Is food the new sex?

I take the title of Mary Eberstadt’s remarkable essay in Stanford University’s Policy Review.

An excerpt:

“Begin with a tour of Betty’s kitchen. Much of what she makes comes from jars and cans. Much of it is also heavy on substances that people of our time are told to minimize — dairy products, red meat, refined sugars and flours — because of compelling research about nutrition that occurred after Betty’s time. Betty’s freezer is filled with meat every four months by a visiting company that specializes in volume, and on most nights she thaws a piece of this and accompanies it with food from one or two jars. If there is anything “fresh” on the plate, it is likely a potato. Interestingly, and rudimentary to our contemporary eyes though it may be, Betty’s food is served with what for us would appear to be high ceremony, i.e., at a set table with family members present.

As it happens, there is little that Betty herself, who is adventurous by the standards of her day, will not eat; the going slogan she learned as a child is about cleaning your plate, and not doing so is still considered bad form. Aside from that notion though, which is a holdover to scarcer times, Betty is much like any other American home cook in 1958. She likes making some things and not others, even as she prefers eating some things to others — and there, in personal aesthetics, does the matter end for her. It’s not that Betty lacks opinions about food. It’s just that the ones she has are limited to what she does and does not personally like to make and eat.

Now imagine one possible counterpart to Betty today, her 30-year-old granddaughter Jennifer. Jennifer has almost no cans or jars in her cupboard. She has no children or husband or live-in boyfriend either, which is why her kitchen table on most nights features a laptop and goes unset. Yet interestingly enough, despite the lack of ceremony at the table, Jennifer pays far more attention to food, and feels far more strongly in her convictions about it, than anyone she knows from Betty’s time.

Wavering in and out of vegetarianism, Jennifer is adamantly opposed to eating red meat or endangered fish. She is also opposed to industrialized breeding, genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, and to pesticides and other artificial agents. She tries to minimize her dairy intake, and cooks tofu as much as possible. She also buys “organic” in the belief that it is better both for her and for the animals raised in that way, even though the products are markedly more expensive than those from the local grocery store. Her diet is heavy in all the ways that Betty’s was light: with fresh vegetables and fruits in particular. Jennifer has nothing but ice in her freezer, soymilk and various other items her grandmother wouldn’t have recognized in the refrigerator, and on the counter stands a vegetable juicer she feels she “ought” to use more.

Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can.

In short, with regard to food, Jennifer falls within Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Categorical Imperative: She acts according to a set of maxims that she wills at the same time to be universal law.

Betty, on the other hand, would be baffled by the idea of dragooning such moral abstractions into the service of food. This is partly because, as a child of her time, she was impressed — as Jennifer is not — about what happens when food is scarce (Betty’s parents told her often about their memories of the Great Depression; and many of the older men of her time had vivid memories of deprivation in wartime). Even without such personal links to food scarcity, though, it makes no sense to Betty that people would feel as strongly as her granddaughter does about something as simple as deciding just what goes into one’s mouth. That is because Betty feels, as Jennifer obviously does not, that opinions about food are simply de gustibus, a matter of individual taste — and only that.

This clear difference in opinion leads to an intriguing juxtaposition. Just as Betty and Jennifer have radically different approaches to food, so do they to matters of sex. For Betty, the ground rules of her time — which she both participates in and substantially agrees with — are clear: Just about every exercise of sex outside marriage is subject to social (if not always private) opprobrium. Wavering in and out of established religion herself, Betty nevertheless clearly adheres to a traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethic. Thus, for example, Mr. Jones next door “ran off” with another woman, leaving his wife and children behind; Susie in the town nearby got pregnant and wasn’t allowed back in school; Uncle Bill is rumored to have contracted gonorrhea; and so on. None of these breaches of the going sexual ethic is considered by Betty to be a good thing, let alone a celebrated thing. They are not even considered to be neutral things. In fact, they are all considered by her to be wrong.

Most important of all, Betty feels that sex, unlike food, is not de gustibus. She believes to the contrary that there is a right and wrong about these choices that transcends any individual act. She further believes that the world would be a better place, and individual people better off, if others believed as she does. She even proselytizes such on occasion when given the chance.

In short, as Jennifer does with food, Betty in the matter of sex fulfills the requirements for Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Jennifer’s approach to sex is just about 180 degrees different. She too disapproves of the father next door who left his wife and children for a younger woman; she does not want to be cheated on herself, or to have those she cares about cheated on either. These ground-zero stipulations, aside, however, she is otherwise laissez-faire on just about every other aspect of nonmarital sex. She believes that living together before marriage is not only morally neutral, but actually better than not having such a “trial run.” Pregnant unwed Susie in the next town doesn’t elicit a thought one way or the other from her, and neither does Uncle Bill’s gonorrhea, which is of course a trivial medical matter between him and his doctor.

