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Posts tagged ‘counterculture’

Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Bananas

This term a colleague and I are teaching a course on the 1960s to our third-year students (who are uniformly lovely – henceforth I shall only teach third-year students, Head of Department-willing). I’ve spent the past two lectures on the counter-cuisine, a movement located mainly in California from around 1966 onwards. Aside from the loonier fringes represented by the Diggers and some members of the back-to-the-land movement, the most durable remnant of the food counterculture was the co-operative movement. Over five thousand buying clubs and co-operative groceries were established between 1969 and 1979. Warren Belasco explains:

Although many consumers flocked to these hip stores just for the cheaper, healthier food, co-op organisers frequently had a more ambitious agenda: using socialised food distribution as a starting point, they hoped to establish a decentralised, democratic, alternative economic network that would sustain an oppositional culture and eventually subvert the wider society.

One woman, who was a member of the West Concord Food and Friendship Co-Op remembers:

Every week we picked up our orders of whole grains, nuts, oils, dried fruits, seeds, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter, bringing our own re-used quart and gallon jars and plastic containers. When it was our turn to place and break down the order we collated all the previous week’s orders, placed the order with NEFCO, the New England Federation of Cooperatives, and then divided up the bulk goods into boxes for each member. The food was first rate: gallon jars of organic yogurt with the cream on top, vats of tofu in pound blocks bought directly from Boston’s Chinatown, and 10-pound blocks of sharp cheddar cheese from the Cabot dairy cooperative in Vermont – for we purchased from producer cooperatives whenever possible.

One of the things which struck me as I wrote these lectures was how similar the present food revolution – whatever that may be – is to the counter-cuisine: as the Diggers distributed free food at Golden Gate Park in 1966, using food discarded by supermarkets, so organisations like This is Rubbish raise awareness about food waste by ‘skipping’ – collecting fresh produce past its sell-by date and then serving it in free feasts. The amazing People’s Supermarket provides an alternative to supermarkets by being run along co-operative lines.

As the co-operatives of the 1960s went out of their way to support local producers – as Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse (founded in 1971) bases its menus on what local organic farmers are harvesting – so now eating ‘locally’ is seen as one of the best ways of eating responsibly and sustainably. ‘Locavorism’ offers an alternative to a globalised, industrialised food system which stocks supermarkets with strawberries – flown halfway across the world – in the middle of winter.

But our food supply has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in the 1870s, improvements in transportation meant that Canadian and American wheat fed Europe during one of the worst harvest failures of that century. But the excitement many felt during the twentieth century at the prospect of relatively cheap pineapples and papaya grown abroad and flown and shipped to Western supermarkets, has been replaced by a deep concern about the environmental cost of unseasonal eating, and the power of Big Food.

There is another reason to think twice about food shipped in from abroad: its political cost.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Shaxon’s eye-poppingly good Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011). He argues that tax havens – which the International Monetary Fund estimates to hold more than a third of the world’s GDP on their balance sheets – have fundamentally undermined the world’s economic system. Not only has the legitimate, on-shore financial system become progressively deregulated to compete with offshore – helping to cause the 2008 crash – but tax avoidance keeps poor nations reliant on aid. He explains:

Offshore business is, at heart, about artificially manipulating paper trails of money across borders. To get an idea of how artificial it can be, consider the banana.

Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl. The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain. The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you.

So far, so obvious. But then it becomes more interesting:

The second route – the accountants’ paper trail – is more round-about. When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the final profits generated, from a tax point of view? In Honduras? In the British supermarket? In the multinational’s US head office? How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs? Nobody can say for sure. So the accountant can, more or less, make it up. They might, for example, advise the banana company to run its purchasing network from the Cayman Islands and run its financial services out of Luxembourg. The multinational might locate the company brand in Ireland; its shipping arm in the Isle of Man; ‘management expertise’ in Jersey and its insurance subsidy in Bermuda.

