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Dude Food

A couple of weeks ago Tamar Adler, former chef and editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote an article for the New Yorker in which she politely and neatly eviscerates Anthony Bourdain for leaving ‘a crude hickey’ on America’s ‘food culture’. Although he is probably now better known – at least in the US – for his food-and-travel television series, Bourdain rose to fame, or notoriety, for his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

It is a deeply entertaining, amusing, and often instructive guide to the strange world of restaurants and professional cooking. It explores the ‘personal and institutional perversity that runs fast through the veins of restaurants’. Bourdain details the astonishingly crude language and behaviour of badly paid, sleep deprived chefs in the hot, tiny restaurant kitchens he worked in and, later, oversaw. But it is also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and the politics of how kitchens function.

Although Bourdain and his crew do some pretty repellent things, all this is balanced by the fact that, as Adler notes, Bourdain does ‘not prescribe that life, or condone it.’ Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to kitchens which don’t run the risk of collapsing into anarchy and violence if the chef for one moment ceases swearing at the staff. He admits:

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone – an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I’m not bullying them. I’m visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colours the behaviour of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.

He adds:

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

And that is the issue with Bourdain’s description of the food world: it is overwhelmingly, completely male. The women chefs whom he respects are those who are ‘tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking’ – the ones who go out of their way to fit in to ‘the testosterone-heavy’ world of restaurant kitchens. But, at least in Kitchen Confidential, he acknowledges that there are kitchens where women aren’t expected to put up with being groped, or with their colleagues festooning their stations with pornography. Visiting Scott Bryan’s restaurant Veritas he notices

A tiny young woman working at a corner station, and I made the immediate Neanderthal assumption as I first took in the crew: ‘Extern, maybe from Peter Krump or French Culinary, having a learning experience dishing out veggies.’ I passed right over her as I swept my eyes down the line looking for the heavy hitters. In time I began, peripherally, to become aware of her movements. I looked again, closer this time, and saw that she was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time – all the whole never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances).

She was, in other words, ‘generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better.’ It turned out that she’d been trained by Alain Ducasse.

The problem is that Bourdain loses much of this self-reflection in his later books and series. As he became better known ‘he confused what he’d written about once with the world itself.’ Adler explains:

What Anthony Bourdain does is to bathe everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness. It is the difference between not pulling punches and indiscriminately punching. Bourdain now travels round the world, with a camera crew trailing, to eat food in other countries. On his stops at noodle shops, he turns his anxious libido on his bowl of food: ‘Take me to that place where everything is beautiful.’ ‘This is fucking driving me out of my mind. I’m fucking quivering with desire here.’ ‘I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this,’ he says to the camera while waiting for soup. ‘Come to papa,’ he wheedles.

His relationship with – and views on – food have become centred around his masculinity:

He has managed to insert, through performance of the great feat of eating Vietnamese or Tunisian or Parisian food, the neurotic notion that eating is best understood as a competition or conquest – man versus food. Why choose to merely ingest, he asks, when you can vanquish?

Although I agree with Adler’s point that it’s a pity that he feels the need to dress up his opinions on food in a kind of gung-ho machismo because much of what he says is worth listening to, it was time that someone called out Bourdain for his casual sexism. Bourdain seems to insist that good cooking can only be produced by kitchens overseen by obsessive, potentially murderous alpha males caught up in a kind of adolescent, On the Road-like existential struggle with the meaning of existence. Women – unless they behave like men – are to be viewed with suspicion, as is the food which he associates with them:

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbour deep suspicions of their precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact measurements – and made the same way every single time – is diametically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want.

It’s no coincidence that most pastry chefs are women. Bourdain implies that pastry, like women, is difficult, too sweet, boring, and unimaginative: real chefs are men – wild, creative genuises – who cook ‘Flintsone-sized lengths of veal shank,’ understand the value of bones, and who carry long, sharp knives.

For an industry with a reputation for not dealing adequately with charges of ingrained discrimination against women, Bourdain’s attitudes towards food and cooking certainly don’t help. But it’s worth noting that for all the excitement that surrounded the publication of Kitchen Confidential – when it was hailed as a fresh and unconventional take on America’s restaurant world, which it was, to some extent – Bourdain’s views on the relationship between masculinity and food are neither particularly new, nor limited to himself.

There has long been an association between meat-eating and manliness. Until the late eighteenth century, when eating in moderation and a slim physique were connected, increasingly, with the ideal Enlightenment male, a healthy appetite for wine and meat indicated strength and vitality. In England, a taste for roast beef was, as Roy Porter notes, linked to a patriotism which associated roast meat with English vigour and virility. Even a century later, Victorians argued that men’s strong, machine-like bodies needed meaty fuel in order to function efficiently.

