Eat Right Here: The Cultural Politics of Ethical Eating

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Why is the discussion of healthy eating habits so morally wrought?
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"Eating Right in America" by Charlotte Biltekoff explores a hundred years of dietary reform and ethical eating movements in America.

Eating Right in America (Duke University Press, 2013) explores the dietary reform movements that in the past century have shaped America’s ideas about good nutrition and public health. Along the way, author Charlotte Biltekoff covers topics ranging from the alternative food movement to the contemporary fight against obesity. This excerpt from the first chapter details the author’s early experiences in California with ideas of ethical eating.

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A Call for Ethical Eating

This project began in the mid-1990s when I was working as a cook in San Francisco and discovered a book called Perfection Salad in a used bookstore. Laura Shapiro’s history of the domestic science movement enthralled me both because of the story it told, through food, about the aspirations of a generation of women responding to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration and because its very existence assured me that, as I had suspected, it was possible and productive to rethink American history through the lens of food. Shapiro’s subjects were reformers who believed that changing what people ate could improve their morals and character and ultimately could address some of the most difficult social problems—from intemperance to labor unrest—arising in the rapidly industrializing urban centers of the American Northeast. Ellen Richards, the leader of the domestic science movement, was convinced that teaching people to eat right was essential to creating responsible and moral citizens and maintaining a stable social order. I was struck by the resonance between these ideas about the social importance of eating habits one hundred years earlier and what a certain restaurateur-turned-activist was beginning to preach to a very receptive audience in Berkeley and beyond. Alice Waters was passionately urging people to recognize the connection between eating and ethics, and through her Edible Schoolyard project was attempting to show exactly how teaching people to eat right could create responsible citizens and address problems in the social order—from nihilism to violence and environmental degradation.

Waters’s ideas about how we should be eating in order to protect our most cherished resources, both social and environmental, resonated with me and many of my friends. I had grown up allergic to milk in the shadow of a family dairy business—my great grandfather had started making cottage cheese in his bathtub in the 1920s, and by the time I came along the business had grown to include yogurt, sour cream, and chip dip—so I knew something about the social significance of eating habits. I learned even more about the politics of dietary choice and the complex relationships between morality and health after, without giving it much thought, I became a vegetarian at the age of thirteen (remaining so for about seventeen years). I barely made it through my second year of college on the East Coast before declaring that I was moving to California to ‘‘work with vegetables,’’ and by the time I discovered Shapiro and Waters I was a cook at Greens, a well-known vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco founded in 1979 by the San Francisco Zen Center. In the Greens kitchen I absorbed the meaningfulness of the seasons, learned to express my appreciation of good produce through skilled but restrained technique, and developed a worldview in which food was a language for emotions, relationships, and values. I wrote a food column for a local paper, published a community cookbook called Delicious, which was bound with chopsticks and wire, and gave readings at local open mics with a wooden spoon in my pocket. Greens was in many ways a cultural and culinary sibling of Waters’s Chez Panisse, and Waters’s ideas seemed utterly sensible, intuitive, and right to me. Of course we should eat ethically, value the table as a place for community and family, know where our food came from. But the hundred-year-old voice of Ellen Richards taunted me into questioning, instead of joining, the revolution.

Waters’s convictions were surprisingly similar to Richards’s. While Waters’s aim was to overturn exactly the changes in the food system that Shapiro credits the domestic scientists with ushering in (scientific rationality, standardization, industrialization), she shared Richards’s fundamental insistence that teaching people to eat right was essential to social well-being and that, by ignoring food, the public schools were failing in their mandate to train citizens. How could two reformers with such entirely divergent ideas about how people should eat be at the same time so completely alike in their convictions about why it was important to teach people how to eat? Clearly there was something meaningful about telling people how to eat right that transcended the dietary advice itself.

I enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue these questions and finish my undergraduate degree. I cut back my hours at Greens, traded creative writing about food for academic writing about food reformers, and wrote a senior thesis called ‘‘Banana Salad and Squash Blossoms: A Comparative History of Two Food Reform Movements.’’ The thesis was an exploration of the relationship between the domestic science movement and the ‘‘Delicious Revolution’’ that Alice Waters was fomenting. Through the process of researching and writing, I came to believe that the relationship between Richards and Waters was not at all random or coincidental, but rather the result of a set of cultural beliefs about the meaning of eating right that inspired both of them to see improving people’s eating habits as a way to improve their moral character. I began to understand that the reformers involved in both movements played a certain cultural role even when they were not aware of doing so, delineating social norms and imposing the values of the middle class through the seemingly neutral language of diet. My qualms about joining Waters’s revolution evolved into a critique of the dietary reform impulse itself, and I started to find it odd that dietary advice was commonly treated as nothing more than the beneficent application of knowledge to the aspiration of living better, healthier lives. By the time national alarm about obesity had reached a near deafening pitch, in the late 1990s, I was in graduate school. Having seen dire warnings about the diets of Americans before—in Ellen Richards’s early-twentieth-century caution that the future of the race depended on eating habits, for example—I was certain that understanding the history of dietary reform was essential to making sense of the campaign against obesity and its social ramifications.

I hope to illuminate the cultural politics of dietary health in America so we can better understand what happens when we define good diets, talk about eating right, or try to improve other people’s eating habits. What are we really talking about when we talk about dietary health? Why is the question of what to eat so morally fraught? Why is teaching people to eat right such a compelling project for the American middle class? What does it really mean to eat right in America? I present the stories of four seemingly distinct reform movements, exposing their continuities and discontinuities, in order to answer these questions. I start with the contention that despite seemingly scientific origins, dietary ideals are cultural, subjective, and political. While its primary aim may be to improve health, the process of teaching people to ‘‘eat right’’ inevitably involves shaping certain kinds of subjects, and citizens, and shoring up the identity and social boundaries of the ever-threatened American middle class.

The story I tell here is about dietary ideals and the people who have dedicated themselves to promoting ‘‘eating right’’ as a biological and social good. While it’s designed to help us understand the social role of ideas about ‘‘good diets,’’ this story also illuminates several larger issues, including the cultural politics of health, the historical dynamics of class, and the process of social normalization. The history of dietary reform, for example, raises questions about the massive role that health and health promotion has come to play in our individual and social lives over the last century, and particularly since the 1970s. In tracing this expansion through the history of dietary reform, I hope to provoke a dialogue about what health really means to us, and what its pursuit should look like. Are there important social concerns and aims that the emphasis on health obscures rather than promotes? This history also gives us a chance to think anew about how culturally constructed class differences can come to seem like the natural basis for, rather than the result of, social distinction. I hope to cause readers to think about dietary health as a privilege with consequences that extend far beyond the biomedical. The history of dietary reform also adds to our understanding of how ideas about proper behavior and good citizenship are worked out. This history reveals a means of normalization that is usually obscured by the assumed objectivity of scientific discourses, reminding us that in order to understand and act responsibly within the social world we inhabit, we must be bold about the scope of our critical thinking, extending cultural criticism into realms— like dietary health—that are often reserved for science.

Reprinted with permission from Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health by Charlotte Biltekoff and published by Duke University Press, 2013.

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