The Meaning of Food

Seth Godin wanted to know:

What’s the deal with brown rice? How do people become so attached to the social implications of food that they are willing to starve or suffer from malnutrition rather than take a step backward? The price of rice has soared, yet it seems like people are still demanding white rice, instead of the more nutritious (and almost certainly cheaper) brown rice. How high does the price have to go before people make a different choice?

This is what I emailed him, which seemed to do the trick for him:

I can’t speak specifically to the brown rice vs. white rice, but I can speak to the larger issue. You seem to be saying that people should make food choices in a rational, best-option sort of way, according to best price, availability, nutritional value, etc — but that’s not how cultures view food at all. Along with sex, food is one of the most meaning-laden parts of any culture. Every culture makes a selection from the potentially edible “stuff” in its environment as to what is and what is not “food”, and those foods are further categorized according to factors ranging from class and status to regional and ethnic identity.

Consider this, for example: I live in Las Vegas. We have a lot of hungry people in Las Vegas. A few years ago, there was a locust swarm for several weeks in the summer. Now, locusts are nutritious and, according to many cultures, delicious — they’re a special treat in the Bible, if you recall. Imagine the uproar, though, if Mayor Goodman or then-Governor Guinn arranged a press conference and stepped up to the mike saying “Our hunger problems are solved! Teams of food procurement specialists are right now gathering locusts for distribution to our soup kitchens, food pantries, and Meals on Wheels centers. For the next few weeks, our poor eat like Biblical kings!”

Yeah, right. Locusts aren’t food in our culture — like dogs, horses, and parrots (and, I can’t help but mentioning, people).

Then there’s the question of status and meaning — what does the food you eat say about who you are? In a film I use in my classes, _People Like Us_, there’s a scene in a food pantry where the manager asks a shopper if she’d like to try some of the organic sourdough that the food pantry gets by the case and can’t get rid of. The look on her face is priceless — he might have asked her if she’d like to sell her womb to raise money to provide hearing aids to the rich. Remember, everything at the food pantry is *free* — but the organic sourdough is “fancy” food, too crusty, too non-pre-sliced, too hoity-toity for this woman to take home to her hungry family.

I don’t know where the breaking point is. At some point in the starvation chain, of course, people will eat whatever’s put in front of them. Bugs, live rodents, even, yes, human flesh. But war, famine, environmental disaster, and other cataclysmic events have rarely been enough to cause anything more than a short, non-systemic turn to substitutes, even when a long-term switch might be better in dozens of ways. After all, we humans eat so that we can make meaning, not the other way around.

I’m not entirely happy with that last line; what I mean is that humans are meaning-making creatures, and eating sustains us so we can do more meaning-making. In any case, Godin quoted the last paragraph in his post and added:

To which I add: If people near starvation are willing to make choices based on self-esteem, I wonder what that says about those customers you think are focused only on the lowest price?

I’m not sure I agree with that, actually — it’s not just self-esteem at play, here. There are things that we simply don’t consider as food, no matter how high or low our self-esteem is. The meaning that we make of and with food is far more complex than simply an individual’s self-esteem!

9 comments to The Meaning of Food

  • Anonymous

    Kosher restrictions were
    Kosher restrictions were never about hygiene. THere are tons of foods that can kill you that are perfectly kosher — including beef (e. coli) and any poisonous plant you can imagine.

    But kosher rules mean you’re Jewish — even today. Many Jews, even not particularly observant ones, find the taste or idea of shellfish disgusting, That’s meaning.

    There is not a single culture in the world that makes use of all the sources of “protein, fat, carbohydrate” in its environment. Every culture defines some sort of perfectly edible, in the abstract sense, food as “not food”. That’s meaning.

    Superstition is “my neighbor’s religion” — that is, whatever others do that we don’t is easily branded and dismissed as superstition. No culture does (or does not do) anything because they’re too stupid to figure out “the right thing”. That’s meaning, too.

  • Anonymous

    I live in Thailand… I’ve
    I live in Thailand… I’ve eaten more white rice than any American on the planet in almost four years of living here. Thai Jasmine Rice is amazing. It’s fragrant, it’s light tasting. You can eat anything with it and it’s complimented by the food… however, brown rice tastes brown. Thais’ haven’t eaten brown rice for many decades.

    It’s like – why doesn’t Italy switch to brown bread?

    Why don’t Americans stop eating white bread? Brown bread is more nutritious.

    It TASTES different.

    Obviously there is still a choice. They have white rice to eat… if it’s all gone – they’d eat brown rice. Like Americans would eat brown bread.

    Am I making any sense to anyone?

    LOL. It’s late…

  • Anonymous

    Reminds me of the Vikings of
    Reminds me of the Vikings of Greenland.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you. The food
    I agree with you. The food choice is not based on self-esteem. There are many psychological and physiological factors as well as personal history.

  • Anonymous

    I would disagree with your
    I would disagree with your characterization of human taboos and beliefs about food as being or having “meaning”. Some mean something , such as the biblical and quoranic admonishments against eating pork, to prevent “unclean” schistosomiasis. Since the disease has largely been eliminated in modern pork factories, the taboo is now just another food superstition, like most food beliefs, from rhino horn fetishes, to red wine with red meat. As the menu in most of China indicates, if it has protein, fat, carbohydrate, it’s edible. There may be some ritual superstition to be followed, ala Martha Stewart or Chef Elmo, but then it’s chow time.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, brown rice is more expensive than white rice; this has been my experience throughout my time in Portugal, Scotland, and the United States. Why? Economic rational. Brown rice is less labor intensive, but there is less of it on the global market. Result: prices can be kept high.

  • I liked this article. What I find also very interesting is how food has become more mobile
    . There’s a new strata of mobile bohemian (mobo) that is eating on the run. Why have a dinner of say pizza, when you can have pizza, eggrolls, and frozen yogurt? All within reach. All close and reachable. You have to be mobile. But, our food culture not supports curb service and food to go. See: Everything’s To Go

    I say this because I’ve been elbow deep in fryers (so to speak) for a while. Just recently been swept up by the whole incredible reach of the mobo culture.

    Anyway, your thoughts?

    -JJ

  • In asian country we eat dog meat and drink horse’s milk. Sometimes we eat grubs too. Food that people eat depends on which plants can grow in the area or which animals are living there.

  • The problem is that without core principals the meaning of food and eating has no meaning. For example being mostly vegan, I eat by principal not just for any reason. As a society we give no thoughts or personal responsibility to our eating other than what tastes good or what is being served in a particular social setting. There for without a core spiritual moral principal eating food like any other activity in life has no meaning.

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