Thursday, August 24, 2006

Challenging Capitalist Chow

Slow Food, Good Food: The Fuel of a United Working Class.

In the Devil’s Garden: Sinful History of Forbidden Food by Stewart Lee Allen, the author examines food taboos throughout history, organizing chapters by the seven deadly sins. Among other topics*, Allen discusses the tendency of a ruling or conquering class to create or reject the proletariat’s eating habits, and rigidly enforce those decisions, in order to maintain the status quo.

In the “Gluttony” chapter, Allen writes:

The practice of criminalizing foods that engender laziness first appeared in the legal code of the seventh-century B.C. Spartan civilization. The Spartans did everything they could to make dinner pure hell. Meals were served in communal mess halls and in portions designed to leave citizens hungry. Their national dish was deliberately revolting “black broth,” made of pork stock, blood vinegar, and salt. Citizens whose generous paunches suggested covert snacking were thrown out of the country. Foreign ambassadors who dined with undue elegance were also expelled. The idea behind this madness, according to Plutarch, was to stop citizens from “spending their lives … laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up to the hands of their tradesmen and cooks, who fatten them in corners like greedy brutes.” The code’s creator, Lycurgus, took his creed so seriously he actually starved himself to death.

It’s a notion that recurs regularly throughout Western history. The nineteenth-century English almost banned the potato for fear it would turn its working class into fornicating hobos [as Allen later points out, the potato also allowed the Irish to grow as a populace, threatening the "British land barrons who controlled Ireland." – Ed.], just as the French aristocrats outlawed soft white bread to ensure a hardy peasantry [and to clearly separate the haves from the have-nots – Ed.]. Modern America has raised this technique to technological perfection; consider, for example, “convenience foods” such as Oscar Meyer’s infamous Sack of Sauce in a Can of Meat and premade chocolate sundaes designed so that the microwave melts the sauce but leaves the ice cream intact. TV dinners. McDonald’s. Despite the technological differences between Modern America and Sparta, the principle of using diet to create an ideal working class is identical. Where the Spartans banished citizens who enjoyed eating, modern American just pays them less – about 7 percent among female workers. Both today’s fast-food outlets and Spartan mess halls are/were designed to discourage lingering over dinner and eliminate the need for people to “waste” their time cooking for the family. And, like the Spartans’ legendarily bad food, many of these convenience foods are so unpleasant they make even work look good. They’re also immensely profitable for the corporation who produce them. Perfect: American workers now pay more money for worse food so they can hurry back to jobs they hate.

You’re here for the Socialism, but bear with me for a moment. Think back to the last time you ate a fast-food French fry: did it taste as good as you imagined it might? Probably not, yet that Platonic French fry ideal keeps us going back for more. If you’re over the age of 18, your meal probably left you with a fast food hang-over: that feeling of a lead balloon sitting in the pit of your stomach, tinged with a mouth-craving for more salty, sweet, and greasy food. If you read Fast Food Nation, or even the South Beach Diet, you know that after eating such food, the body’s blood sugar rapidly rises, then precipitously drops, creating cyclical cravings. (The aroma will get you, too.)

Now, here’s the Socialism: it’s hard to think about the quality of your life, let alone start to do something about it via political change, when you’re mired in thoughts of triple-cheeseburgers and dealing with the health complications resulting from a diet of shakes and fried chicken nuggets. A number of foodie blogs espouse the Slow Food movement from a culinary standpoint. But Slow Food should also be embraced by Socialists (and other progressives) on political grounds. The creation of a good meal, using local, quality ingrediants followed by the sensual pleasure of eating such a meal not only supports local farmers and small businesses, not only provides better nourishment for the body and soul, but allows diners to time to think and talk: necessary elements in changing a power structure.

Tonight, do your body, mind, and politics a favor: cook up good meal. Bon appétit.
*Such as the possible reference to Louis XIV’s proclivity toward anal sex with his mistress, Madame du Barry, via her use of “chocolate.” Writes Allen:

When du Barry was repeatedly attacked for using chocolate to around unnatural passions in her lovers, it’s worth remembering that Europeans had originally called chocolate cacao but had changed the name because cacao too closely resembled the word caca, slang for feces. So when French libelles like 1878’s La Comtesse du Barry report that du Barry pulls chocolate out of her rove and ‘the decadent Parisians go crazy with a Roman orgy,’ one can reasonably wonder if this is a discreet reference to some form of anal sex. That is, after all, one of the classical Roman/Greek orgies were celebrated for back then.

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