Say the Luxembourg financing subsidiary now lends money to the Honduras subsidiary and charges interest at $20 million per year. The Honduran subsidiary deducts this sum from its local profits, cutting or wiping them out (and its tax bill). The Luxembourg’s subsidiary’s $20 million in extra income, however, is only taxed at Luxembourg’s ultra-low tax haven rate. With a wave of an accountant’s wand, a hefty tax bill has disappeared, and capital has shifted offshore.

What are the implications of this? Most importantly, our banana multinational has managed to avoid paying the Honduran government – or indeed any government – any tax.

About two-thirds of global cross-border world trade happens inside multinational corporations. Developing countries lose an estimated $160 billion each year just to corporate trade mispricing of this kind. That much spent on health-care, Christian Aid reckons, could save the lives of 1,000 under-five children per day.

In 2006, the world’s three biggest banana companies, Del Monte, Dole, and Chiquita, paid only $235,000 tax between them – despite combined profits of nearly $750 million.

I’m sure that Shaxon chose deliberately to use Honduras as an example. Until 1970, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company. Fans of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have inkling about the United Fruit Company’s murky past:

The gringos…built a separate town across the railroad tracks with streets lined with palm trees…. The section was surrounded by a metal fence topped with a band of electrified chicken wire which during the cool summer mornings would be black with roasted swallows. No one knew yet what they were after, or whether they were actually nothing but philanthropists, and they had already caused a colossal disturbance…. Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of the harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of the town, behind the cemetery.

The coming of the Americans – all of them employees of an unnamed banana company – is the cause of the ‘events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow’, chief of which is a massacre of striking workers. The employees of the banana company decide to down tools because of low pay and their appalling working conditions – something justified by the ‘mournful lawyers’ of the banana company on the grounds that

the banana company did not have, never had had, and never would have any workers in its service because they were all hired on a temporary and occasional basis. …it was established and set down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist.

Caught in this ‘hermeneutical delirium’, the striking workers are at the mercy of the banana company and the army, sent to quell their action. The strike ends with a massacre in the town square, when soldiers turn their automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.

This is a description of a real event, the massacre de las bananerasthe banana massacre – in Ciénaga, Colombia, on 6 December 1928. Garcia Marquez’s ‘banana company’ was the United Fruit Company, which hired labour only through local agents to avoid having to comply with Colombia’s labour laws. When Colombian workers demanded better conditions and formalised contracts, their strike became the biggest in Colombian history, and came to an end when the Colombian army opened fire on peaceful protestors in Ciénaga.

The term ‘banana republic’ was coined by O. Henry in his anthology Cabbages and Kings (1904) in his account of his brief stay in Honduras – on the run from an embezzling charge – to describe a country run for the profit of a small elite of politicians and businessmen. The business in question was the United Fruit Company – and the term could be used to describe most of the Latin American countries in which United Fruit operated.

Founded in 1909, United Fruit emerged as the largest North American banana importer during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its success was due partly to its strategy of manipulating governments into allowing it to pursue its interests, mainly by excluding all other opposition. It created monopolies by paying local producers higher prices than its competitors – and then dropped these prices to well below acceptable levels once the rivals had left the market, often impoverishing its suppliers.

When United Fruit began cultivating its own plantations during the 1930s, it did so across Latin America. If one of its divisions succumbed to Panama disease (Fusarium cubens), the company simply abandoned it – and those workers – and destroyed all the infrastructure which would have allowed other companies to begin farming there again once the plants were rid of the fungus.

To top this, the company was not averse to manipulating governments through bribery and intimidation, and sponsoring the odd coup d’état. United Fruit lobbied hard for the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, when the left-leaning Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán – who had expropriated land claimed by the company – was replaced by the rightwinger Carlos Castillo Armas.

As Pablo Neruda wrote in his poem ‘La United Fruit Co.’ (1950):

When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptised these countries
Banana Republics,
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns,
encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:

It seems that Chiquita still engages in questionable practises, other than doing its best not to pay tax. An investigation into Chiquita’s business dealings in Latin America during the late nineties alleged that the company bribed officials, used dangerous pesticides, employed its workers in appalling conditions, and illegally maintained a monopoly on banana production.

