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Posts tagged ‘Living the Good Life’

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).

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

In whose hands?

I am not by nature a joiner. I became a member of the Green Party in the UK mainly to spite Phil Woolas after he made some more than usually daft comments about non-EU immigrants. That the Green Party did exceptionally well in the last general election and seems, to me, to offer the only credible way out of the global recession were pleasing perks of membership, but otherwise I didn’t appreciate being told to toe the party line on a few issues, sugar pill-based quackery homeopathy being one of them. I suppose that I don’t particularly enjoy being told what to think. This is why I’m in academia which is, as a friend put it, the last refuge of the sociopathic.

It’s partly for this reason that I’m fascinated by groups of people who set out, purposefully, to create alternative communities away from mainstream society: people who base these experiments in new living on complex rules for behaviour and thought. It’s something I would never do, and I am curious as to why others find it so attractive. I wrote my MA thesis about the first boarding school for the daughters of the Cape Colony’s Dutch-Afrikaner middle classes in the nineteenth century. This institution was a secluded, strictly evangelical retreat from colonial society for the pupils who lived there, many of whom complained that they found it difficult to return to the habits and routines of normal family life. Mission stations run by societies like the Moravian Brotherhood were similar. There, at places like Genadendal and Elim, residents were required to adhere to strict rules regarding work, dress, and speech.

The best known of these retreats were Robert Owen’s utopian socialist communities in the United States during the 1820s. The first of these, New Harmony, lasted only a few years. But there have been hundreds of similar examples, most of them unsuccessful. It seems that nearly every generation of reformers has a fringe which believes that the best way to reform society is to leave it, and construct a new way of living on its fringes. There are elements of this in the recent Dark Mountain Project founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They argue that the best way to prepare for a post-peak oil world and catastrophic climate change is to retreat, and to learn how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently away from society.

One of the most striking features of these experiments is the primacy they give to food. The cultivation of crops and, less frequently, the care of animals (and it’s interesting, although not surprising, how many alternative communities were vegetarian) were central to life in these societies. Not only was this importance due to practical reasons – before the beginning of the twentieth century, at least, it would have been too expensive to buy in adequate food supplies in rural areas – but for symbolic ones: ‘pure’ food produced by hardworking and hardthinking workers was bound to be better than that grown by exploited wage labourers.

I’ve recently finished reading This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman’s gripping memoir of her early childhood on the homestead established by her father, Eliot Coleman, a man believed by many to be the father of the modern organic movement in the United States. In 1968, Eliot and is wife Sue packed their belongings into a VW van and travelled to rural Maine – five hours from Boston, and three from Portland – to a plot of land on which they intended to build a homestead and grow enough vegetables and fruit for their own consumption. They had been inspired by the experiences of an older generation of ‘homesteaders’, Helen and Scott Nearing. Indeed, the idea of modern homesteading – living entirely self-sufficiently – was popularised by the Nearings’ book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954) in which they described a lifestyle in which was independent from the economy; healthy; and completely ethical. It was a life sustained by work done by their own hands.

The Colemans bought their land from the Nearings, and, using Living the Good Life as their Bible, set about living in accordance to the rules established by the Nearings. Eliot built their wooden cabin himself; they lived without electricity and running water; they cultivated most of their food themselves; and they bought as little as possible from the local shopkeepers. However idyllic this life may have appeared, it was precarious and dependent on backbreaking labour:

That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town – not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on.

They soon realised that complete self-sufficiency was impossible. The Nearings, for all their status as homesteading gurus, bought in a range of luxuries, and the Colemans had to purchase oats and other grains, yeast, seeds, bacteria for making yogurt, and vitamin B supplements for their diet. And the absolute seclusion they enjoyed during their first year or two of homesteading – when Melissa was born – came to an abrupt end as a result of an article in the Washington Post by a sympathetic journalist, and Eliot’s ambitions to spread the gospel about organic gardening. He was already selling the surplus from their garden, and believed that organic methods offered an alternative to the new farming orthodoxy espoused by Nixon’s Secretary for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who advised farmers to plant maize ‘from fence row to fence row’.

