Friday, September 20, 2013

Food As Totems and Power


I am coupling the next two readings in my Blog Camp Goes to MIT class.  The topics involved a continuation of the paradoxes and dilemmas that we began last week, and next weeks food and power.  I know that preparing for the wedding that we are hosting on the farm next weekend, will take my focus away from next weeks reading, so I did it a little early.

The bulk of the reading on paradoxes came from Cheap Meat:  Flap Food Nations In the Pacific Islands.  I had very mixed feelings about this book.  The authors both redundancies and justifications quickly became tiresome.  I was however introduced to the meat flap industry and how these cheap meats are sold off to make sure every ounce of profit can be gained from a pieced out carcass.  They are cheap enough that most of the impoverished islanders,  not only buy them, but have had them so ingrained in their eating culture, they enjoy and depend on them.  This in great part results in the terrible obesity problems of the area, specifically the people of Papua New Guinea that were a focus of this book.  The information was dense with much detail about the processors and the traders.  

One concept that really stuck with me was the thought of food as totems.  "The fact that some eat flaps and others avoid them is recognized not just as a reflection of personal preference (as, perhaps, with eating or avoiding broccoli) but as a mark of group membership.  Simply put, flap eaters are seen as distinguished in important ways from refusers.  In this regard, flaps operate much as do 'totems'."  and   "Totems are potent objects, often animals or plants, that serve to define groups and identities---both in and out of themselves and in contrast to those of others."   Food is more than just nutrition, it is an identifier of status, tribe, culture, and power. 

When looking at the chapter from Sidney W. Mintz's  book Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom she speaks a lot about the "inside meaning" versus the "outside meaning" of power.  The inside meaning is what it means to the people who are consuming, while the outside meaning is what meaning is taken by those in control.  I think this was best illustrated when discussing the military during World War II.  What better venue to show this than large volumes of soldiers who are regimented to when, where, and what they eat.  I found it especially interesting that these soldiers, coming off of the Great Depression, were now in a situation where they were not only getting three square meals a day, but they were served meat 21 times a week! "They were also given vast quantities of coffee and sweets of all sorts; there were sugar bowls on every table, and twice a day, without fail, the meal ended with dessert.  They ate what they were given; what they were given was decided by power holders who functioned outside the army and outside their direct experience."  Power.  Just as the soldiers during the war experienced power with their food, those stateside had their own experience through rationing. 

 Through all of this, one company grew dramatically, the Southern based Coca-Cola Company.  Soldiers were not given soda, but it was readily available to purchase.  A General Marshall, in order to keep a supply of Coca-Cola available at the front, "gave Coca-Cola the same status in the wartime economy as that occupied by food and munitions.  Coca-Cola was thus spared sugar rationing.  In all, sixty-four Coca-Cola plants were established in allied theaters of war."  Now talk about not only power, but establishing a culture, a headline, a totem.  Soda become more main stream versus a periodic treat.  Now we have generations of soda drinkers, further exacerbating our addiction to sugar, and now the even worse for us sugar substitutes. Quick poll,  how many of you when looking for cola, ask for a Coke?  It is a totem.

Another example of this idea of power can hearken back to the people of Papua New Guinea.  Brisket was popular to be ground as hamburger in first world nations.  There was a call for concern about nodules that were found in the meat.  "This left Australian meat processors with a great volume of low-value beef clogging their freezers."  So it was thus introduced to the pacific islanders who developed a taste for it.  "once nodules were no longer declared a health hazard, the brisket trade immediately shifted back to North America.  Significantly, we were told, the sudden withdrawal of brisket left Papua New Guinea with 'a big, gaping desire'."  enter meat flaps.  Does not this whole debacle wreak of food being used as power?  It was given, then taken away, leaving those in it's stead with a craving that was ultimately to be satisfied with an even cheaper, less healthy, substitute.   

Interesting to look at the influencers isn't it?  I look forward to learning more about the industrialization of food and then moving into culturally authentic food.  How do we put all of these pieces together to form where we are today?  More importantly, we can better understand where we are headed, and what we can do to make positive change.


  1. oh, that flaps book annoyed me so much that i think i let their message get lost in my annoyance. it must be horrible to be so insecure that it has to pervade your work with constant self-justifications. *sigh* but i digress.

    apropos the shifting out of the brisket, i think there's a similar shift happening, at least with pork, as i've seen pork belly on some pretty trendy menus (including noma in copenhagen, no. 2 restaurant in the world), so maybe the flaps too will rise in value and be taken from the pacific islanders. i wonder what will replace them then?

    i do however, like this food totem notion...i think there are many of us using organic and whole grain and biodynamic as food totems. giving it the distinction of a totem makes sense. tho' i can't help but picture a tall carved post with organic milk cartons and carrots with the tops and savoy cabbage and wheat sheaves. weird how the word "totem" means totem pole in my mind's eye.

  2. I think this totem idea might go a little ways towards explaining all the niche diets. I know paleo dieters that will aggressively badger you to become one of them and vegans who will haunt you with emails of grisly slaughterhouse videos. It's as if these people have been caught up in a cause and then appropriated it as an identity, or a totem. A totem pole to beat people over the head with? Maybe I just know some particularly ardent people.



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