Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Inherent Cultural Imperialism of Talking About What Poor People Eat

Wow, I was so hopeful reading "Chitlins, Tradition and Food Justice" by Carolyn Wysinger. When she started talking about tragedy-turned-tradition and how her aunt reacted to the news that she didn't like chitlins ("she informed me that 'I was a citified California kid who could eat weird stuff like hummus but not chitlins.' Then she 'told' on me to the rest of the family." ) I really thought I had finally found someone else who gets it...but she didn't.

The reason the Northern Lights Kroger has chitlins while the ones in richer, whiter neighborhoods have organic hummus isn't because "the man" is trying to keep us Northern Lights shoppers down and eating scraps. It's because the neighborhood is populated by people like her aunt. Stores want to make money, and you do that by selling the chitlins to people who demand chitlins, and organic hummus to people who demand organic hummus. You absolutely don't make money by trying to force food onto people that is so far removed from their cultural traditions and identity that they take offense. So Kroger isn't going to put goat meat or pig guts in Worthington or Bexley, and they're not gonna put any hoity-toity, zen yoga, California crap in the hood. There just aren't enough people who shop here regularly who want it--not because they're being forced, but because it's part of how they've come to see themselves.

You want to solve the obesity epidemic in food deserts? Then you need to change the very essence of the people who live there. Turn back the clock and make kale a comfort food for them instead of mac-and-cheese. Go back to the point in their childhood when a hamburger became an object of desire and replace it with steamed asparagus. Find the time when they learned to think of a cookie as a treat, and teach them instead to feel rewarded by a two-mile run.

We learn from older generations what to value, what feels good, what's worth pursuing and avoiding. Those communally-shared aspirations and aversions and the narrative we use to organize them into something coherent form our cultures. Culture is the matrix of our social bonding, and we are social creatures who need that bonding as much as we need anything. There's a reason people eat together when they gather for special occasions or to have fun. When you ask someone with a lifelong sweet tooth to stop liking sweets, you might as well be asking her to disown her family and change her name. It's not about "bad choices" so much as ranking other things like camaraderie and enjoyment as being more important than nutrition and fitness.

We can make apologies and say that the poor are obese because carbs are cheap--and we can point to a conspiracy between Big Ag and government to get us whipped up into a righteous indignation over this, with the likes of Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver leading the charge--but you know what's even cheaper than high-calorie processed foods? Cabbage and dry beans. Nobody's going to get fat eating boiled beans and cabbage. But when's the last time anyone invited you to go watch the game and eat boiled cabbage at a sports bar? How many people are going to take a date out to eat beans? Who goes to a carnival looking forward to eating a cabbage leaf stuffed with lima beans unless it's also deep fried and covered with powdered sugar?

I like cabbage. I also like beans. And I can point to various cultures that value them as staples. I cannot, however, think of one culture that treats those two foods (without additional fats or carbs) as "fun" foods that serve as the center for social bonding. They're not. And if you tried to make cabbage and beans your mainstay because that's all you could afford, I bet you'd be miserable pretty quickly.

So what do we poor people, food desert or not, have to stave off the misery? Food stamps. We don't have vacations and concerts. We can't afford cruises and road trips. We don't go to music festivals or science fiction conventions. We don't hang out at gyms or craft shows or martial arts competitions. We don't do any of those spendy things middle-class people do outside of work that they think of as making their lives worth living.

What we do have--the only boon in our lives other than a once-a-year tax refund--is a balance at the beginning of every month saying we can buy several hundred dollars' worth of food. You can't pay your rent with food stamps. You can't use them to keep the electricity or gas turned on. You can't use them to get your car fixed or fueled or insured or registered. You can't use them to buy toothpaste or deodorant or toilet paper. You can't even use them to buy food if it's hot or served to eat on the spot. What you can do is buy groceries to take home and cook. Inevitably, you'll learn that cats will eat store-brand canned tuna and you can clean your house with vinegar or lemon juice. You might even fool around with trying to use baking soda as toothpaste and deodorant, or making Play-Doh and finger paint out of flour and food coloring. I remember one year for Christmas, I made ornaments out of dried apple slices and made braided breads to give people as gifts.

