Our approach to food production and food service is not value neutral. Through the creation of food, from raw ingredients to finished products, and through the giving or serving of food, we express a myriad of mores, social and cultural norms, anxieties, and personal neurosis. Though these webs of interrelated processes may be socially and personally challenging, their examination fosters community awareness and the opportunity to live, produce and consume with greater care and understanding, both socially and personally.

27 January 2011

Why Voluptuous IS NOT a Synonym for Fat, Part I

A man combs the pages of his monthly cooking magazine for appealing recipes.  After making a selection he goes to a very good grocer (for money is not an issue for our aspiring chef) and hand picks his ingredients:  Sinewy stalks of deep green broccoli rabe, lush handfuls of amber brown grains, a lean cut of meat with just a hint of gleaming white fat--  he is, after all, entertaining.  His friend joins him for a glass of carefully selected wine as he precisely measures out the oils for his vinaigrette, gently grills the meat and plates their meal.  Each person has a colorful, balanced plate of a minute piece of meat, three broccoli rabe stalks and a small spoonful of rice.  They sit together and the chef inhales every bite of his food, exclaims that he is very full and pushes away from the table.  His companion eats his way through his plate, and though his stomach is still gnawing at itself, does not ask for, nor is he offered, an additional portion.  They enjoy each other's company, sipping down the bottle of wine, late into the evening, when the guest excuses himself, heads home and eats a second dinner.

Compare that scene with a passage from M.F.K Fisher's The Gastronomical Me:

"In a Hollywood 'bachelor' with a pull-down bed, or on a plane pointed any which way, or even in my own hollow house with death at my shoulder, I can protect myself with that same gastronomic liberty, and eat quietly, calmly, and with a special dignity."

What strikes me from these two scenes is that for Fisher feeding oneself and doing it well is a source of dignity, pride and a means by which to locate and claim herself.  It is an affirmation of her individual, unique, valuable selfhood and a refusal to be ashamed of nourishing that self (in this case with food, though at other times it is with literature, love, or travel).  She eats and drinks with a calm, quiet voluptuousness -- without shame and without hiding behind a PDA or magazine.  (While I too have "mastered" and even enjoy eating alone in public (and in private for that matter) I almost always have a book, magazine or laptop to keep me company.  I have not yet learned to eat in front of others without shame.)

For our aspiring chef, though food is fascinating, beautiful and he is proud of his ability to purchase and prepare expensive ingredients, the enjoyment of food eludes him.  Food is other, alien, dangerous and he feels shame in desiring it (just as he feels shame in many of his desires, whether they are for food, for love, or for the pursuit of activities that he enjoys just because he enjoys them).

It is my contention that our contemporary Western social values normalize and valorize the latter experience and condemn the former.  This condemnation arrives in subtle ways, from the inferior level of service many solo diners experience to the altering definition of words (i.e. voluptuous is not a synonym for fat; voluptuous is 'characterized by the giving of unrestrained pleasure to the senses'), and can be traced to several origins including the Puritan tradition here in the United States.  It has, however, taken on new meaning as our current model encourages the condemnation of all bodily driven sensual experiences while, simultaneously, fosters the commodification of our very definition of self.  The effect of these two messages is to communicate to the individual that he or she is weak for being aware of and succumbing the desires to feed one's mind, body and soul AND that social and personal visibility is only available through the desiring and possessing of commodities.  We preen before others and starve ourselves in shame.  

No comments: