As a child, I used to eat a very limited diet, consisting of fish fingers and bread. Apparently, I kept this up for some time and even visited the doctor who stated that so long as I was eating something, fish fingers and bread do provide some degree of nutritional value. Nowadays, my diet is so much more varied. But recently, I have been thinking about food and its representation in the media and the role it plays in peoples' lives. This will be a blog entry in fragments. Small slices of a greater whole that may not sustain your appetite for long but could be like an appetiser.
Food as Ritual
Our most persistent image of food consumption throughout various cultural forms consists of various groupings sitting around a table eating. The environment could be a working class dining room in a soap such as Eastenders or an expensive restaurant in films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The one thing that most of the cultural appearances of gatherings shares is a sense of impending doom. Something happens during the meal that disrupts the family in some way. The ritual of eating a meal together is seen as a necessary evil to bring certain tensions to a head. The most extreme example of a dinner in any film is probably the one that features in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Family in question are cannibals and killers, archetypal rednecks who have little conception of morality and for whom inbreeding seems to be the order of the day. Leatherface, that iconic horror heartthrob, with his mask made out of human skin is actually the character you feel most sorry for as the film progresses as he isn't the smartest individual on the planet. Anyhow, at one point in the film, the Family are sitting around a table with a woman tied up with her head over her bucket, whilst the Grandfather figure who seems virtually dead is trying to smash her head in with a hammer. He is unsuccessful and continues to drop the hammer. This scene is horrible for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that the other Family members are cheering the Grandfather on reminding him of his past life as a butcher when he was one of the most successful killers around. Indeed, the film is like a condensed overview of the butchery trade and the horror is in the detail; the meat hooks and the bloody aprons. The dinner scene is quite long and by the end of it, you feel as deranged as the Family. The captured woman gets away but that doesn't detract from the fact that here is yet another family meal where things go very wrong. In soap operas and dramatic films, the family meal is revelatory. The sordid little secrets come to light as the Xmas crackers are pulled or the birthday cake is sliced.
Food as Art Form
Food preparation and presentation are often glamorised in the various medias. A fortune is made from the sales of celebrity endorsed cookery books yet it's intriguing to think how many of these books are actually used. On TV cookery programmes, you either encounter cooks such as Nigella Lawson, who eroticses every aspect of preparation (Why not accidentally stick your thumb in chocolate and suck it off?) or smug ex working class boys such as Jamie Oliver who just seems to throw his dishes together. The one thing that the TV chefs share in common is how immaculate their dishes seem when they are finished. They are miniature works of art. They could taste like excrement but from the viewer's perspective, they represent something obtainable. An art object to potentially please a spouse or potential partner.
Food as Political Issue
Everyone probably remembers Jamie Oliver's little campaign to improve the quality of school meals. He made quite a name for himself with his holier than thou attitude towards the food served in schools in Peterlee etc. Now interestingly, what was not widely considered was the cost of his healthy eating campaign and whether it was economically viable in the long term. I have seen no reference to his campaign for awhile, although politicians etc were quick to jump on his bandwagon. What becomes clear the more that you consider it is the cost of a healthy diet. Fruit and vegetables are not cheap. Schools are looking for the cheapest suppliers to make sure that their children get something to eat. I think it's time to look at how supermarkets, politicians and parents can help to improve the diets of children but politicians are too tied up with the practical implications of obesity overlooking the causes in favour of the effects. Yes, we can see that children seem to be getting fatter but doesn't this have something to do with the fact that unhealthy food is actually cheaper and lasts longer than fruit and vegetables? Also it's regularly more pleasant to taste, if not healthily so.
Food to Excess
Based on the obesity argument, the UK eats too much unhealthy food. Looking at the situation slightly differently, its arguable that at various points in our lives, we all eat too much. Food is a comfort during periods of depression. The consumption of chocolate is known to help with the development of serotonin levels, which help us to feel more upbeat and positive. Also from a practical perspective, we should theoretically eat more in the winter to keep us warm. Excessive eating is horrible to see in various films that explore gluttony such as the aforementioned, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Le Grande Bouffe. The latter film being a particularly eye opening exploration of a group of wealthy people who decide to eat themselves to death. At one point, it becomes clear that extreme eating habits not only play havoc with your digestive system but also lead to blocked toilets. Also the Mr Creosote sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus helps to reiterate the notion that gluttony is tied up with social standing, which is arguably no longer true as truly expensive dishes are minute and more to do with aesthetics and taste than size. True gluttony seems to be more associated with disillusioned individuals of all social classes for whom food is a substitute for happiness or simply a life raft.
The Future of Food
Food will no longer be taken for granted in the wake of the scandal concerning horse meat detected in a certain brand of burgers. We can no longer assume that the food we eat is actually what we think it is. People suffer from allergies to aspects of food and food preparation, which seems to be a recent phenomena, possibly connected with the continued usage of colourings and flavourings to help to mask the fact that the majority of the food we eat is so far removed from what we originally perceived it to be that we may as well eat a bar of chocolate rather than a loaf of bread as it's probably healthier for us.
The ongoing struggle we all experience concerning what constitutes healthy and what is unhealthy for us will remain until we finally face up to the fact that we are food too. Our bodies are veritable pick and mixes for organisms. We are literally finger licking good to some. Let's celebrate food but let's not forget that we form part of the food chain too.
Barry Watt - 21st January 2013