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:
theres an awareness of food and a love of food and an array of choices that weve 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, Marthas making it for us. Marthas making it so we dont have to. Marthas making it because, lets be honest, we dont 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.