Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Cultural Dynamics of Dieting

Finally, it seems, a journalist is picking up on the cultural encoding of food and dining in American culture, however one wishes to define that slippery label. Today's NYT contains a first-person account (the so-called "autoethnography" in academic parlance) by William Grimes of his experiment with the new Agricultural Department's dietary guidelines. In conclusion, Grimes concedes that to be fully accepted, the cultural model about what constitutes a proper meal has to change too:

The guidelines were beginning to feel like wartime rationing. I walked around with a nagging feeling of being just slightly deprived. After two days, it began to haunt me.

I also began to chafe at the relentless assault on pleasure that the guidelines seemed to represent. At every turn, Americans were being urged to consume foods in their least tasty forms. There they were, the dreaded chicken breast with the skin removed, the unadorned steamed fish and the unspeakable processed cheeses.

In the world of the guidelines, food is a kind of medicine that, taken in the right doses, can promote good health. In the real world, of course, people regard food and its flavors as a source of pleasure. And therein lies just one of the problems with the guidelines, which my wife took one look at before saying with a shake of her head, "No one is ever going to eat like this."

As a cultural document, the guidelines are strange. They set themselves the worthy but futile goal of imposing a style of eating for which Americans have no model. It's all very well to announce that everyone should eat five servings of vegetables a day. But where does that fit in the culinary template that Americans instinctively consult when planning a meal? The typical American dinner is an entrée with a starch and a vegetable, preceded in some cases by a salad or soup and followed with dessert.

For Asians, it's quite normal to eat multiple vegetable dishes at the same meal (even at breakfast), and to prepare very small quantities of fish or meat with much larger quantities of rice. But Americans rarely eat multiple vegetable dishes except on Thanksgiving. If they are going to triple their vegetable consumption, they'll have to greatly enlarge the vegetable portions they do eat, throwing the meal off balance, or else walk around nibbling on carrots and cauliflower florets from a plastic bag.

The new guidelines are not just health policy, they're cultural policy, too. To comply fully, Americans will have to rethink their inherited notions of what makes a meal, and what makes a meal satisfying.

This is the key that needs to be addressed by nutritional activists and social scientists. Cultural anthropologists come back from the field with hundreds of stories about food and dining which seem "strange" to non-anthropologists only because these cultural codes differ to greatly from their own.

It always amazes me to see "eating healthy" shows on PBS or Food Network finish a menu with a dessert - why bother if the point is to take in fewer calories? My family also has some classic tales of wedding parties in which some of the guests came out to California for the happy day, only to turn down the salad course at the sit-down formal dinner, preferring to move on to "real food." Conversely, I surprised to be served coffee at dinner at a relative's house in Illinois - coffee out here in the West is served afterwards, but not with dinner. Tapas restaurants are catching on around the country, but still seem vastly foreign to consumers who can't envision having a satisfying meal consisting entirely of appetizers. Furthermore, when I came back from fieldwork in Mexico some people would innocently ask, "How was it eating Mexican food three times a day?" My answer was that it was good enough for the Mexicans to be happy with (and, I might add, most "Mexican" food served in the U.S. is a poor substitute for standard fare in La Republica).

Grimes is right. What the new standards are really about are confronting American cultural concepts of dining, and those are going to be very hard to change.

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