Change We Can Eat

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on the new food movement in France, which calls itself Le Fooding, got me to thinking a bit about three of my favorite topics – food, cooking, and politics.  Bear with me through a short discussion of Le Fooding till we get to the meat of the matter…

French cuisine at its finest - beef bourguignon, a fusion of peasant food and modern palates.

Le Fooding is a curious movement against the museum culture of haute cooking in France.  Its supporters claim a desire to rescue French food from its stodginess and outdated place within international chef circles. As good as French food is, it has been decades since France was truly considered the center of the cooking world.  Perhaps its neighbor to the west, Spain, can lay claim to part of that title now with a restaurant like El Bulli consistently topping the list of world’s best (though unfortunately slated to close for good in 2011).

Le Fooding, however, has mystified many of its supporters because of its uncertain platform: is it a political vehicle laying siege to the right-wing defense of French haute cuisine, a celebration of “modern” food, or something else entirely? The writers of Le Fooding’s guides (a competitor to Michelin, which enshrined the old culture of French cooking) claim it is an attempt to reintroduce spontaneity to French cooking, and to break down the old wall between la cuisine de bistrot and la grande cuisine française.

Without turning this into a discourse on contemporary foodie culture, there is a more universal question here.  Within his piece Gopnik has one of the more profound statements on the food reform movement(s) I’ve seen:

“Change we can eat. . . . The Western world has been filled with food-reform movements in the past twenty years. Slow Food, the Edible Schoolyard, the various vegetarian and ethical movements sprung by the likes of Peter Singer—in no other time would a highly regarded young novelist like Jonathan Safran Foer view a book about the anti-animal-eating movement as a necessary extension of his oeuvre, the way a novelist in the sixties might have felt obliged to write a book about the antiwar movement. This proves, depending on your point of view, either that the reform of food has become essential to the reform of life or that, failing in the reform of life, we reform our food instead.”

In our late-capitalist society something fascinating has happened: the locus of grassroots democratic thought and action for millions in the West is no longer labor struggles (though perhaps this is slowly reemerging) or even the great identity politics movements of the 1960s New Left which seem to have ground to a halt with the exception of the marriage equality fight.  Yet how many of us are personally involved with or know someone concerned with expanding access to local, organic, food? While we can argue the benefits of Wal-Mart stocking industrial organic produce there is no doubting its significance as a reflection of the growing consciousness of Westerners to problems in how we eat and what we eat.  Documentaries like Food, Inc. are nominated for Oscars; authors such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman become cultural celebrities due to their food activism. Trends at the cutting edge of the culinary world have lately harked back to simple dishes made well using heritage breeds and traditional recipes.

So why food, and why now? It is too simple to answer because we all eat – yes, but so what? We all work, too, and this is hardly an era of increased class consciousness in the workplace.

I think, though I can’t be sure, that the growing “food movement” is a sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious understanding of human alienation in capitalist society.  At its core capitalism divorces the producer from the tools of production: workers do not own the machines they use to produce, nor do they have a say in how they produce or in where the surplus of that production is directed.  Georg Lukács developed a theory of how this process replicates itself in other social relationships across modern society, concluding that capitalism affects not just the worker at the point of production, but in how we interact with each other as human beings.  Every relationship bears the marks of commodification, some more, some less.  We define ourselves by how we consume, what we consume, and how much we consume.

This has reached a point, where to quote Guy Debord:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

Our link to farms was the first to go as our great-grandparents or grandparents moved into the cities; fast food divorced us from having to learn how to cook or share a communal meal; factory farms, monocropping, and government subsidies aimed towards quantity have removed us from the environmental effects of food production and its true cost.  Perhaps the best example of this is the boneless, skinless chicken breast: ubiquitous in American culture but essentially flavorless, and there is no skin, bone, or blood to join this object to the living fowl it had until recently been.

Today much of what we consider food might best be labeled “food” because of its slight resemblance to real food and heavy processing.  Herein, I believe, lies the potentially radical nature of the food movement.  Food and food products are tangible to all of us, as are their negative effects (children with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on).  The physical base of late-capitalism, the population itself, is being eroded because of poor diet and nutrition provided by the intrinsic logic of producing food as a cheap commodity no different than tires or video games.  Our reaction to this as a society has the potential to veer off in very interesting ways that could be radical, class conscious, and very democratic.

The questions surrounding food production lay at a crucial nexus within capitalism.  Demands for local production and reconnecting farmers with urban consumers have the potential to empower urban workers and small farmers vis-à-vis agribusiness and middlemen.  Organic, local food costs more to produce (though is usually more nutritious and healthier), opening the door for wage demands to be made hand-in-hand with that for healthier food.  Redistribution of subsidies from huge grain monocrops in the Midwest to more regional, healthier farming would be a direct attack on large agri-capitalism (and perhaps benefit farmers in the world periphery as well).  A urban working class demanding higher wages and a say crafting the next Farm Bill might be more vigorous in its attack on other reactionary aspects of our plutonomy.   A movement towards re-learning to cook at home and as a group is a move toward restoring a lost part of the public sphere.

In the end, the food movement is conscious-in-itself, but only sporadically conscious-for-itself as a radical force.  The very idea of local control over food, democratically decided by citizens and not the market or a bureaucracy, is a strike at the heart of capitalist alienation.  It is by no means certain this path will be followed to this radical conclusion, or that it will spawn a reanalysis of life in capitalist society.  Yet more than any other movement of the last half-century the potential, in embryo, for this kind of thing exists.  That, in itself, is something to make us raise a glass, and a fork.


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