On Food and Class
September 5, 2012 § 4 Comments
When I moved away to college, the first major area of ethical overhaul I focused on was food ethics. My family had gone through a financial crisis that left us destitute with no income from when I was 13 to 17, and I spent those years drastically underfed. I was trying to figure out what to do with financial resources that were mine alone for the first time and trying to figure out how and what to feed myself. It was my first experience of becoming educated in a system. Learning about our food production and values, the context in which I had been taught that I was not making an ethical decision while contributing to extreme suffering and harm, showed me what I did not want to participate in. My parents had not known how to feed themselves. They cooked rarely, ate infrequently, and though they loved food and ate well as children on their parents’ land complete with gardens and canned goods, hunted and foraged food, I believe they saw food self-sufficiency as a sign of poverty and ready-made foods as a taste of freedom and higher class. How they never noticed what their bodies felt mystifies me now.
Context is everything when it comes to food. I will never forget the taste of spicy chicken sandwiches when I was only eating once a day, the crisp and oily outside and slight sting of the spice, or cold coke and French fries with dozens of packets of ketchup. I will never be able to think of a box of brownie mix that takes only water without a fleeting sense of wonder, having found one in the back of our cupboard and not having money for oil and eggs. Mac and cheese with tuna and generic doctor pepper were a steal, the generic brands costing only cents were the makers helping us out. Franchise tacos left you feeling surprisingly good after and full longer than most things.
I wouldn’t touch that food with a ten foot pole now. When I taste coke, it seems like a froth of sugared chemicals and literally hurts my tongue. But I am not starving slightly each moment now. There were glimpses of the food love I have now in childhood. Tomatoes my grandmother and father grew, the red and yellow German “Candy” Stripe that I would walk outside with a salt shaker, pull off the vine, and eat until my stomach was full or bring in and cut up alongside cottage cheese. Blueberries that grew on bushes on our property, and the magical tart and sweet, vibrant taste of pies that brought up the feel of bright sunlight and rainwater, that technically failed since they were runny, but made my chest ache, feeling how they rare they were and watching them disappear as they were eaten. The clear, clean taste that seemed to cut straight at hunger and solve it for a time of white fish caught only hours before and cooked in a microwave under cellophane with bits of butter and lemon and seasoned salt or fried and eaten on cheap wheat bread with piles of ketchup. The almost freakish, wild taste of morels the first time I went and found and ate them, bringing them to my mouth over and over and still not getting past the shock of the taste.
But always, always, these could not usurp hunger. Access to food that was not nourishing or food that was but still would not be provided consistently never really solved my hunger. Hunger is more than appetite in the moment. I did not even recognize on a fully conscious level that I was hungry. That was just how life was. How it felt to me. My bodily feelings of hunger weren’t distinct. I dreamed about food every night, and I thought it was strange. When I came to college, I gained ten pounds. I thought I was getting “fat,” gaining the freshman ten or whatever, but couldn’t figure out where it was going on my body, since I seemed to look the same and my clothes still fit. I decided it was because I was walking more and gaining muscle in my legs. I did notice I was sleeping better and was more able to feel happy. I thought it strange when I exercised I could do three times the repetitions I was used to, which I didn’t realize was increased energy and muscle mass distributed all over from simply being fed. I hadn’t been at my natural body weight.
I keep sorting through the class conflict in my head. I’m working on the part of me right now that sees things I’m longing to do like making my own pasta or grinding my own grain as a bourgeoisie activity. What a shock it would be to my great-grandparents that producing one’s own food would feel to me like a sign of high class. It’s complicated. When I ask myself: How much should I ethically spend on food? The answer is more than many people have and more than I will have at times of financial insecurity. Then I’m perplexed, asking myself: Is my class status allowing me to be ethical? How can this be?
I suppose it’s being mixed class that has me feeling that if my food ethics and food security are dependent upon my maintaining a certain class status and our society continuing to provide the same degree of opportunity to people of my demographic then I do not feel secure. That’s the privilege that I want, food security. I know in my bones what perhaps many of us don’t know – that class can shift. It is not a sign of personal character whether we are allowed access to adequate, ethically produced food. It is a sign of our society being well, ethical and just. I’m trying to sort out how to invest in greater food self-sufficiency, find places where I can live and work that help me feel more food secure. But I know it will be a niche, a privilege, if I do find it. And I don’t want the broader culture, the common experience to remain unchanged.