In 2003, Chiquita admitted to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitary group the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which has been listed as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. The company also allegedly provided AK-47s to the group. Chiquita said that the payments were to protect its workers, but the Colombian authorities reject this, arguing that they were meant to allow Chiquita to continue producing bananas and to discourage labour unrest. It’s difficult to believe Chiquita’s claims as it becomes clear that nearly all of the victims of the AUC were Colombian workers.

So what are earnest locavores to do? They could stop buying bananas altogether, along with other imported produce. I have mixed feelings about this. I really like being able to support farmers in Kenya. We know that the distance that food travels between producer and plate is not necessarily linked to its impact on the environment: a ready meal made in a local factory may have a bigger carbon footprint than string beans grown in Tanzania. Another alternative would be to buy certified, Fair Trade products.

But, even so, Fair Trade can have only a limited impact. The problem with Fair Trade is that it asks consumers – those at the end of the food chain – to make the choices which will change a whole food system. This, particularly during a recession, is absolutely impossible. For real change to happen, we need a fundamental reform of both political and economic systems:

Fair trade alone cannot address the core problem of excessively concentrated markets in which a handful of overpowerful transnational corporations dictate terms of trade and suck profits up into their own coffers.

What is needed for really fair trade is a more equitable distribution of the money in the chain. That will only be achieved with a shift in power which requires political action.

Which is why, oddly, getting Chiquita to pay its taxes is the first step in creating a better and fairer food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Warren Belasco, Review of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture by Craig Cox, The Journal of American History, vol. 82, no. 2 (Sep., 1995), pp. 853-854.

Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Enforcing Business Contracts in South America: The United Fruit Company and Colombian Banana Planters in the Twentieth Century,’ The Business History Review, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 181-212.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (London: Penguin, [1967] 1973).

Mark Moberg, ‘Crown Colony as Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company in British Honduras, 1900-1920,’ Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28, no. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 357-381.

Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, revised ed. (London: Vintage, 2012).

Other sources:

Anthony Ashbolt, ‘From Haight-Ashbury to Soulful Socialism: Culture and Politics in the Movement,’ AJAS, vol. 1, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 28-38.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966-1988, revised ed. (London: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Andrew Kirk, ‘Appropriating Technology: The Whole Earth Catalog and Counterculture Environmental Politics,’ Environmental History, vol. 6, no. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 374-394.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 17.08.2010

A history of El Bulli.

Oh dear – it would seem that Zabar’s lobster salad doesn’t contain any…lobster.

Duck hearts on toast.

On food, design, politics, and the counterculture in 1960s San Francisco.

Hamburgers from McDonald’s don’t age….

On cooking in a small kitchen.

The Royal Academy has a new restaurant.

How utterly bizarre: a restaurant in the Ukraine which serves only pork fat moulded in a variety of forms (including Van Gogh’s ear and Marilyn Monroe’s lips).

A history of milk.

‘cookery as the counterfeiter’s art: dietary restrictions reframed as sensory surrogates’ – a dinner for vegetarians and omnivores in which it’s impossible to tell meaty and non-meaty dishes apart.

How drought becomes famine.

The science of beer.

Temptations of the Flesh

I’ve had an explosively sneezy cold this week, but with bed rest and pain killers to help me to sleep, I’m almost well again. (Unfortunately, my Head of Department remains unconvinced by my theory that I’ve been suffering from a bad allergy to undergraduate lecturing.) I really don’t see the point of taking anti-cold medication. It certainly won’t get rid of the bug, and the only time I’ve ever taken tablets for a cold – just before a long flight home from Paris – I hallucinated so badly that I thought it best never to repeat the experience. Taking it easy, avoiding dehydration, and being generally sensible seem to work every time. I’ve also had a range of advice about what I should eat: vitamin C supplements, garlic, zinc, lemon, and ginger. I’ve managed to consume nearly all of these over the past few days (although not at the same time), and – who knows? – maybe they made a difference.