Men, in other words, needed to eat ‘man food’ – spicy, strong-flavoured, and rich in protein. This was taken to a logical – or an illogical, depending on your point of view – extreme by the Italian Futurists and Mussolini-enthusiasts FT Marinetti and Luigi Colombo in their 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking. Of course, the document is completely mad – like just about everything Marinetti did – but it’s a useful window on to the ways in which fascists of the 1930s understood gender. As the Italian state recast women as mothers – and only mothers – of the nation, so men were urged to become its warrior-protectors.

Marinetti and Colombo write:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. … Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Italians should do this, they argue, by giving up pasta:

A highly intelligent Neapolitan Professor, Signorelli, writes: ‘In contrast to bread and rice, pasta is a food which is swallowed, not masticated. Such starchy food should mainly be digested in the mouth by the saliva but in this case the task of transformation is carried out by the pancreas and the liver. This leads to an interrupted equilibrium in these organs. From such disturbances derive lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism.’

They suggest that rice take the place of pasta. But this is only the first of several ideas for the remaking of food for a faster, more efficient future. Their most significant point was that science should ‘take on the task of providing the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided free by the State, in powder or pills, albumoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.’ Not only would this make Italians better-fuelled and more efficient workers, but it would reduce the amount of food they ate.

Those few meals which they would then eat would be, as they write, ‘perfect’. Given the role of Italian women in feeding their families, what Marinetti and Colombo advocate is a kind of man-made food: the dishes they describe for their ‘perfect meals’ – like the Woodcock Mount Rose with Venus sauce – are invented by chefs.

Although their remaining ideas are increasingly ludicrous – ‘The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination’ and ‘The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavours to be tasted in a few seconds’ – their association of ‘perfect’ cooking with men, and homely, everyday cooking with women, was – and is – hardly unusual.

A great deal has been written about the irony that while most of the world’s ‘top chefs’ – whatever we may mean by that – are male, the overwhelming majority of people who cook to feed their families are female. I think that this distinction is something of an oversimplification: while it is certainly true that the most Michelin-starry chefs are still male, this is changing, albeit slowly. More importantly, the chefs and cooks who have had the greatest impact on the way we all cook in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have, arguably, been women: Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith, and Madhur Jaffrey in Britain; Julia Child and Martha Stewart in the US; Nitza Villapol in Cuba; Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia; and Ina Paarman, Ina de Villiers, and Lynn Bedford Hall in South Africa.

Moreover, there has been a recent and relatively widespread decrease in tolerance for the antics of bullying, super-macho male chefs. Gordon Ramsay’s spectacular fall from grace – the collapse of his business empire, the decline in quality of his restaurants – is a particularly good example of this. Adler’s take-down of Bourdain is part of this trend – and it’s particularly telling that Bourdain devotes his highest praise to Ramsay (‘England’s greatest chef’) in A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), excusing and celebrating Ramsay’s reputation as a bully on the grounds of gender:

He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. … You better have balls the size of jack-fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavour and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.

This kind of macho chest-beating now feels distinctly passe. The male celebrity chefs of the late 2000s and early 2010s are an altogther nicer, kinder group of chaps: from earth-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and home-cooking dad Jamie Oliver, to shambling Valentine Warner and lovely Nigel Slater. We have cerebral, thoughtful Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal.

I’m not absolutely sure what this shift in public taste suggests – and it’s certainly part of a wider, cultural change, which has seen Ryan Gosling and James Franco replace Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segal as male icons. It’s also occurred at the same time as the emergence of a food trend which can only really be described as ‘dude food’ – food made to appeal to men. Craft beer, the wild enthusiasm for bacon, even the recent rediscovery of the burger, are, I think, driven partly by a belief – held by magazine editors, television producers, and some food writers – that food needs to be made ‘manly’ to appeal to men. Tellingly, most of this is pretty meaty food.

What I find so interesting about dude food is that it’s directed at a generation of young men – my contemporaries and younger – for whom cooking is not necessarily seen as being, as Bourdain noted earlier, something that only women do. Unless I have the good fortune only to have dated, and to be friends with, peculiarly enlightened men, it seems to me that Generation Y men don’t seem to feel that cooking and baking undermine their masculinity. After all, not only were all three finalists on the last series of Great British Bake Off men, but two of them were fairly young. So is dude food a kind of ironic embrace of the manly, meaty food associated with being male since, at least, the seventeenth century – much in the same way that contemporary feminists have reclaimed baking and, crucially, the cupcake – or is it something else altogether? Either way, I can’t imagine that Marinetti would be all that pleased.

Sources

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury 2000).

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

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

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.

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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