But most of that food is going to be eaten. You might not even have enough (with recent cuts, that's even more likely), but once a month, you can walk into a grocery store with the knowledge that you can have almost anything you want. You can fill an entire cart to overflowing, and as long as it's not all meat, you'll probably have enough to cover it all. You don't need to tally it in your head as you do with literally every single other expense in your life. For one day a month, you get to live and think and shop like a wealthy person. I mean, not really. It's still in the back of your mind that you've got to make this last all month, so you're going to be frugal, but if you want an apple or a pack of cookies, you can just grab it without thinking about how much it costs which is something you never get to do otherwise when you're poor. It's the only glut you know.

You've seen shoppers line up after Thanksgiving to get all those amazing discounts, right? The way they camp out and then battle each other for a half-price TV? Well, people on food stamps can't afford a new TV even at half-price, so that's an alien world. A sale means nothing when you're broke. But take that same sense of frenzy, that sense of being overwhelmed with rare, sudden, and momentary bounty, and you have some sense of what it's like to see your food stamp balance replenished at the beginning of the month.

When my family borrows a car to go on a big grocery shopping trip, the first thing we do when we get back to the car is start opening things up to eat them. The kids want a cookie or some candy. I want a soda. We might pass around some chips. It's a craving we've been feeling and unable to feed for maybe a week or two...or longer. For some people, it's heroine or weed or pills or alcohol that brings them relief. For us, it's a long-anticipated glucose rush. When the kids have a birthday party or we celebrate a holiday, there's nothing elegant about it. The meal isn't about exotic ingredients or preparation methods with French names. It's about whatever gets us that rush. (I prefer meat over sweets, myself, but price is a constraint, so you find work-arounds. I've eaten two packs of beef-flavored ramen noodles just while writing this.)

My point is that at the very root of it, we're dealing with strong, biological urges. Satisfying those urges feels good, so we make that satisfaction something we share with people we care about. It's something we do together. If you've ever gone out for sushi, think how you'd feel if a friend who came along with you brought a burger and fries along to eat while you have sushi. Or the other way--you and some friends grill burgers outside or go to a hamburger joint, but one of them packs a little bento box. By not joining in eating the same thing as the others, you're missing a major social aspect of the gathering. For this reason, when we eat with others as a form of social bonding, we eat what they're eating. When you buck the trend, you isolate yourself socially. This means we're talking about not just biological cravings, but psychological ones, too. We need acceptance.

What happens, then, when tragedy becomes tradition, as Carolyn Wysinger wrote about? What happens when the slave master throws the scraps of the pig carcass to his slaves, and the slaves' children grow up with that as their fond memory of  childhood? What happens when that slop becomes a part of your cultural identity? I'll tell you: it becomes a source of pride, because it's part of your identity as a member of a community that has survived hardship. When someone outside that community tries to exert their supremacy by devaluing the things that define you, you either let them, or you fight back, as Wysinger's aunt did. You devalue whatever they're holding up as supreme and declare your own thing to be supreme. That's how you assert your equality. "I don't want your fruity ol' couscous anyway. I got venison!"

In that situation, what would happen if Wysinger got her way...if the grocery store where her aunt shops stopped carrying chitlins and replaced them with hummus? Would her aunt feel liberated and empowered, now that the man is no longer forcing those slave scraps on her? Or is she more apt, as I think she would, to feel like an outsider was imposing his culture on her against her wishes? If she couldn't get what she wanted because a grocery store executive or public official made the decision that she should give it up her tradition and adopt a way he deems to be better, why on Earth would anybody think she'd be eager to embrace that?

It's an insult. When affluent white people decide that their taste in food is superior to the that of the poor brown people on the other side of town, and task themselves with the "merciful" mission of making those poor brown people give up their wretched ways and eat the way the affluent white people say is proper, that's the very definition of cultural imperialism. There are bigger hurdles here than just diabetes.