(Part 2 of 3: The Meaning of Food)
I ended last week’s column hinting at “what exactly food as a concept means to our human societies in general.” Food means more than just a source of sustenance to human societies. It holds a place in a deeper part of our consciousness. Or it used to.
Traditionally, meals used to be a time when people gathered together, indulging in not only a taste of the Earth’s bounty, but also a sense of community with one another. Special or symbolic meals and foods play an integral role in many religious celebrations and ceremonies, and different types of meals — often seasonally-linked — have been a part of cultures for eons.
Food in America is undeniably linked to our culture, though it has changed over the past century. A hundred years ago, a meal used to come from the farm your family worked on: the vegetables from the garden, the meat from the cow recently slaughtered, the bread from grain grown in the fields. Families used to come in from a long day and sit down to a communal meal at the kitchen table, exchanging news of their lives and the world.
Even 50 years ago, families gathered at the kitchen table for dinner. Even though the food came from the supermarket, and possibly at least some of it from a box or can, at least the people eating it still engaged with each other while dining.
Today’s typical dinner table looks drastically different from these first two scenarios. The food most likely came from a box, or worse, a fast food bag. And the family is likely not sitting down to the table together, but rather eating in fragmented “shifts,” as my family and others like to call it.
Given this upbringing most Lawrence students likely had, where dinner was a fragmented affair between school, sports games and music lessons, you’d actually be surprised at how well the “family meal” actually holds up at college. Looking around at Downer, you usually see the same groups of friends sitting at the same tables in A, B or C room at around the same time each night of the week. This is the college version of the “family dinner.” Somehow, in our busy lives, we still manage to all sit down together and eat a meal. Granted, mealtime is made easier by the fact that we need not cook a meal, but simply walk through a line and choose our meal from a variety of items. And many of us still have to “eat and run” to rehearsal, to homework, to meetings.
Still, dinner at Downer is less about food and more about the company (which is good, given that the food is … well, Downerish). We’ve managed to maintain the structure of dinnertime, but the significance of the meal we eat is gone. The struggle becomes, then, how to preserve meaning in what we eat when eating limited options from a buffet line. For many of these foods, we don’t even know their names, much less their contents, method of cooking, or source of ingredients. With the exception of the (occasionally correct) “VGN” (vegan) and “V” (vegetarian) labels, and the “Provided by SLUG” labels (now rare in the middle of winter), the food we eat at Downer has lost it’s dimensionality.
Even beyond cafeteria food, much of the food we eat today is dimensionless: what we eat, we view as simply a “hamburger” or a “salad,” without considering the rich stories behind the food. This is why it becomes easy to ignore the fact that most meat comes from factory farms, where cattle live in cages barely larger than themselves, eating hormones, antibiotics and corn feed. It’s easy to ignore the living conditions of migrant workers who pick our spinach. It’s easy to ignore the thousands of gallons of fossil fuel burned to ship our food the thousands of miles from its source to our neighborhood grocery stores.
Far from the intimate connection between farmer and kitchen table that we have long since lost, we don’t even have a connection between the drive-thru boy and the passenger-seat “table.” Mealtime has gone from being a thoughtful event to a mechanistic necessity.
But there is a larger lesson in this than just to be more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths; the way we eat in modern society is symbolic of the way we conduct our lives in general. We are constantly in a rush, we rarely think through the things we buy and use, be it soap or Burger King, and how they affect our bodies and our planet, and we often ignore those individuals around us and the social relationships that make us human. But, perhaps, if we start to think about our food, it will start us thinking more about other things, too.
(Part 2 of 3: The Meaning of Food)