I met the most amazing woman tonight. She posted to a local Weston Price email group I’m on that she was looking for dairy kefir grains since PCC had just stopped carrying whole milk kefir. I responded and she ended up coming over to pick them up. She brought gifts of frissee starts in trade and we chatted briefly while Pancake Boy whined that he didn’t want to eat his scrambled egg. Eventually he ended up going to bed without eating dinner yet again…see what I’m up against here?
Later the woman emailed me that she teaches a course at UW on the anthropology of food. I had to look it up because I had no idea what that meant but it sure sounded intriguing. I find it fascinating that I chanced to meet this woman tonight when last night my post was about what food means to me and what it should mean to each of us.
That it’s not simply rocket fuel but nourishes our lives, our memories and our relationships. It’s who we are. It transcends time. It connects us with our ancestors and our past and our future. It’s frightening these days.
She emailed me a snippet from a private course blog that discussed Lunchables (remember my children have a Lunchable fettish?) that I’m sharing:
The American Bag Lunch as Nutritional Ideology
The Japanese Lunchbox Project reminded once again of how the classroom can become an ethnographic field site. In the blog entries on our kitchen activity, I discovered that the presence of a few guests from Japan yielded some important intercultural learning. Some of you commented on the bemusement on the part of the Japanese students at being asked such detailed and focused questions about the obentos their mothers made for them when they were in preschool. How could such a mundane everyday practice become the topic of such an avid interest on the part of non-Japanese? The experience caused many of you to reflect on your own experience of the bag lunches packed for you by your mother or other caregiver, and in a few cases, on your own practices of packing lunches for younger siblings or as a paid childcare worker. The items that would be assembled for the typical bag lunch for a primary school
student were carefully catalogued, usually a mix of foods that would delicately insert the nutritional ideology of the mother into her child’s lunch: carrot sticks, apple slices, string cheese (read: vegetable material + protein). Alongside these would be other items more guaranteed to find favor: cookies, a fun-sized candy bar, a small bag of chips. The inclusion of a juice drink appeared to fall in-between these two categories: something sweet that also announced its nutritional value (10% real fruit juice!).
What this suggests to me (as a reader of these blogs but also as a veteran of packing many bag lunches for my two children) is a subtle struggle in a nutritional war between “real foods” and the highly commodified and heavily advertised foods that prove so alluring to children. However, this struggle over the “value” of foods did not end with the assembly of the bag lunch! Many of you described with great ethnographic detail the “exchange value” of these selections once the bags were opened in the school lunchroom and the swapping began. One student described how the inclusion of a Fig Newton in her bag lunch achieved a certain amount of edible capital as long as it remained an exotic item until, one by one, her friends lost interest. I can only imagine the fate of the whole-wheat fig bars I inflicted on my children as a wholesome alternative to cookies loaded with corn syrup and transfats.
This aspect of the blog discussions also reminded me that many of my students grew up with Lunchables as a form of pre-packaged bag lunch. The rise of the Lunchable could be tracked alongside the rise of the convenience shop onigiri as the answer to an economic system that increasingly demanded that both parents work outside the home (true for both Japan and the U.S.). It poses a question for us to reflect upon (inspired in part by Raj Patel): How does this commodified substitute for something homemade become so alluring to kids? How are we as consumers being constructed for the food systems we are given?
I particularly love the ending question – How are we as consumers being constructed for the food systems we are given? I feel like we are but tools the marketing machines use to achieve their bidding. I’m still unclear, however, how my two kids who rarely if ever even watch public television let alone commercial television, are so mesmerized by the idea of the Lunchable.
It’s not just that it’s storebought crackers, lunch meat and sliced cheese with a small tub of applesauce, a juice and a cookie. Because last week we had storebought versions of lunchmeat, sliced cheese and crackers. We have home canned grape juice, home canned applesauce and store bought cookies right now. It’s clearly that it’s all wrapped up in one neat little bundle. It’s structured and predictable.
I also believe part of it is the image on the box. It’s like the Playmobil boxes which show you the toys set up in the perfect scene, suggesting exactly how you can play with them. The picture on the box shows you exactly how the food will sit in the tray, what it will look like and therefore how it will make you feel. Is it the structure and security of the image that entices them? The order of things neatly arranged, not touching each other, showing them what to expect?
They love to eat the food that comes in the box while looking at the box which suggests to me that the image and idea of the food is equally, if not more important, than the food itself.
I wish I knew more about child psychology, or even adult psychology. Perhaps that might help me crack this nut. In the meantime I’m dusting off my bento accessories and stepping up my prepared meal efforts. I might even photograph them and tape the picture to the outside of the bento boxes to see if that has the same effect of as the Lunchable box.
How about you? Do you feel like we’ve been constructed to support our existing food systems? And don’t you wish you could go back to school, if only to take this class?