We know that our diet influences our health. We know that the better we eat, the stronger our immune systems are and the longer we’ll live. It’s for this reason that many seem to believe that it’s possible to eat ourselves well: that we can both prevent and cure illnesses by eating some things, and avoiding others. I was struck forcibly by the strength of this thinking when I saw that Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a recipe book partly because she believed that her father’s eating habits caused the cancer which killed him. No, I am not completely mad, and, yes, I do realise that, at best, Paltrow can be described as a ray of ‘demented sunshine’, but this is an enormously popular and influential woman who really does think that had her father eaten more brown rice, he wouldn’t have had cancer – or, at least, wouldn’t have died from it.

There’s a logic to this thinking: if we eat pure, wholesome food, then, surely, we should be healthy and strong. The problem is that it’s difficult to define what is ‘pure’, ‘wholesome’, and ‘good’ food. However much nutritionists may dress up their work as ‘science’, we don’t know precisely what diet is best for our health. In the past few weeks new studies have demonstrated that drinking eight glasses of water and eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day…will have very little effect on us at all. Oh, and vitamin supplements and probiotics are of dubious value too. It’s certain that we should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and lessen our intake of red meat and saturated fat, but everything else remains guesswork. That study about Omega 3 supplements and children’s brains? It was nonsense. As is the advice sprouted by Patrick Holford. So, no, drinking green tea and eating mung beans and quinoa will not stave off cancer. (Sorry.) The amazing people at Information is Beautiful have provided a helpful visualisation of the relative benefits of dietary supplements (see here for a bigger and pleasingly animated version):


Our ideas around healthy diets have changed over time, and are inflected by a range of factors, including current debates in science and medicine, the interests of industry and food lobbies, and religious belief. In his magnificent study Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (2003), Roy Porter traces a shift in thinking about health and eating during the mid-eighteenth century. He argues that during the early modern period, stoutness and eating heartily – if not in excess – were seen as signs of good health. In Britain, a taste for roast beef was also connected to support for an incipient national ‘English’ consciousness.

But from the 1750s onwards, physical beauty was associated more frequently with slimness. (Compare, for example, portraits by Rubens and Constable.) Enlightenment bodies needed also to be fed in restrained, rational ways. One of the most popular prophets of the new eating orthodoxy was the physician George Cheyne (1673-1743) who based his views on plain, wholesome eating on his own experience of being morbidly obese. In The English Malady (1733) he argued that ‘corpulence produced derangements of the digestive and nervous systems which impaired not only health but mental stability. … Excess of the flesh bred infirmities of the mind.’ Porter explains:

Cheyne’s call to medical moderation was, however, also an expression of a mystical Christian Platonism trained at the emancipation of the spirit – he can thus be thought of as recasting traditional Christian bodily anxieties into physiological and medical idioms. For Cheyne, the flesh was indeed the spirit’s prison house. Excessive flesh encumbered the spirit; burning it off emancipated it.

Following the teachings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, he imagined prelapsarian bodies innocently feeding on ‘Paradisiacal Fruits’. After the Fall, the flesh of the newly carnivorous humans had been subjected to the laws of the corruption of matter. …his works aimed at recovering the purity of the prelapsarian body.

Cheyne recommended a vegetarian diet on the grounds that it most closely resembled that eaten in the Garden of Eden. It was, in other words, the diet of spiritual perfection. Much of the success of his writing was due also to rise of a vegetarian movement in Europe during the eighteenth century. These Enlightenment vegetarians argued that it was cruel to slaughter animals merely for food, and also believed that ‘greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.’

There has long been an association between corpulence and moral or spiritual laxity, and thinness with (self-) discipline. But what Cheyne advocated went further than this: he argued that rational individuals were partly responsible for their own ill-health because they could choose what they ate. Moreover, because he connected eating meat with sinfulness, deciding what to eat was also a moral choice.

