Food Practices and the Contradictions in Mexican Identity by Zaira Luján

Located in downtown El Paso, Texas, on the intersection of East 7th avenue and South Florence street, El Corrido Del Segundo Barrio (“The Song of the Second Ward”) proudly displays the Chicano history of immigration. Superimposed at the center of the mural are two elderly, Chicano men playing an accordion and guitar, invoking on the cement canvas a visual history of survivorship, hope, and prosperity. The emotional images of a mother bathing her child in a metal tub and of a father crossing the bridge with his two sons, are part of this corrido narrative. The borderland consciousness of being in a foreign place and calling it home, yet recalling and holding on to the past is something that is present in the minds of Mexican-American El Pasoans. One of the tools used to preserve Mexican culture in the face of  the Western hegemonic one in the United States, is Mexican food and the cultural, historical, and social values that come from it. From the use of traditional ingredients and preparation of dishes to the serving practices involved, Mexican food actively recalls and cements ties to a past that refuses to be forgotten. However, what and whose pasts are evoked are questions that arise when food is understood to exist within an economic and political framework. One on hand, Mexico is the second largest supplier of agricultural products for the U.S, shipping almost sixty percent of its produce to the States, which amounted to a $21 billion trade in 2015. The available year-round produce of vegetables and fruits for American consumers come at the cost of exploitation and hardships for Mexican farm workers. This is further complicated by the reality that agricultural merchandise can easily pass through the U.S.-Mexico border for trade, but humans become policed and regulated by the heavily, fortified militarized presence in the States. On the American side of the border, undocumented Mexican workers (among others) work within the agricultural and meat industry in order to meet the demands that have been set up corporations and distributors. With no legal papers at hand, these workers face abject violence and vulnerability. Regardless of  which side of the border food is produced and sold at, people are being exploited and oppressed by political and economic systems. Looking specifically at Chicano El Pasoans, this paper will explore the contradictions that emerge in their daily food practices. Paradoxes of being proud of their cultural Mexican heritage and finding strength in immigration struggles, while at the same time partaking in food systems that oppress members of their own cultural community. Ultimately, exploring the mechanism in place that allow such paradoxes to occur is necessary to analyze cultural memory and identity fragmentation that occurs within the Mexican self because of these food practices.   

Production within Mexico and Neoliberalism: Tío Raul and the Ranch
A four hour drive south from El Paso, Texas, to Chihuahua, México, for the past five years Tío Raul has been acting as supervisor and associate to a ranch that grows alfalfa, chile, organic fish, organic chickens, and nuts. Although admitting that the work is taxing, he expresses the joy he finds in experiencing the sun, air, and rain–“something that isn’t offered in an office setting.” Going into detail about the timeline of the production process he states that: the chile is planted on the first of February and is harvested in four to five months; the fishes (bought at a subsidy from the government) are grown and harvested in six to eight months; the chickens start producing eggs at four months and kept for two years and sold afterwards for meat when their egg production slows; and the alfalfa seeds are grown in four months and kept in production for five years. Given the energy and time that’s required for the months of cultivating and caring for the plants and animals, he reports that his real salary doesn’t come until everything is sold to el centro (“the center”).  All of the agricultural products grown on the ranch is essentially sold at a large regional market that’s accessible to corporations, industries, and distributors within Mexico–buyers can range anywhere from Walmart to ranchers who need the alfalfa for their cows. Until this happens however, the provided salaries are limited. The workers that essentially work 24/7 live on the ranch and earn approximately 1,400 pesos a week or $74 U.S. dollars, whereas the workers that work the 8am to 5pm shifts earn anywhere from 800 to 1,000 pesos a week or $42 to $53 U.S. dollars. “The pay is so low that workers have to choose between either buying clothes or buying food. The pay can only get you a kilogram of meat, a gallon of milk, and a bag of tortillas,” reports Tío Raul. He cites the lack of government support, lack of job opportunities, and expensive ranch operations as the reasons for the low salaries.  “There is no support from the government, no benefits or legal protections for farmers; the gas, water, and electricity are too expensive; and there is also corruption,” he laments. However, the life of my uncle becomes almost luxurious compared to the conditions in rural, larger farms where many of the workers are indigenous and are subject to extreme working and living conditions with lower pay. Despite the harsh realities of the Mexican agricultural worker, the Mexican government has failed to step in and protect its people as neoliberal ideas embody its functionality.