Jennifer, unlike Betty, thinks that falling in love creates its own demands and generally trumps other considerations — unless perhaps children are involved (and sometimes, on a case-by-case basis, then too). A consistent thinker in this respect, she also accepts the consequences of her libertarian convictions about sex. She is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, indifferent to ethical questions about stem cell research and other technological manipulations of nature (as she is not, ironically, when it comes to food), and agnostic on the question of whether any particular parental arrangements seem best for children. She has even been known to watch pornography with her boyfriend, at his coaxing, in part to show just how very laissez-faire she is.
Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer — exceptions noted — does not. It’s not that Jennifer lacks for opinions about sex, any more than Betty does about food. It’s just that, for the most part, they are limited to what she personally does and doesn’t like.

Thus far, what the imaginary examples of Betty and Jennifer have established is this: Their personal moral relationships toward food and toward sex are just about perfectly reversed. Betty does care about nutrition and food, but it doesn’t occur to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment — i.e., to believe that other people ought to do as she does in the matter of food, and that they are wrong if they don’t. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way; it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. Jennifer, similarly, does care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex; but it seldom occurs to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong in a different way — because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done.

On the other hand, Jennifer is genuinely certain that her opinions about food are not only nutritionally correct, but also, in some deep, meaningful sense, morally correct — i.e., she feels that others ought to do something like what she does. And Betty, on the other hand, feels exactly the same way about what she calls sexual morality.

As noted, this desire to extend their personal opinions in two different areas to an “ought” that they think should be somehow binding — binding, that is, to the idea that others should do the same — is the definition of the Kantian imperative. Once again, note: Betty’s Kantian imperative concerns sex not food, and Jennifer’s concerns food not sex. In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.

What has happened here? ”

Link here to the full article.

Love these sorts of articles. Years ago a friend of mine wrote a short one that I never quite agreed with but still found an interesting idea. He interpreted the stainless steel and all around industrial look of the modern kitchen (this was written ten years ago), as evocative of the workplace. Our life had become so ergo-centric that we could not help but bring the same efficiency and devotion to labour into the kitchen.

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3 responses to “Is food the new sex?

  1. Pingback: Lazy blogger « Picture This

  2. First of all, thank you for presenting this to everyone here.

    After reading it – and the full essay too – I have two objections. One is comparatively minor the other major.

    First; on its surface it seems like a small thing but I just can’t get past the use of the term “pro-abortion.” It is just ludicrously wrong! A pro-abortion stance would be something akin to, “an abortion is a life affirming medical procedure that should be experience by every woman, at least once in her lifetime.” As opposed to pro-choice, which is akin to “every woman should have the choice to have an abortion, or not, as the circumstances of her life, financial wellbeing, physical and metal health dictate to her.” It makes me bonkers!

    My second objection is the assumption made by the author that Betty isn’t deeply concerned with nutrition. In fact, Betty’s life’s work was entirely tied up in feeding her family the best food they could afford, and plenty of it! Just as she was told there were absolute rights and wrongs about sex, she was told by trusted sources that feeding her family from these jars, cans, and large scale meat deliveries was both absolutely safe and absolutely nutritious. She was TOLD to trust large scale food producers, and in return they’ll remove the tedium from her work so she could spend more time nurturing – not just feeding – her family at the dinner table.

    The argument that for Betty food isn’t a moral issue, but sex is, and vice versa still holds up, but I think it needs to be made clearer that Betty in her day was following a socially accepted model for what she laid on the table as well as what she laid on the…you get my drift.

    The fact remains that Betty had less choice than Jennifer in both food and sex, which greatly affects the potency of the argument. With less choice, it’s easier to be less choosy.

  3. Good points all. I do agree on the absurdity of “pro-abortion”. And while I accept that either character presented is an extreme, the extreme does serve the purpose of better illustrating the contrast. The reality lies between and as you say, the argument probably still holds.

    The one point I don’t identify with is the “grandmother” trusting official sources, and it may be because I come from an immigrant and farming background, a group which never quite accepted mainstream information sources and so was not only less influenced by food news but also did little store buying.

    But I do know that my grandparents and my parents ate anything they were offered and though of course they had preferences fit very well in with the picture here, and thought that apart from stoking the furnace, the meaning of food as company or communication far outweighed any other value.

    BTW, just realized I should have led this posting off with an image of Lange and Nicholson making whoopee on the kitchen table in Postman or Susan Sarandon applying lemon juice to herself in Atlantic City.

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