Food II: bad food

fast food.jpg

Yesterday, I offered data from Saveur Magazine to suggest our knowledge and practice of food is becoming more sophisticated (Food I). In the words of Kalins:

…there’s an awareness of food and a love of food and an array of choices that we’ve never had before. You go down an aisle in the supermarket and you find things you never even knew how to pronounce ten years ago.

But there is also plenty of evidence that we are, in the words of Eric Schlosser, a “fast food nation.” Americans are eating more junk food. They are also eating more prepared food. Salt, sugar, fat proportions are all up. The obesity figures have risen apace.

A paradox then: Americans are eating better. Americans are eating worse.

One way to make this paradox go away is to segment the world into two groups: a small group of Americans that is ever more sophisticated in its eating habits and a much larger group eating more and more badly.

This confirms to the “plenitude” view of the world, the one that says contemporary culture no longer has a directionality. It is not headed in any direction, good eating or bad. We are a culture dedicating to mapping all the possibilities. What can be, will be. Yes to good food. Yes to bad food.

But there is another, more interesting, possibility: that good food and bad food are happening to the same people. In this view, Americans are growing more sophisticated in their knowledge of food. They are stocking better kitchens with better food. But by and large, they are eating prepared food.

There was a time when we would have hunted out the “cognitive dissonance” this sort of thing causes. But not anymore. I think we may be looking at a “virtual consumption” as a result of which people “consume” the knowledge and image of good food…and the stuff and substance of bad food. They eat what they eat: food that is prepared out of the house, often by fast food suppliers. But they consume what they read in magazines and cook books and watch on TV.

This approach would help explain how it is people can spend so much on kitchens, cook books, and cooking shows and so little time on cooking itself. This is what is going on in the Martha Stewart phenomenon, when people watch the show with pleasure without ever making or thinking to make that dining room center piece. In a sense, Martha’s making it for us. Martha’s making it so we don’t have to. Martha’s making it because, let’s be honest, we don’t have the time.

The good food/bad food paradox might work like this. The TV chefs, the magazines, and an occasional “slow food” meal at home, these are the virtual diet. This diet is modest in taste and substance, but it is, just as clearly, rich in cultural and identity meanings. The rest of the time, with bad or ordinary food, we are “feeding the machine.”

This is not a variation on the old practice called “potatoes and point” in which people during the potato famine would spear yet another piece of potato and point it the last remaining piece of Cod in the house, so to imagine the potato was Cod. We do not overlay the virtual consumption overtop actual consumption. Nor is it compensatory in the Veblenian or any other sense of the term.

No, this is a weird “division of labor” thing, where we are prepared to farm out some of our experience to other agents, that they might do the consuming (and preparing) for us. Consumption has always been a fount of cultural and personal meanings. But classifically we have demanded that we may only claim these meanings when we do the consuming. Now, it appears we are prepared to appoint virtual consumers (and preparers) who do the meaning creation and harvest for us.

We need a new model of the consumer, and a new model of the “economic man” to understand this. Trying to think it makes your head hurt, doesn’t it, and surely that’s a good sign.


Dorothy Kahlins quote is from Saveur Magazine, October 2004, p. 98.

McCracken, Grant. 2005/6. Plenitude. Forthcoming: Indiana University Press.

Schlosser, Eric. 2002. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Perennial.

5 thoughts on “Food II: bad food

  1. steve

    The virtual (or surrogate) consumption hypothesis is fascinating. In its traditional form, it involves the non-rich and non-beautiful spending much time in contemplation of beautiful, affluent celebrities who have nothing to worry about but their indulgences. Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Now it’s down to decorating shows where middle class people get to see bland or ugly rooms transformed by heroic decorators, even as their own rooms remain in classic “before” condition.

    The only caveat I would make is that while there probably is an increase in virtual consumption of the finer things, there also seems to be an increase in actual consumption of them. To follow your food example, one of the faster growing restaurant categories, “fast casual”, contains lots of chains that appear to be going for the high-end museum cafeteria experience.

  2. Steven Horwitz

    From an economic perspective, this isn’t that odd. It may be that higher incomes have enabled us to indulge in the Martha Stewart fantasy and sometimes even live it out – we can afford to purchase the fine wines, fancy olive oils, and fresh exotic vegetables to make those slow cooked meals in our remodelled kitchens. At the same time, the “substitution effect” of the various pressures on our time pushes us to consume fast food, or even fast casual, on a more frequent basis.

    In my own house, we tend to eat “fast” in various ways during the week, but indulge ourselves either eating out more fancy or cooking more slowly on the weekends, when we have the time.

    Last note – your example of sushi a few posts back is an excellent one. I live in a town of 7000 in a rural county in NY state. We now have an Asian buffet with very good sushi. It’s both an economic and cultural phenomenon – costs are lower and people are more aware of sushi as an enjoyable meal. Smith had it right – the division of labor is indeed limited by the extent of the market, and that “extent” continues to grow as costs fall and cultures intermingle.

  3. Scott McArthur

    There was a time when we would have hunted out the “cognitive dissonance” this sort of thing causes. But not anymore. I think we may be looking at a “virtual consumption” as a result of which people “consume” the knowledge and image of good food and the stuff and substance of bad food

    You’ve hit on something. It reminds me somewhat of the marxist notion of false consciousness, but stripped of class content and turned into an existential phenomenon.
    The virtual experience replaces the actual experience. This could be good or bad. It could be used to displace out negative impulses or deceive us into believing we are righteous when we are not.

    I certainly think it is useful to think of modern democratic politics this way. People don’t do democracy anymore they experience it vicariously through their spokespeople, be it pundits, protestors or politicians.
    In a world like this marketing takes on a greater and greater weight in “making the sale” to the voters. A broom is a broom, but I feel better about buying this one.
    I think you could frame the DEM/GOP dicotimy this way.

  4. Arul Sundaram

    Interesting stuff. I particularly like your post on fashion today. After having gone back to read your food posts, I feel as if you’ve sparked something. I’m not entirely certain of what the answer / model / framework is, but there is a clear trend that you are beginning to articulate.

    Without having any data, I’d say that the results of this trend (in the food / restaurant specific) should be that middle of the road places are failing. The argument being, if I can’t have what I think is good food, I’ll just resort what I know is cheap, immediate food. This, I think, also applies to your post today on fashion.

    What does this mean? Is it more “get big, get niche, or get out”? Is it a consequence of people being better informed? Is it an issue of too much choice (ref. to Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice”)? Is it – as you posted today – because people want to be more “vivid”? All of these seem as if they could be relevant parts to the answer.

  5. Andy

    I am doing a research report on how bad junk food is for you and I need the name of your auther for this article but i searched and search and still could not find the authe. so pleas next time can you write the authers name.

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