Friday, September 2, 2011

Wonder bread vs. the artisan loaf -- moral choice or economic?

In 2011, the person eating the peasant loaf at $4.50 from the artisan organic bakery is likely to be not the peasant, but someone who is looking for more subtle values embodied in the bread than simply a sandwich that the kids will eat. Is it elitism, or love for food? Is it deadly, or just good food that’s affordable and quick to fix? Is the bread you eat a moral choice, or a function of your income and class?

Throughout history bread has marked social status, with white and wheaten bread reserved for the better-off, and barley and brown bread for the lower classes. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food, says: “White bread has enjoyed, for most of history, universal esteem because it seems to embody refinement: compared with its brown and black cousins, it is the product of a longer process, a more intense use of labor . . . [and] often involves superior – that is, costlier – grains.” (p. 126)

Bread isn’t the only food used to symbolize choices that can be as easily characterized as moral as they can be described as related to income and class. Recently, Anthony Bourdain was quoted in a TV Guide article as saying that Paula Deen was “The worst, most dangerous person to America . . .” because the food she recommends is “ killing us.” Paula Deen responded by arguing that the issue was one of social class and resources rather than morals. In a New York Post interview responding to Bourdain, Deen said, “You know, not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills . . . It wasn’t that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too.” 

A New York Times food writer, Frank Bruni, summed up the dispute by saying:  “. . . To give [Bourdain] his due: we are too fat and must address that. But getting Deen to unplug the waffle iron doesn’t strike to the core of the problem any more than posting fast-food calorie counts or taxing soft drinks do. A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that’s affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times.”

Another observer of the freight that food carries besides its nutritional values is artist Judith Klausner, whose toast slices embroidered with patterns that mimic mold and cameo-carved Oreo cookies are meant to carry a message about class and society. In an interview with Here and Now, she said, “Ideally we should work towards having a future where fresh and local food isn’t more expensive and everyone can afford it,” she said.  “But I think right now having it cast entirely as a moral question really glosses over the issue of class that’s involved.” By using familiar food as the basis for works of art she “hopes to challenge the mindset that things were ‘better back when,’ for instance, before corn syrup and 15-letter preservatives.” The Oreos and toast are part of a recent series of works, “From Scratch,” in which “Klausner tries to draw attention to the little-discussed benefits of the rise of processed food. She argues that processed foods let women spend less time cooking from scratch and freed them up to a world of new choices.”

“‘When you have someone in every household whose dedicated full-time job whether they liked it or not was to cook everything from scratch– yes, you’re going to have everything made at home,’ she told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. ‘But that means that women didn’t have choices, and I think we’re in a much better position now.’” 

Her point emphasizes the social class again – in households where the food was made “from scratch” by servants, presumably the women supervising the servants were free to make other choices. The fact that those choices often were limited to embroidery of the sort that Klausner now applies to toast suggests the complexity that underlies societies, and the fact that the symbolism can only take the discussion so far and no further.

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