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Please Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself: 5 Images That Summarize My Food Studies Interests

I’m a food studies student, who obviously loved Jay-Z’s Black Album when I was in college, which feels like a long time ago. As I continue my interdisciplinary studies of food, nutrition, and public health, this blog is a place for some of my finished work, as well as lots of projects that are in process or ideas that are just rumbling around in my mind. Please feel free to comment and engage! It’s okay to be critical, but please be kind.

Most of my interests are encapsulated in the cover header I created for this blog…

Image 1: MyPlate — Nutrition Education & Food Politics 

Introduced in 2011, MyPlate is the USDA’s current nutrition education tool, replacing the 2005 tool, MyPyramid, a bit of a disaster, which built upon the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, which anyone from my generation learned in elementary school. The plate image has been used previously, such as in the UK’s eatwell plate and the Plate Method used and evaluated in the US. While I feel conflicted about whether we should be telling, instructing, or cajoling people into eating a certain way, compared to the pyramid, the plate is a more straightforward tool for communicating the components of a “healthy diet” as we currently understand it. The wonderful National Archives exhibit, What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet reveals, however, the minimal effect that nearly 100 years of food guides, food policy, and other measures have had in altering American eating habits.

The USDA’s MyPlate also reveals the role of food politics, which affect the design of USDA tools, an issue best evaluated by Marion Nestle in Food Politics and ongoing on her Food Politics blog. In addition, the Harvard Schools of Public Health and Medicine have created an evidence-based version of the MyPlate image called The Healthy Eating Plate, which shows what the guide would look like if free from political lobbies and other influences.

Image 2: Roy Lichtenstein’s Kitchen Range — Popular Culture & Food Systems & Consumerism

I began blogging shortly after taking Jonathon Ribner’s Art and Food course at Boston University. While I’ve long been interested in food in popular culture, analyzing sources such as magazines, TV shows, films, advertisements, and food packaging, Lichtentstein’s pop art aptly symbolizes the one-step-removed nature that characterizes much American eating. Like Lichtenstein’s work, which depicts items not as they are in life, but as they appear in our consumer culture, such as in advertisements, food as we experience it in the grocery store is often falsely glamorized, and yet less tasty, built upon the abhorrent labor standards, price structures, and petroleum-dependence of the current food system, a concept well discussed in works such as Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland.

American consumerism also fascinates me. While we’ve become a nation of consumers rather than producers, there appears to have been a resurgence of interest in production in recent years. A favorite example of mine is Jeep’s 2011 Grand Cherokee ad campaign. As a Johnny Cash soundtrack pulses a heart-beat-like rhythm, the commercial begins, stating, “The things that make us Americans are the things we make” and closes, saying, “This was once a country where people made things. Beautiful things. So it is again.”

As many American jobs have been outsourced and the Great Recession has so utterly changed portions of the American landscape and experience, feelings of (empowered?) nostalgia are particularly relevant. I argue it is those feelings and the effects of our current economic troubles that fuel the alternative food movement. Hopefully I’ll be able to write more here on this thinking, but I can’t help but question that yearning so strongly for ‘good food’ at this particular time is about more than pesticides or even workers’ rights. It’s about grasping the flailing strings of the American Dream, which is floating away, out of reach for many working and middle class citizens.

Image 3: ‘Food’ Sign — Americana & Everyday Eating

Eating, cooking, food shopping, dieting, meals — you name it. These are all key components of everyday American life, making food both mundane and infinitely magical.

While I don’t know where this delightful ‘food’ sign came from, we can imagine it at a market or gracing a storefront, providing structure to the contemporary foodscape as we know it. (One of my favorite things about driving across the country when my husband and I moved from California to Massachusetts was driving along the historic Route 66, taking in the signage of a by-gone era.)

Take for example your morning cup of coffee. Here in New England it means something very different to drink Dunkin’ Donuts than it does to sip Starbucks. This choice encompasses values, hopes, dreams, and desires that are uniquely linked to a sense of place and chosen identity.

I also explore kitchens as a locus of everyday American food activities, focusing specifically on trophy kitchens. Drawing from kitchen design history, popular culture, and current kitchen renewal trends, I argue that today’s ideal kitchen breaks the mold that defines the kitchen itself. In opposition to how the kitchen has been historically positioned and understood within the home—and despite predictions that technological innovations would render the kitchen obsolete—the ideal twenty-first-century kitchen is now considered the central hub of the home. While previously defined as a room for cooking, the ideal of the trophy kitchen takes on a new meaning that is often disassociated from cooking and food preparation.