Cheyne’s thinking proved to be remarkably durable. In the late nineteenth century, left-leaning social reformers promoted vegetarianism as the best example of ethical consumerism. Vegetarianism was healthy and it did not – they believed – cause the needless sacrifice of animals (although they didn’t address what happened to the bull calves and billy goats produced by lactating cows and nanny goats). In Sheila Rowbotham’s magnificent biography of the immensely influential socialist writer Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), she describes how Carpenter’s dictum of simple living took hold among the members of the Fellowship of the New Life, the forerunner of the Fabian Society. Carpenter agued for simple clothing, simple houses, and simple food:

Carpenter combined his evangelical call for a new lifestyle with an alternative moral economy. This recycled, self-sufficient praxis involved growing your own vegetables, keeping hens and using local not imported grain – American produce was forcing down British farmers’ prices.

But this met with some resistance. The physician and social reformer Havelock Ellis

protested against Carpenter’s advocacy of vegetarianism on the grounds that meat was a  ‘stimulant’. Ellis wanted to know why meat? Why not potatoes? Was not all food a stimulant?

I’m with Ellis on this one.

The food counterculture of the 1960s embraced vegetarianism and an enthusiasm for ‘whole foods’ as a manifestation of a way of living ethically and sustainably. Last week I discussed Melissa Coleman’s memoir of her childhood on her parents’ homestead in rural Maine during the early seventies. Her father, Eliot Coleman, is dubbed the father of the American organic movement, and he fed his growing family mainly from the garden he soon established. They supplemented their diet with bought-in grains, seeds, honey, nut butters, and oils, but were strictly vegetarian. Their role models, Helen and Scott Nearing, were highly critical of immoral ‘flesh eaters’. Their book, Living the Good Life (1954), which became the homesteading Bible, argued that it was possible to feed a family on produce grown organically. Again, the choice of what to eat was a moral one. Eliot and Sue Coleman believed that their diet guaranteed their good health:

Papa often quoted Scott’s sayings, ‘Health insurance is served with every meal.’ As Papa saw it, good food was the secret to longevity and well-being that would save him from the early death of his father. The healthily aging Nearings were living proof that a simple diet was the key.

But, as Melissa Coleman notes, this was not a diet that suited everyone. The family suffered from a lack of Vitamin B, and at times they simply didn’t eat enough. It also didn’t prevent Eliot from developing hyperthyroidism.

His heart seemed to beat too quickly in his chest, and he had a cold he couldn’t kick, despite gallons of rose-hip and raspberry juice. … He tried to make sense of things in his mind. Health insurance, he believed, was on the table at every meal. In other words, the best way to deal with illness was to invest in prevention – eating a good diet that kept the body healthy. … He’d read up on vitamins and minerals, learning which foods were highest in A, B, C, D, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc. He drank rose-hip juice for vitamin C, ate garlic and Echinacea to build immunity, used peppermint and lemon balm tea to soothe the stomach, and used chamomile to calm the nerves, but perhaps all this wasn’t enough.

She concludes: ‘He never thought to question the vegetarian diet espoused by the Nearings.’

I don’t – obviously – want to suggest that vegetarianism is deadly. Rather, my point is that the choices we make about our diets are influenced as much – or even more – by a set of assumptions about morality, our responsibility for our health, and other beliefs as they are by information about the nutritional benefits of food. I am concerned by two aspects of this belief that we are somehow able to eat ourselves better. We need to acknowledge that what we eat will not prevent us from falling ill. Sickness is caused by many things, and although important, diet is not an overriding factor.

Secondly, it mystifies what is actually very simple. Michael Pollan writes:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

This won’t make terribly much money for nutritionists or the food industry, hence their interest in promoting things which, they suggest, will do miraculous things for our health. They almost certainly won’t. Unless you suffer from an ailment which needs to be treated with a special diet, deciding what to eat is not a complicated, mysterious process. No amount of goji berries will make you a healthier, happier, or better person.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Melissa Coleman, This Life is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (New York: Harper, 2011).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin [2003] 2004).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001).

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

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