- Getting on a High Horse about Food
I spent this past summer living on a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in the northern Plains. I was there to study the history of regional food traditions. The rancher who managed the place traveled for rodeos and occasional vacations, but he spent the majority of his time within a seventy-five mile radius of the ranch. Within that area, he had access to two cities and one small town that offered mechanical services, supply stores, and restaurants where he would treat himself after completing his errands. Closer to home, I observed, he relied on gas stations and convenience stores for most of his daily fare, including hot dogs, crackers, and sweets.
After a few weeks of watching him crisscross the barnyard that was adjacent to the house where I lived, I began to join him as he went about his ranch chores and took trips into town. Bumping along in his pickup truck or tractor, we bantered good-naturedly about politics: my liberal, urban, and Democrat point-of-view to his conservative, rural, and libertarian one. Shared meals naturally became part of our routine. But here our repartee stopped. We could talk about politics, but not about dinner.
I ate mostly vegetarian food, almost always homemade, usually Asian or Middle Eastern inspired, organic when possible, and preferably from a local co-op or farm market. Thanks to Wendell Berry’s Home Economics (1987), Marion Nestle’s Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), I was preoccupied with the environmental, health, and ethical practices behind nearly every bite of food I took in. The rancher, on the other hand, ate without an axe to grind. He possessed the sort of first-hand [End Page 126] knowledge of the American food system that I could only read about, but food did not carry nearly the moral weight for him that it did for me. He regularly ordered steak with no concern for its origins, enjoyed without guilt cooked vegetables laden with cheese sauce, and drank soda without a worry. Foods that gave me stress, or sometimes nostalgia—such as a white bread, bologna, and American cheese sandwich—he could relish without any sense of remorse, distress, discomfort, or irony. Why did I get on my high horse about food? Why didn’t he?
James McWilliams, in his insightful book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (2009), raised a similar quandary about contemporary food extremes in what he referred to as an actual “food war.” McWilliams advocated for establishing some useful middle ground between relying on agribusiness and conventional foods (read, the rancher’s bologna) and locavore modes of production and consumption (read, my artisanal bread). That is reasonable advice, but getting people to change their diet and attitudes toward food is easier said than done.
Along with ethical issues over the proper types of food to consume, as the rancher and I debated (or, rather, I debated and the rancher observed with good humor), are moral judgments about eating too much or too little, and debates over whose food advice to follow. What does it mean to eat responsibly and where did that concept originate? Who is accountable for anyone’s personal eating habits and food access: the consumer alone, health professionals, the food industry, or the government? Who should decide what constitutes a good or poor diet anyway? These issues are not just rhetorical but central to the current food system as consumers struggle to make their own decisions about what to eat and reformers seek to assist at-risk communities to improve their health and well...