Eliot’s increasing renown, his ever longer absences to study and lecture, as well as the numbers of enthusiastic students who came to work on the garden in the summer – often in the nude – put strain on the Colemans’ marriage. And it’s here that one of the main problems of these alternative communities becomes especially apparent. For all their desire not to replicate the power structures of mainstream society, they invariably do. Women continue to undertake the burden of domestic labour. Eliot Coleman worked unbelievably hard – to the extent that he developed hyperthyroidism as a result of stress and exhaustion – but, as a contemporary article on homesteading makes the point, he did the ‘fun’ bit: the growing. When he finished his work in the garden at night, he could rest. Sue, though, was responsible for keeping house and doing laundry without soap, detergent, or appliances. She ground their own flour, made yogurt, sewed and mended their clothes, and bottled, canned, and preserved food to see them through the winter. She had three daughters under the age of seven to care for. Oh, and she ran their vegetable stall too. Her work – invisible and largely unappreciated – was unremitting.

Michelle Nijhuis suggests that one of the reasons why women find homesteading so difficult is because of the absence of labour saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners: without them, otherwise easy chores become difficult, time consuming, and very, very boring. But I’m not so sure about this argument. (Although who am I to disagree? I wouldn’t touch homesteading with a bargepole and she’s a paid-up member of the movement.)

Much of This Life is in Your Hands reminds me of John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning double biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts (2007). Louisa May is now best remembered as the author of Little Women (1868), but during the mid-nineteenth century her father, Bronson, was a well-known and controversial educationalist and philosopher with strong links to the Transcendentalists. He also experimented with living away from society and, like the Colemans, his and his family’s time at Fruitlands, a commune in Massachusetts, ended in disaster. Established in 1843, Fruitlands lasted slightly more than a year, and Bronson was largely responsible for this: he and his small group acolytes planted the fields too late, ran out of money, and constructed a set of rules which actively hindered work on the farm. All animal products and labour were banned, and the members spent as much time raising funds and discussing whether or not they should drink coffee, as they did actually working the land.

Indeed, most of the work was done by Abba Alcott, Bronson’s long-suffering wife. She cared for their four young daughters, cooked, sewed, cleaned, chopped wood, and washed laundry. This was not an unusual lot for a women in nineteenth-century America, but it was made worse by their poverty, and wilful refusal to use ‘luxuries’ – warm clothes, hot water, a greater range of foodstuffs – which would have made the work any easier or, at least, more interesting. And, of course, the point of the commune was that it was meant to be wholly egalitarian. In the end, Abba did the same work – in possibly worse conditions – as women living in nearby Concord.

Towards the end of her memoir, Melissa Coleman describes her mother’s mental breakdown after the drowning of Melissa’s little sister, Heidi. But she makes it clear that this was the trigger for something which had long been developing:

Just that morning the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. It was a humid-hot day, a Saturday near the end of July. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama’s back in Heidi’s old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Skates was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become: Bess and Papa having breakfast together that morning, mud tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry to be washed by hand, Heidi and I running around the small kitchen pulling each other’s hair and screaming.

In a recent post for Grist, Tom Laskawy makes the point that the longer hours worked by Americans – and I think that this is true elsewhere as well – have been sustained by the greater availability of cheap food – food which is not necessarily nutritionally sound, nor ethically produced.         On the other hand, appliances and a greater variety of food available at affordable prices in supermarkets have facilitated women’s greater entry to the workplace in greater numbers. We know, nonetheless, that this is part of a food system which is entirely unsustainable.

So what do we do? I certainly don’t want a retreat into homesteading. I suggest that we take another look at the ways in which we work: both at home and outside it. There is a significant body of work which suggests that a reduction in the numbers of hours we work would not only be good for our and the planet’s wellbeing, but also for the economy. If we had more time to cook and to grow our own food – although within reason – we would have the beginnings of a more stable food system. Importantly, most of the labour performed in the home is still by women and, clearly, men need to share more of it. The burden of ensuring a shift to more sustainable lifestyles cannot be women’s responsibility alone.

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