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If in some segments of the left the food movement is like a religion, albeit without a presiding god, then it also has a religion’s sects and splinter groups. And it has a religion’s zealots. In Brooklyn, where I live, rules about what to eat and even when to eat often take on a fundamentalist, uncompromising cast. Like old-time Methodist parents forbidding their children to dance, many of my neighbors hold a hard line against ever serving or eating white sugar, soda or processed snacks, believing them to be corrupting and defiling influences.
So pervasive is this idea of righteous eating that its opposite — unhealthy or careless eating — is regarded in some circles as the ultimate in sinfulness. When, inspired by the online hullabaloo over the coming “end” of the Mayan calendar, I asked my Facebook friends (admittedly a self-selected group) how they would spend their last days on Earth, a surprising number included “bad” food in their answers, evoking an end-times scenario that looked more like a snow day than an apocalypse.
What people seemed to want most of all was to sit around with their loved ones eating foods high in fats and processed sugar. One person talked about cheesecake. Another imagined pancakes. A third lusted after whiskey and “high-calorie snacks.” A high school acquaintance posted a 1975 advertisement featuring Twiggy flogging a product called Fry’s Chocolate Cream; in it, the model implicitly links sweets to another, more conventional sin: masturbation.
Apocalyptic certainty has, in other times and in other populations, evoked much more dramatic and high-stakes behavior. One might decide, as the earliest Christians did, to give one’s life to Jesus. Or one might participate in a mass suicide, as the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult did in 1997, consuming phenobarbital washed down with pineapple and vodka. In the recent movie “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” Keira Knightley and Steve Carell play characters who fall in love while those around them loot and pillage, engage in nonstop illicit sex and get high.
So, what does it say about this time and place that the most egregious sinfulness a person can imagine is gorging on cheese popcorn?
Possibly it’s because, as happens sometimes with religion, the food movement’s rules and structures have overtaken its original inspiration and intent. There are doctrines and dogmas. Food needs to be “good, clean and fair,” according to one of the movement’s foundational texts, the 2007 book “Slow Food Nation.” There are incantations, including this oft-repeated one from Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are rituals and sacraments. On the popular food blog Dinner: A Love Story, a working mother recently wrote in to say how preparing a batch of homemade hummus each week helped her keep “body and soul together.” The movement even has an Italian pope in Carlo Petrini, founder of the slow food movement, along with various cardinals (Pollan, Alice Waters), bishops and priests.
Like adherents to a religion, members of the food movement believe fervently that their way is right and good — not just for their bodies and minds, but also for their families, their communities and even the world. In its philosophy and world view, Glut, a food co-op in Mount Rainier, might as well be any progressive mainline Protestant church, but without Jesus. “Glut,” its Web site says, “has traditionally supported peace, environmental and social justice movements.”
By preparing food carefully and eating it mindfully, practitioners say, they can even get a glimpse of something like the divine. In the recently released book “Reinventing the Meal,” psychologist Pavel Somov promises to “reinfuse meaning and compassion into our shared human project of existence” by teaching people how to transform quotidian mealtime into a meditative and even transcendent event.
“I think slow food can be understood as a form of contemplative practice,” says Douglas Christie, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who is an expert on the Christian contemplative tradition and has just published “The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology.”
Christie mourns that in some of its American versions, food religion is fused with a certain American Puritanism, a “precious, ideological, rigid attitude toward our bodies and holding back.” These food Puritans shun the everyday delicious, sensual, transporting, aspects of food, so in the apocalypse, they are driven to their basest, most gluttonous instincts. “When the blowout comes, they think they ‘don’t have to be so Puritanical anymore.’ Wow.”
Food has been at the very center of Western religion since before Jesus. The authors of the Torah were obsessed with what to eat, and the Book of Revelation has questions about meat (what’s permissible, what’s not) at its very core. But there’s something troublesome in all this contemporary focus on food — a solipsism posing as righteousness, as if the biggest questions in the world of morality, truth and justice (the questions that used to belong to God) could be solved with a locally farmed chevre and by denying oneself, and one’s children, an Oreo.
Image by TheCulinaryGeek