical separation” to suspect that these products might be less than healthy or sustainable. If domestic science and agricultural industry both demonstrate a marked perversity toward ingredients, better eating might begin with respecting the physical stuff we consume. Such physicality has long been associated with the feminine, certainly, and the link grants poignancy to those feminists who, in Shapiro’s summation, chose “food as a means of transcending the body.” To unknot the equation of womanly and worldly, though, and to regard the resulting confusion as a chance for good choices, may allow one to address the facts of the body without vainly aiming for mastery.

The effort boils down to a philosophy of materialism and a sociology of cooking. The two seem continuous, almost, since cooking is essential to the canny physicality that brands us as a species; Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, even pinpoints the transformations of cookery as the adaptation allowing homo sapiens to thrive. However removed is the contemporary stovetop from the prehistoric flame, one still enters the kitchen in order to make inhuman substance humanly palatable, and one still does so through a tricky combination of humility and power —accepting exactly what each thing is before exploiting exactly how much each can be made to do. When Lionel Trilling describes Willa Cather’s “elaborate fuss” about “cuisine,” for example, he recognizes a materialist effort by which the “world, some tiny part of it, could be made to serve human ends.” Trilling points out, however, that Cather’s “attachment to things” seems fundamentally unnatural to Americans, “so very European”; Americans, by contrast, strive to sublimate material experience in ethereal purpose. These days, when that impulse supports a rigorously purposive sustenance bent on all the wrong abstractions, one could well argue against any attention to food: in a recent essay, for instance, Marc Greif describes the contemporary ethics of eating as a benighted evasion of mortality. Humanity’s highest goal, Greif argues, should be other and better than “monitoring our biological lives.” His bracing discussion, though, passes over Cather’s sort of care, a physical awareness that is neither death-resisting nor self-delusional and that seeks less to preserve “bodily perfection” than to accept bodily experience. Cather’s meaning-making, applied now, could even provide the culture that also seems “so very European”—while resisting the attendant dangers of small-c conservatism. No one needs another study on the benefits of the family dinner table or another lament for its supposed—and probably fallacious—demise. But many people, as they manage many different sorts of households and meal plans, would like to feel that feeding is more than functional. Human progress charts our journey away from biological limits, as Greif contends, but also sustains our appreciation for basic conditions.

All of which reflection still feels awfully remote from the six p.m. stress of fixing something to eat. Better to advocate subsidized cooking classes, perhaps—along with an expansion of programs that bring local produce to all and an increase in minimum wages so that strapped workers will have a bit more time and money to spend on their meals. These important specifics, however, could and should join a more conceptual shift, a materialist attention as applicable in our talking and thinking about food as in our preparing and partaking of it. Such a focus is egalitarian, possible in the bite of a lettuce leaf as well as the bouquet of a syrah; it is simple, emphasizing the fragrance of coffee as much as the flavors of caviar; and it is general, accommodating those with no further time to spend as well as those who wish to invest more effort. It is open, refusing to prescribe formulas or effects. Yet it is also, importantly, always instructive, leading ordinary eaters to expansive convictions: to a dissatisfaction with the sweet-and-salt uniformity of mass-produced items, perhaps, as well as a balanced reflection on the contradictions of “natural flavor.” To an informed assessment of transgenic research and applications. To an awareness of the tragedy of hunger and a rejection of the truism that being thin is the goal of eating well. (A culture of respect for physicality is not one in which Us magazine would recommend that dieters pour water or salt on ice cream to prevent themselves from consuming it—and this at a time when Haitians were rioting for rice.) This material appreciation can even lead to political actions—a letter about the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program or a signature on a trade petition or a comment about a GMO labeling bill—while regarding such action as vital to firsthand experience.

A materialist emphasis, that is, refuses to define food as any sort of piety, whether the dogma supported be public or private: eating is neither a gift to the general welfare nor a conceit of personal virtue. The result, though, is not just a rebellion against the culinary scriptures that Glassner all too easily scorns in The Gospel of Food. Rather, food might be seen as an individual pleasure that is also a universal privilege—a good that confounds familiar contrasts of work and leisure, requirements and luxuries, altruism and hedonism, profit and waste. When Carlo Petrini emphasizes this same “right to pleasure” in Slow Food Nation, he articulates its most vital enfranchisement even as he might seem to ignore its more particular goals. This is precisely why gustatory joy should be cultivated beyond Petrini’s very old-fashioned sense of “heritage”—which would praise a woman’s “grace” through her skill with salad greens. The pleasure of food does and should remain implicitly diverse and democratic. Shapiro celebrates this chance, for example, in her gracefully analytical biography of Julia Child, who proved that one could acquire all the culture one wanted through nothing more complicated than determination and delight. “Cooking was fun for Julia,” Shapiro explains, but this “fun didn’t mean frivolity.” Food was an everyday discipline, gift, and self-development as well as satisfaction. Even Julie Powell, who writes a frustratingly superficial account of her year cooking every entry in Child’s tome, suspects this essence when she picks “joy” as Child’s most important quality—and the generous presence of that emotion, amid the strenuous demands of an acquired and finicky technique, makes Mastering the Art of French Cooking a very American cookbook. It might still hit us where we live.

So could other books and lives slightly less anachronistic in their specifics. In the recent Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, for example, the English food writer Fuchsia Dunlop narrates her culinary exploration of China: like Child, who shouldered her way into a professional Parisian cooking course for ex-GIs, Dunlop found a way to join classes at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine that should have been doubly closed to her as a female foreigner. Like Child, too, she later used this education to write detailed cookbooks of authentic recipes. Like Child, though, Dunlop decided to learn an alien cuisine from scratch for no other reason than that she loved to eat it. Much of the satisfaction in Shark’s Fin comes from this ardor: as readers accompany Dunlop through meals of dogs, crabs, and snakes, pig’s ear, rabbit brains, and fish eyeballs, they can share her wonder at the range of textures and flavors the world contains. Readers can also discover how this rapacity brings attendant questions that stretch from the ethnographic to the environmental. Dunlop must interpret a history of imperial hedonism, confront a recent past of mass starvation, and debate the present dilemmas of rapid economic expansion; to eat with gusto, it turns out, is to effect constant self-defining judgments. Indeed, only such efforts preserve Dunlop’s appetite. Ultimately, then, her book is believable in its convictions because it is so frank in its cravings: she begins with trusting one’s senses and ends with testing one’s beliefs. The same process can delight and challenge us daily, even if our own pleasures never venture much beyond sardines and paprika. It can keep our changing food talk, as well as our changing food culture, honest, ethical, and interesting.