Dynamics of Pleasure
I think that I may have stumbled onto something fundamental. Eating in the U.S. is a highly political issue. Eating in Italy is all about pleasure.
There is fierce pressure to “eat healthy” in the U.S. This has translated into screaming banners on food products in the supermarkets, and a subsequent culture of fear. Fear of calories, fear of trans fat, fear of remembering if anti-oxidants are still a good thing, fear of any kind of fat, fear of sugar, fear of big meals, fear of snacking, fear that a dish is too complicated, and will take too long to prepare. Large food producers figured this out in the 1950’s when they branded everything as ‘simple’, ‘quick’, ‘new’, ‘easy’. As we’ve become inured to these enticements, the marketers needed other handles to entice us to buy their products, and as Karl Rove has shown us, fear sells. Now the supermarket aisles scream, “lo calorie”, “no carbohydrates’, ‘whey free’, ‘gluten free’, ‘no trans fats’, ‘no fat’. It takes 5 minutes to figure out what kind of milk to buy:nofat-lowfat-sheep-soy-organic-skim-2%. Is there such a thing as free range cow milk? Each choice brings with it all sorts of socio-political-health choices.
For a moment, contrast this with Italy. Meals are a source of pleasure and community. People still go home for lunch. If you can’t go home, you eat with your co-workers. Around 10:30 in the morning, as a greeting, you start wishing everyone a ‘buon pranzo’, or ‘good lunch’. Italians rejoice in the bounty of their products, they are proud of their historic dishes. Any gathering isn’t complete unless you’ve eaten something. Remember that lunch was a big deal during our earthquake preparedness exercise? Preparing and sharing a meal is part and parcel of daily life.
Recently, I’ve had some interesting conversations about the dynamics of pleasure and food in the U.S. One theory, is that Americans have a strong Puritanical bent, and that food is considered to be fuel, a necessity, and it would be unseemly to overtly enjoy the fuel. This is a riff on the theme of the marvelous film “Babette’s Feast”. Although this may explain some of our shared tendencies, Americans are a very diverse crowd and this is only a partial explanation.
Another American friend, who now lives in Italy, came back to the States for Thanksgiving, and commented about the fuss that Americans make cooking this holiday meal. In Italy, these meals are a common affair and no one thinks twice about it. Again, the meal is a source of pleasure and yes, it takes work, but the rewards are ample and evident. To be fair, there is usually an available matriarch who is responsible for cooking the meal, but these days, she works outside the home as well, so the stereotype of the Italian mama is a somewhat anachronistic. Italians are not afraid to express their emotions, and when it comes to food, they are passionate, to say the least! Schoolchildren write odes to the chestnut, white potatoes are handled like gold, a whole town celebrates their celery.
What has happened to pride and passion in the kitchens of the U.S.? When did ease overtake pride? Is it easier to worry about fecal matter, and rodent hair in the bottle of salad dressing, than it is to mix some up in a little bowl before serving the salad? Aren’t the recent e.coli scares a wake up call to avoid these mass processed, nationally distributed ‘fresh’ vegetables? Unfortunately, as “organic”, and “local”, and “free range” have become buzz words, the marketing giants have figured out that these words mean increased profit margins. It is prohibitively expensive to eat organic foods in New York City. Does Whole Foods accept food stamps?
I am still hopeful that the pendulum will swing back towards food as pleasure and not something where every mouthful needs to be analyzed. With goodness, comes satisfaction. When you are satisfied, there isn’t the constant need to reach for something else to eat.
I ‘ve been told that I am a die hard hedonist, and I’m doing my best to pass along the legacy!
This is a comment that I received from a friend:
Very sensible writing. There are two additional theories which I think compliment your observations.
The first is the Hindu idea of prana, or vital life force. Good wholesome fresh foods contain a high amount of prana and processed foods contain very little. We need prana as much as we need carbohydrates or calcium. Americans overeat because the food they eat generally has little prana. Their bodies are wiser than their brains and they continue to eat in excess in search of vital energy, or prana. This is easy to experience. Try eating a salad from the lettuce bar at Wendy’s and compare this to the amount of salad you eat when the ingredients are fresh, local, and prepared simply.
Another thought I’ve had about eating in America concerns the commercialization of eating. We’ve come a long way from the gardens your grandmother tended and even the victory gardens of the World Wars. In America, as in nearly everything else, eating as become commercialized. It is a big product that is marketed with the intensity and focus you might recognize in the sale of automobile tires or floor polish. The idea is not to enhance pleasure or health but to generate and produce predictably high sales. Paradoxically it is the very poor quality of these offerings which encourages people to buy even more in search of some satisfaction. The ease and simplicity of the packaging and preparation also leads to over consumption in much the same way that a person may smoke more cigarettes if they contain controlled amounts of nicotine and are offered wrapped and ready to smoke in packages of 20 cigarettes. With this convenience it is not uncommon to use one cigarette to light up the next!
I think I’ll go suck on a Clementine, darling;