A new book on food panics puts the "pink slime" scare into perspective. Scott McLemee is what he eats.
My intention here is to say something about the microwave burrito, considered in its socio-cultural aspect. All in due course. But first, a quick detour into Germany in the 1840s, when Ludwig Feuerbach was undoubtedly the hot philosopher of the hour. A disciple declared that intellectual life had to pass through the “fiery brook” of Feuerbach’s thinking -- a pun on his name, which also meant "fiery brook."
I’d guess the play on words also involved a mildly sacrilegious joke about baptism. In his best-known work, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach made the provocative and career-destroying argument that God was, in effect, humanity writ large. Religion was an alienated expression of our intellectual and emotional capacities, as stunted and deformed by existing social arrangements. We project our highest powers and aspirations into a higher being, then rationalize anything oppressive as the work of divine will. This was more subtle than just an argument about God's existence. It was, in effect, a statement that humanity didn't exist yet -- not fully, at least.
Feuerbach had been a student of Hegel, whose seemingly closed and orderly philosophical system proved such a comfort to the Prussian bureaucracy. You could make a pretty good career out of demonstrating just how tidy that system was, and how it meant that every institution that existed had its purpose. Feuerbach worked out his own ideas by pushing Hegel’s in a more radical direction, thereby effectively thinking himself out of a job. The academic blacklisting, combined with a certain literary flair, made Feuerbach the hero of young intellectuals in Germany, and The Essence of Christianity hit British bookstores in 1855 in a translation by one Marian Evans, later and much better known for the novels she published as George Eliot.
Even so, chances are that Feuerbach would be completely forgotten if not for a few pages jotted down in his notebook by Karl Marx under the title “Theses on Feuerbach.” (Marx had also made that "fiery brook" quip.) The eleventh and final thesis – “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it” – has been used by generations of young activists to try to get their professors to do more than pontificate about social problems. Feuerbach himself became active for a while, when the wave of revolutions sweeping through Europe in 1848 hit Germany. But he was a reclusive man by temperament and after a while largely withdrew from public life, let alone politics.
The microwave burrito, as you may have surmised, is only incidentally linked to German philosophy. Still, we're getting there. For it was in 1850 that Feuerbach’s former student Jacob Moleschott published a book called The Theory of Nutrition, which he sent to the philosopher in hopes of drumming up some publicity. (It’s always touching, the way friends will volunteer to let you review their books.)
The essay that Feuerbach wrote on Moleschott was strange, but it contained a turn of phrase that outlived both of them -- one that is, in fact, known to everyone. Here is the crucial passage:
"Foodstuffs become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, the stuff of thought and attitudes. Human fare is the basis of human education and attitudes. If you want to improve the people give it, instead of homilies against sin, better food. Man is what he eats."
You are what you eat. The motto that inspired a thousand infomercials was coined in an essay completely forgotten by everyone except Feuerbach scholars, who are not exactly thick on the ground. They have interpreted it in a surprising range of ways. It can be taken as a serious continuation of Feuerbach’s earlier work. Or as a satire, possibly inspired by reading the comedies of Aristophanes. Or as evidence that the poor man was losing it – philosophically, at least, if not mentally. He was depressed about the failure of the revolution, that much is clear. He suggested that it was a consequence of diet: Germans ate too much cabbage and potatoes, which provided insufficient protein for the brain. Progress demanded that they consume more beans.
Forget economic determinism; this is nutritional determinism. “Sustenance,” he writes in another passage, “is the beginning of consciousness. The first condition for bringing something to your head and your heart is bringing something to your stomach.” A fair point, no matter how seriously or jokingly Feuerbach meant it (a bit of both, I imagine). The recent abundance of interdisciplinary scholarship on food suggests that he was something of a prophet. If his work from the 1840s transformed theology into philosophical anthropology, the late phase of Feuerbach’s work might serve to ground the humanities in food studies.
He makes no appearance in Harvey Levenstein’s Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat (University of Chicago Press), where the endnotes tend to cite things like “Colonic Irrigation and the Theory of Autointoxication” from the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. But it raises Feuerbachian questions, even so. If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before?
Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario, writes in straightforward narrative prose about the waves of anxiety about food that have swept across the United States from the 1890s until the present day, from the menace posed by fresh fruit and vegetables (since flies landed on them in open-air markets) to lipophobia (with any consumption of high-fat foods regarded as a form of suicidal behavior). It's a well-researched but also very diverting book, with a large cast of public benefactors and corrupt operators. Not that you can always tell them apart.
In passing, the author mentions a chemically disinfected pulpy meat byproduct called “pink slime,” often incorporated into hamburger, among other comestibles. When Fear of Food arrived in galleys a few months ago, you didn't hear much about pink slime. In March, a scientist who once worked at the Department of Agriculture told an interviewer on network television that up to 70 percent of the ground beef in American supermarkets contained pink slime. Social media did the rest, forcing at least one company to shut down three plants and another to file for bankruptcy protection. A press release from the American Meat Institute has just announced “the addition of a new summit on Lean Finely Textured Beef” at a major food-marketing trade show next month. ("Lean Finely Textured Beef" is the term AMI would prefer everyone use instead of "pink slime." I will venture to guess that is not going to happen.)
The publication of Fear of Food had nothing whatever to do with the public gorge becoming suddenly buoyant. But neither is it purely a matter of synchronicity. “The agricultural revolution allowed humans to grow foods that they knew were safe,” writes Levinson, “but the market economy that accompanied it brought new worries: unscrupulous middlemen could increase their profits by adulterating food with dangerous substances. The new ways of producing, preserving, and transporting foods that arose in the nineteenth century heightened these fears by widening the gap between those who produced foods and those who consumed them.”
And that gap widened still more in the 20th century as doctors, scientists, corporations, regulatory agencies, and advertisers intervened, along with the occasional huckster or food-fadist. Public alarm over contamination or adulteration can be well-founded. (The recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a particularly vile feedlot a few years ago is a case in point.) But the waves of concern also manifest what, in an earlier book, Levinstein called “the paradox of plenty”: Americans are “a people surrounded by abundance who are unable to enjoy it.” That is something of an overstatement, though the portrait is recognizable. We must like to worry because we’re so good at it.
The incredible range of foodstuffs, and the conflicting health claims about what to eat and what to avoid, create “a kind of gastro-anomie,” writes Levenstein, “a condition in which people have no sense of dietary norms or rules.” That diagnosis seems to fit. The United States is a country where you can buy both soda with no calories and pizza with a crust stuffed with extra cheese. What’s more, you can buy them at the same place, at the same time. That's about as anomic as it gets. A public scare or dietary fad at least imposes a kind of temporary norm, thereby keeping the chaos at bay. And so, Levenstein implies, we’ll keep having them.
Which brings us, at long last, to the microwave burrito. If someone had to come up with a foodstuff to epitomize “gastro-anomie,” I'm pretty sure this one would do the trick. Certainly Levenstein’s point about the distance and disconnection between producer and consumer would apply. It seems entirely possible that the burrito remains untouched by human hands throughout the long journey from its creation to your grocer's freezer.
The packaging insists that it is healthy – the one I am looking at does, anyway. For one thing it has little or no cholesterol. Feuerbach recommended eating beans, as you may recall, so that's covered. He also quoted Moleschott as saying that there was no human thought without phosphorus. The nutritional information does not say just much of the minimum daily requirement of phosphorus is met. But it has lots of protein, despite being meatless. The primary selling point, of course, is that it's convenient. I often have one for lunch or dinner while writing this column, for precisely that reason. You throw it on a plate, nuke it, pay almost no attention while eating, then forget it.
“As is the food, so is the being," interrupts Feuerbach at this point. "As is the being, so is the food. Everyone eats only what is in accord with his individuality or nature, his age, his sex, his social position and profession, his worth. Every class is what it eats according to its essential uniqueness and vice versa.”
I find the remark troubling. Who wants to think of a burrito in the microwave as the deepest foundation, and fullest expression, of his innermost being? Plus, it tastes better salted. "As of this writing," Levenstein notes, "we are told that salt, historically regarded as absolutely essential to human existence, is swinging the grim reaper's scythe." A convenient meal is hurtling me towards nothingness! Then again, it contains no Lean Finely Textured Beef, which is a comfort.
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