Food: alternatives to doomsaying

Q &A

A student of food culture looks at some changes in science, business and attitudes

Q&A//Warren Belasco

November 05, 2006|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,Sun Reporter

Warren Belasco sees much meaning in our meals. In Appetite For Change, a book he wrote in 1990, he argued that the brown rice and tofu of the 1960s and 1970s were examples of a cultural rebellion that changed America's food behavior and beliefs. In his new book, Meals to Come (University of California Press), the UMBC American studies professor casts his scholarly eye at predictions about the future of food. While some of these predictions, such as an inevitable worldwide famine, have been wrong, they were, Belasco contends, useful.

Recently in a wide-ranging telephone interview from his Washington home, Belasco expounded on these and other views expressed in his book, vocalized by his UMBC students and offered up by the farmers he encounters at the Takoma Park farmer's market.

Among the points made in "Meals To Come" is that over the years both optimists and pessimists have used food to illustrate their views of the future, views that sometimes were wrong. Yet you say that an idea does not have to be right to be useful.

Take Paul Ehrlich [author of The Population Bomb], whom I admire greatly. But when you go back and read his predictions in the early 1970s of imminent food wars, and that the situation is pretty much hopeless, he obviously is wrong. But at the same time you could say that Ehrlich helped spark research and a reaction for funding, for an interest in the future that might have helped to prevent the outcome that he was worried about. Sometimes, by predicting a disaster you might help avert it. Certainly there was a lot of doomsaying in the 1970s. I think that sparked a lot of thinking about alternatives, and now we are beginning to see that come to fruition. You write that men have a greater stake in steaks than women do; that the meat-eating habit reinforces differences in status and power between men and women.

That is an anthropological insight. Way back, men were the hunters and women were the gatherers, the meat responsibilities were on the males. In a lot of societies where meat is in short supply, men will get the first cut and women will get the scraps. But jump to the present, women are more interested in the lighter foods, the vegetables, the salads, and the men still tend to be interested in meat. I find that even with my students.

I did notice, most of the futurists, who were worried about the world running out of meat, tended to be men. And the ones who seemed to think that wouldn't be such a bad thing, or what's the big deal? They tended to be female. There may be some gender bias in a lot of the futurists' predictions. Are you still persuaded by Frances Moore Lappe's contention in "Diet for a Small Planet" that Americans are "protein heads," hogging the world's protein while the rest of the world starves?

I think a lot of people agree that we eat too much protein and that producing meat, particularly the modern large-scale farm method, is a major stress on the environment. That is a main theme of Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

But Lappe has changed. When I first read her in 1970 her point was that we need to stop eating meat so we can send all the grain [the cattle were eating] to India to prevent famine. But now the view is more that India has plenty of food, they need to distribute it better. Speaking of Michael Pollan, he wrote that a lingering effect of the recent spinach scare in the United States might be putting more federal regulations on all growers, and that could end up driving small, sustainable farms out of business. Does this worry you?

Going back to Upton Sinclair a hundred years ago, it has been the case that national food regulation does promote centralization of the food supply, intended or not.

There is that tension. In terms of predicting the future I see the Whole Foods model. A national corporation doing all these corporate things, yet at the same time selling local spinach, when they can get it. The mix of small scale and big scale.

There is a similar issue with organic regulations. A lot of people, who used to be organic, no longer meet the certification, because it is too onerous. I have seen that in our farmer's market in Takoma Park. Only a couple of farmers there are certified organic, although I know they don't use any chemicals, that they are crusaders for sustainable food. They just can't afford to meet the rules. You have said that ethnic cuisine changes when it arrives in America. That the ethnic food served here is not the same as that served in the old country. Why does this happen?

I was just going through this with my students. One of the things that always happens is that when the cuisine travels here, a lot more animal food, more meat is added. Meat has always been more available and cheaper in America than anywhere else. The foods tend to become richer, and the spices more toned-down.

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