Image 4: WWI Food Poster — Food History & the American Dream & Language

The imagery and messaging of government posters from the World Wars, particularly those that deal with food, provide endless topics for discussion, among them food rationing, victory gardens, and the nutrition requirements for strong soldiers, healthy children, and patriotic citizens. War-time posters also provide a poignant foil to the mass marketing of the 1950s, a decade ripe with food-related social history, portions of which are well addressed by Laura Shapiro in Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.

The 1950s are a decade that fascinate me, as a variety of new products, customs, and trends forever changed the American landscape and cultural identity, such as car culture, suburbanization, mass consumerism, advertising, and the role of women in the workplace and at home. The rise of prosperity and middle class life indicative of this period have come to represent and symbolize much about this country in a nearly mythical way.

I’m also intrigued by the linguistic construction of this poster: “Food is Ammunition.” Food is, represents, and communicates many different things. Consider for example the statement that ‘food is medicine,’ a perspective on food and eating dramatically different from ‘food is pleasure.’ While these definitions coexist and interact with one another, the  “is” is an important piece to consider in how we construct food as part of life, part of the diet, part of health, and part of our joy.

Image 5: Ron English’s MC Supersized — Fast Food & Obesity & Health

Before food documentaries became a dime a dozen, Super Size Me (2004) brought attention to obesity and the role of fast food; and so did Ron English’s MC Supersized pop art that appeared in the film. Blending a critical eye for iconography and American consumer culture, English’s work provides rich source material for food studies. At a similar time, Eric Schlosser’s brilliant book, Fast Food Nation (2002), as well as the rather terrible film by the same name (2006) framed fast food as an issue of nutrition, health, obesity, the economy, agriculture, social justice, and labor to name a few—and we can’t forget the shocking revelation, there’s shit in the meat (p. 197).

I find fast food not only delicious every once and a while (can you say road trip?), but incredibly intriguing intellectually (I like alliteration; please, don’t hurt me). From a cultural perspective, fast food history joins hands with the American Dream, as self-made men have created many of the US’s biggest chain fast food restaurants. George Ritzer also demonstrates in The McDonaldization of Society how fast food business practices are spreading to other parts of life around the globe; but the themes he discusses, such as efficiency, predictability, and calculability, also reinforce characteristics central to American identity.

From a public health perspective, there is concern that fast food diets are high in calories and low in micronutrients, as well as potentially links to overweight and obesity, as many have found, including Bowman and Vinyard (2004). Fast food has also been studied as a factor in an ‘unhealthy’ food environment; particularly interesting locations to consider are within hospitals, in churches, and near schools.

Fast food is often linked to obesity in the media; obesity itself an issue discussed daily, coupled with cruel images of bulging bodies shot from the neck down. I’m a fan of mindful eating practices and the Health at Every Size approach and have researched dieting in popular culture a fair amount. Diets don’t work. Period. Extreme weight loss diets under the guidance of a physician don’t work long term. We’re a nation that is fatter than we’ve ever been in history, and yet our fat hatred is also at an all-time high, a paradox that I’m continuing to unpack.

For me, the issue with obesity is health, and before I’m accused of subscribing to healthism, let’s talk about what health means to me. Health is like a state of enlightenment on earth. I was a dancer and an artist before I studied nutrition, public health, or food studies. My training was long, challenging, and complex, but my role in the world was simple—to create something beautiful on stage for an audience, so that they might walk away from the theater changed, with a lasting memory that provides some sort of comfort as they progress through the joys and pains of life; such is the nature of art. Poor health is often inhibiting; it keeps us from feeling well, from being able to fully love and be loved, from creating, exploring, and living freely and happily. I pursued public health because I wanted to help create beauty in a way only different way than I did as a dancer: to help make lives better; to have a positive impact on my world; to create, find, sustain, and share joy.

I’m the first to admit that public health has in some cases done more harm than good—Michael Pollan can regale you with tales of nutritionism, Julie Guthman can argue neoliberalism and healthism in Weighing In (a great and thought provoking book, but a bit harsh on public health), Paul Campos can convince you that there isn’t an obesity problem at allGary Taubes can contend that epidemiology is for the birds, and many others have their critical points to make—but public health is still a field full of truly altruistic people, called to try to help and make a positive difference.

Image Credits and Sources

The internet is a wonderful and terrible thing, making it blissfully easy to share (and steal) information. I hope that by including the sources of the images I have used in this blog’s cover header forgives any culpability for using them here as symbols of the topics that I study.

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