Defined by Julie Guthman in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies,” neoliberalism is “the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (190). Mexico’s governmental powers have eroded under the strong economic and political drive to be the United States’ second agricultural provider for the $21 billion trade. This highlights the worker’s vulnerability and how they are at the expense of corporation and institutions–a vulnerability that might not be fully realized since neoliberalism also produces discourse that acts as a governance through ‘rationality’ and ‘freedom of choice’ over its subjects. In other words, although the worker can have the option to change ranches and find better pay, the options themselves are fabricated and presented by neoliberalism’s ability to deeply penetrate into economic and political institutions. Not only is the agency and environment of the Mexican agricultural worker manipulated, they embody ideas of neoliberalism as they can reduce themselves to an assessment of value that stems from how much labor they can offer or produce. What does this mean for the Chicano El Pasoan? Living as neoliberal subjects as well and perceiving the world through the ‘rationality’ and ‘freedom of choice’ narrative, it becomes difficult to realize or rather care that members of their own cultural community are being exploited and oppressed in this way. They utilize the tools of assessment that create the illusion that those who have obtained education and financial means in a non-agricultural, non-physical labor method, are better than those who did not. Additionally since neoliberalism views humans as capital, any exploitation and oppression that face the Mexican agricultural worker is simply viewed as necessary collateral damage. Moreso the Chicano El Pasoans share the stories of immigration, but it’s only the stories of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder that are truly celebrated, while the others are ignored. This raises the question of who is able to immigrate, through what means did this occur, and if prosperity followed the move. Neoliberalism’s narrative of having ‘freedom of choice’ is what can push Mexican workers to immigrate to the United States even through the same systems of oppression exist there. However, Tío Raul stated that working in the agricultural fields in the U.S. is a lot more profitable than it is in Mexico since the worker no longer has to choose between buying food or clothing. But these immigrant workers and their stories will not be celebrated in the same way a wealthy Chicano El Pasoan’s story will, simply because the workers don’t embody the higher value assessment that neoliberalism desires. This indicates that neoliberalism plays a role in outlining roles of citizenship and value within Mexican culture.

Cultural Memory and Emotions in Food: Abuelita Chita and Tía Mirella Serving as the physical and symbolic center of the family web that extends beyond El Paso, and into the outskirts of Texas, California, and Nebraska, the house of Abuelita Chita is a place of spiritual, emotional, and cultural healing. Not only is it a place where advice and wisdom is shared, it’s a space where family history and memory is actively recalled and retold with the aid of pictures that show a deeper truth about ourselves and what we remember. These talks always occur on the six-person dinner table over some sort of fruit or drink, but most commonly, a homemade meal. The preparation of Mexican dishes is becoming more cumbersome as time goes on given her arthritis, but this does not stop my grandmother from making the meals that are most enjoyed by her children and grandchildren. Although the words of the songs she used to sing are fading away, she remembers with precise accuracy the differing tastes and preferences of food from the family. “Not only is the food good, but it acts as a demonstration of love and affection,” says my father. Around birthdays Abuelita Chita always calls and lets the family member know that their pastel de tres leches (“Cake of Three Milks” ) or chocoflan is ready to get picked up. Additionally, the food acts as the gateway to remember the family’s former ranch life, but most importantly, the stories that came with it; stories that carry both pain and joy, and messages about the importance of community support and love to others.

However, the rage of emotion that food is able to express goes beyond love and affection. American novelist Jonathan Foer explains in Eating Animals that the contemporary practices of factory farming means that “we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own” (143). Foer clarifies this point by going into detail about how the animals grown for the agribusinesses companies are genetically modified– “we are breeding creatures incapable of surviving in any place other than the most artificial of settings. We have focused the awesome power of modern fenetic knowledge to bring into being animals that suffer more” (159).  The animals are destined to suffer for however long they live; a life span that’s been assessed and determined by corporations and institutions in order to maximize profits. Apart from genetically manipulating the animals, they spend their entire lives in small, suffocating spaces and then die an excruciating death. Throughout the book Foer constantly questions what the food we eat tells us about ourselves. Can we taste the pain in the flesh?

Deep within a rural part in Nebraska, Tía Mirella has worked in the meat industry for the past twenty years; more specifically within slaughterhouses. Working long hours in freezing temperatures with a fast-moving conveyor belt, she can feel her tired, sweating muscles underneath her clothing and metal armor. “It’s a hard job and I’m tired,” she said at my grandmother’s table. A few years ago when she was facing some problems, her manager was unwilling to help her and the family had to get legally involved in order to protect her. With no avail from her employers, she ended up leaving the job and working at another slaughterhouse. A common thread between her old job and the new one is that every once and awhile the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raid meat plants or homes of  undocumented workers in order to deport them. Author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal, Eric Schlosser states that apart from fearing this militarized threat, the workers also have to deal with the dangers at work. He states that “the death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinary high. They are the ultimate in disposable workers: illegal, illiterate, impoverished, untrained” (178). The intentionality of being able to easily replace any workers that prove to be too difficult or inefficient to deal with is a sign of what it means to be a modern subject. Diving into what it means to be ‘modern,’ Ben Singer in “Meanings of Modernity” states that “modern society is industrial society. To modernize is to industrialize” (18). In other words, people are metaphorically transformed and perceived as parts of machines within a factorized system because of the belief that a finely-tuned society will lead to societal progression. With the introduction of new technologies rose the opportunity to fundamentally change what it means to be contemporary:

