The Self-Examined Appetite

“To put it concretely, I am suggesting that critical self-awareness about food relates in fundamental ways to central issues of personal meaning in the life course of any person. From childhood onward, our ability to control what we eat, or whether we eat at all, is the single, most basic aspect of life in which we have full power to assert autonomy. When a young child refuses food, or spits out something disliked, he or she is taking a first important step toward self-determination. Viewed in this philosophical light, every child’s highchair can be seen as the site of a small-scale struggle for existential freedom.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from How We Eat by Leon Rappoport (ECW Press, 2003).

The quote also reminds me of an earlier blog post (forgive the self-reference) about Yummy Wet Noodles.

Rappoport argues that food habits as a form of self examination negotiate competing ideologies of hedonism, spiritualism and nutritionism. Each food choice contains our philosophical comportment towards pleasure, morality and health. This choice changes in response to our existential struggles. For example,  when we are young we look more to the pleasure of eating, as we age we become more attuned the needs of our dying body and in between, we struggle with social conformity. The child in a highchair throwing or sharing food is taking the first steps towards autonomy, in how he/she responds to what is given. How we eat, as the title of the book suggests, determines how we individually and autonomously receive the world and its offerings. In examining our food habits we examine our style of being in the world.

There were so many highlights in the book that I want to briefly mention. Related to childhood autonomy there is a section that follows the in utero development of taste, as well as breast milk as the medium of early tastes. There is also a discussion about gendering of food and the determination that chicken and oranges are bi-sexual. Marketing is a strange reductive activity. The discussion of war rations as possibly predictive of future trends, as well as historical references to Betty Crocker and others, made the book both entertaining and fascinating.

In the spirit of self-examination (and confession) I had a breaded chicken sandwich for lunch today. It was definitely a weak decision fueled by pleasure over spirituality or nutrition. I was looking for something, quick and easy in my freezer. It was easy to eat on the porch on a beautiful Indiana summer day while I read my book on how to eat. It made me think of my kids and nephews, who could live on chicken nuggets. I remember the moments when I popped a few in my mouth as I handed them their plate. Its a familiar taste. Certainly not a gourmet meal. Being self-reflective about what we eat doesn’t require a constant stream of deeply critiqued and crafted meals, it just requires receptivity, to yourself and your connection to others. Maybe, the chicken sandwich wasn’t a weak decision after all.



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