Review: The Garden of Eating: Food, Sex and the Hunger for Meaning

A food writer who's also a philosopher? After you read Jeremy Iggers' "The Garden of Eating," you'll see why the combination makes sense. Iggers shows how in the modern era the whole subject of food has become, instead of a source of pleasure and sustenance, a well of anxiety. "These days the proffered box of bonbons ... has become yet another battleground in the struggle between discipline and desire," Iggers writes. "'No, really, I shouldn't,' is the predictable reply -- and then you do."The cover of "The Garden of Eating" is quite lovely: a box of chocolate bonbons. It's a measure of how problematic food has become that there's not a female over the age of 11 who can look at that picture with unalloyed pleasure."When the snake enticed Eve in the Garden of Eden, the only food she was forbidden to eat was the apple," writes Iggers. "Today virtually every element of the American diet has become problematic for one reason or another. In the '50s, it was sex that inspired feelings of guilt, anxiety or shame; in the '90s it is food. "The word 'sinful' is hardly ever used today except in connection with dessert. ... In the '50s, good girls didn't have sex; today good girls don't have chocolate."The normal state for most Americans is one of obsession with food. ... for most American women, regardless of their weight, body hatred and body monitoring have become crucial organizing principles of [their] lives."Although it's witty and well-written, I had trouble getting myself to read this book. I didn't want to think about any possible problems in my relationship to food. It was the holiday season; I'd made Rice Krispies Treats and dyed them green, added cinnamon Red Hots and shaped them into wreaths. "This is my signature dish," I told everyone. But I was answering every "How was your Thanksgiving?" and "How was your Christmas?" with the same reply: "I pigged out." I was munching Mom's cookies and treats round the clock. I'd eat a big lunch, then count the hours till I was unfull enough to snack. The inner voice was issuing a continuous stream of castigation, aided by a stomach that was so overfull it hurt. The mind would say, "You shouldn't," and the hand would be reaching out for more.The significance we attach simultaneously to food and slimness was made explicit a few years ago by Albert Brooks in his movie Defending Your Life, in which Brooks and Meryl Streep die and go to heaven. The best thing about heaven was that you could eat all you wanted and never gain weight.Iggers gets deeper into food obsession and guilt than most of us are accustomed to going. But his solutions are not the usual. The standard answers to our fixation on food are:1. Eat all you want, but only of the foods we say are okay (Weight Watchers, Jane Brody).2. Don't let others define your ideal weight; "reclaim our appetites, our bodies and our selves" (feminist psychotherapists Munter and Hirschmann, authors of When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies). Easier said than done. Iggers, to his credit, does not get into whether it's okay to be fat. He includes no recipes. His advice is difficult but, if experience is a guide, not any more so than saying no to those bonbons.How did we arrive at our current infatuated state? Iggers traces Americans' relationship to food from the innocent days of the '50s through the "foodie revolution" of the '60s and '70s to the modern preoccupation with fat, fiber -- and packaging. In the '50s, except for the very poorest, most of us ate a similar diet regardless of class. Iggers quotes food historian Harvey Levenstein that a lawyer's and a clerk's table looked pretty much the same: "Campbell's canned or Lipton's dried soup, broiled meat, frozen French fries and a frozen green vegetable, with supermarket ice cream or a Jell-O concoction for dessert -- an all-American 'square meal.'" Everybody ate tuna fish casserole.Concern about nutrition was there, but not well-informed. A government publication advised the homemaker to include protein foods such as "meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese" in every meal. Cholesterol was not mentioned.Then came Julia Child and "the revolt of the elites." Iggers sees the foodie revolution as an uprising of the "managerial class," determined to set itself off from the benighted masses still gobbling tuna casserole. They would "master the art of French cooking," as Child's cookbook was titled; later they would buy arugula and Evian and balsamic vinegar. They would leave behind the ethic of frugality and social equality that had dominated during the war years and adopt a new morality more adapted to prosperous times: the culture of consumption. Critiques of consumerism are nothing new, but Iggers ingeniously connects the pervading philosophy that "you are what you buy" to the emptiness of our relationship to food. Food becomes both more and less than food. Flavor is removed as it's processed within an inch of its life. Not only does this mean added fat or sugar -- when potatoes are turned into potato chips, for instance -- but it also means that almost everything we consume comes in a package, and every package carries a message."The infinite variety that characterizes the world," Iggers writes, "in which every apple has a slightly different shape, color, taste -- is giving way to a world in which the thing itself -- the apple, hamburger, the cola -- has an absolute generic uniformity, becomes the raw matter onto which symbols can be imprinted. The dry, brown patty at the center of a McDonald's hamburger is merely a marker, an unarticulated hook for the commercial message that the McDonald's corporation hangs on it." Similarly, restaurant dining becomes a marketing experience. Chains such as TGI Friday's or Ruby Tuesday try to create a "high concept" total experience, indistinguishable coast to coast, that in no way depends on the taste or the origin of the food itself. The advertising becomes part of the experience of consuming. "In the postmodern world, it is the experience of consumption that is the source of pleasure," says Iggers, "rather than the physical act of eating." So is there any way to get back to the garden, to make peace with food? Although Iggers has a number of specific counsels, in the end, he says, we have to change the world. The fact that consumerism is so deeply embedded in our culture means that individual solutions aren't likely to work. Still, we can try to create "free zones" where different values prevail.This means opting out of consumerism -- "developing a relationship with the stuff we use in this world that goes beyond engulfing and devouring." Some specifics:1. Say grace, a minute of mindfulness to focus on "the goodness of eating, living and sharing food."2. Switch to a mainly vegetarian cuisine. It's easier on the earth (including developing countries), on the animals and on your body. 3. Join a food co-op; shop at farmers' markets. Eat regionally and seasonally.4. Plant a garden.5. Cook.6. Be willing to pay more for food grown responsibly -- organically, or by unionized workers or by cooperatives rather than agribusiness. The book includes much more: the new morality in which the only good is slimness and the only bad is obesity; the all-American invention of techno-food ("Drink Tang like the astronauts!"); and dieting as religion, including the sale of indulgences. Read it, and you won't look at an Arch Deluxe the same way again.

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