City City Bang Bang, Columns

The fear of food?

If there is one fundamental change that has occurred over a single generation, it is in our attitude towards food. We now think of food as the presumed enemy, and every morsel that we put into our mouths must have its antecedents verified. In a single generation, food has gone from unconditional friend to suspicious stranger, always out to thicken our arteries, weaken our immune system and contaminate our bodies in general.

This is part of a larger vocabulary of anxiety that describes food which has developed only in the last few years. Growing up in times of constraints, we could not afford to eat all the indulgent things we lusted after. Today when our ability to afford to eat what we want might have increased, we are no longer allowed to do so, most often by an annoying voice in our heads that manufactures guilt prodigiously. The eventual aim seems to be to achieve a state of joylessness, and we have become pretty good at getting there.

In an earlier time, food was thought of in aggregate terms. A full meal needed all elements, and fresh home-cooked food was by definition, good. We ate what was in season, because that was all that was available, we ate when we were hungry, and ate as much as our stomachs could hold (not always true). Measurement of any kind was unheard of, recipes were not precise, even the idea of calories was deemed exotic, let alone notions like Glycemic index, and the relentlessly cruel Body Mass Index. Health was an ideal, but one that was at ease with the approximate. All of us were broadly healthy; occasionally the balance between the elements got disturbed, which needed to get realigned again. Our bodies were neither perfectible nor measurable; we took our weight only for entertainment at railway stations.

The mental model of food has shifted dramatically. At its core, food is effectively a way of redistributing the energy of the sun in order to keep life going. As the only species that cooks its food, the manner in which each community does so becomes a key definer of culture. Food is a way of converting the past into the future, of sustaining not just life, but our way of life.

From being where we come from and who we essentially are, food is now an active external agent that infiltrates our body, out to do both good and bad. It needs to be watched, assessed, rigorously evaluated and tightly monitored. Eating is a task that needs to be performed correctly. What is being forgotten is that food is an intrinsic part of who we are. The human body produces food; mothers feed their babies with the produce of their own bodies. The externalising of food is the part of the process by which we alienate our bodies from the world in which they reside. It is an act of withdrawal; a refusal to allow the body to exist in an unselfconscious way within the ecosystem in which it belongs.

Even in its pleasurable form, food must deliver on several fronts. For one, it must be presented in order to stimulate the taste buds. This is surely a First World view of food- for people who eat without ever getting hungry, food has to advertise itself and coax the salivary glands to perform. Even otherwise, the pleasure in eating is increasingly getting located in the idea of food rather than in food itself. Where was it grown, under what circumstances, how authentic is it, how experimental, what story does it tell, how is it served, what is ambience of the place where one eats – these conceptual factors assume ever greater importance.

Where does this new mindset come from? Part of the problem comes from the new involvement we have with our own selves, a heightened narcissism that makes us pursue the perfection of the self as an endless project. The health concerns come from the surfeit of processed food that is now part of our lives. With industrially processed food, the meaning drawn from the production of food is lost; what remains is the act of consumption. The combination of human labour, traditional knowledge fine-tuned over millennia, a sense of time and place that makes food such a cultural product, and the emotional embrace of the nurturer is lost. What replaces it, is a concentrated amplification of pleasure notes in food, often achieved chemically. What we get is an enactment of food, a simulated spectacle mounted to drive us into consuming more. As a result, food no longer comes with presumed good intentions, and this destabilises our view of it.

There are obvious advantages to the greater consciousness we show about food. Greater awareness does make for healthier living. A 50-year old today behaves very differently than did her counterpart a generation ago, and consciousness about food and exercise has a lot to do with that. But the definition of health too has become increasingly measurement oriented. We measure health more often than we experience it, and we are never healthy enough on one count or another. As a result, we medicate. Even when we exercise or meditate, it is with a grim sense of purpose, as if it were medicine.

We are beginning to see a push back on this dominant view of food. A newer set of doctors and nutritionists are arguing persuasively for a more natural and culturally grounded understanding of food. The idea that we should trust tradition and time, and that we should think of food not as foreign object but as the natural building block of our physical, emotional and cultural selves is beginning to emerge as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative. It is an uphill task though; once we start asking too many questions about our food, it is difficult to go back to being able to enjoy it simply.

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