“the change was fundamental. Not only did it affect the condition of industry, the lives of the workers, the means of production; not only did it change the character of the commodities used by man, the entire aspect of many parts of the country, the very character of the worker himself, it changed from the very foundations the whole fabric of society” (Singer 19).

This change was so fundamental that it changed the very aspect of how individuals live within this space, how they perceived the world, and how their operate within it. To be a modern subject is to accept the reality that society functions within parameters that will lead to the oppression and exploitation of others. For the wealthy Chicano El Pasoan to enjoy their “authentic” Mexican food that pulls ingredients from a globalized food system, there needs to be a Mexican agricultural worker in the fields to pick the tomatoes for the tacos waiting on the plate. The Chicano El Pasoan is unworried by the significance of their food practices since they are reinforced and supported by a citizenship allocated by modernity.

The unawareness or the lack of perception between food practices and what the corrido states is evident as the family still consumes red meat despite the hardships that my Tía Mirella went through. “No, there is no connection between what your Tía Mirella went through and the food that your grandmother cooks,” states my father. If we can taste the love from my grandmother’s food, why can’t we taste the pain and suffering (of animals and humans) in the meat itself? Foer argues that “stories establishes narratives, and stories establishes rules” (12). What is the narrative that the Chicano El Pasoan repeat to themselves? They are true stories of oppression, of institutional exploitation where pain and suffering was felt, yet there was power within themselves and the community to float above it. These stories are repeated throughout the borderland as a way to root the following generation into the sense of family, community, and self. Stories that try desperately to ensure the survival of the Mexican community and culture. However, this comes at the cost of forgetting about other forms of suffering that are experienced by members of the same community as soon as we accept the comfortable citizenship that modernity and neoliberalism offers. This suffering isn’t defined necessarily by the physical and mental pain that can be experienced, but as Foer puts it, “the word defines our gaze even more than what we are looking at” (77). Where and when will the Chicano El Pasoan draw the line in the sand and begin to advocate for a change in the economic and political systems that affect members of their own community?

Dealing with the Fragmentation
The unveiling of El Corrido Del Segundo Barrio in 2012 was met by the community with appreciation and pride. Existing as one of the oldest neighborhoods in El Paso, Texas, el barrio holds deep historical, political, social, and cultural stories that show the community’s ability to adapt and thrive under external pressure. Given the changing political climate and the intense militarized, mobile agents that are targeting Mexican people, the power within the community will become activated once we are able to shed the comfortability of citizenship that neoliberalism and modernity provides. It is only when we begin to seek out other alternative and fight against oppressive political and economic systems, that the suffering of others will be alleviated.

 

The Aesthetics of Food by Nina, Sophia, Alice, Colleen and Carlie

 Living in a hypermediated world, we are continuously bombarded with images and messages which shape the discourses around our lives. These discourses are woven by narratives which police us by naturalizing what is socially acceptable and what is not. Although they act invisible by creating the framework by which we understand and interpret the world, media influences hold tremendous power in shaping those discourses, oftentimes creating new neoliberal markets on which we become dependent. These markets set up boundaries that reduce our ability to have agency over our lives. This is especially poignant in the realm of food media, in which mainstream media influences can take something as universal as food and establish rules to which we reduce ourselves in our eating habits. Food media aestheticizes food and creates food porn that prioritizes the visual image of the food over the intrinsic value of the food itself. In this project, we attempted to create a space of freedom from the expectations and narratives that food media constructs around how food should be cooked and eaten. By turning those value systems on their heads, we played with food conventions in an effort to recover what is lost in food media. In redefining our priorities, we created our own food media (our own pornography) in which we walk through the construction of a meal from the selecting of ingredients to cooking, presenting, eating, and dealing with waste. By selecting the least homogenous, “ugly” produce (those with bruises, blemishes, holes, overly ripe produce, etc) and preparing the meal without any governance about which parts of the food to eat, how to slice and add the ingredients, and eating communally with few social conventions, we discovered a deeply sensual and more wholesome bodily experience while interacting with food. While still honoring the legitimacy of food aesthetics, our project was an exercise in pushing the boundaries and priorities constructed around food that we noticed in food porn, and in so doing sharing an experience in which we could broadened our scope of vision of ourselves and our own agency in food choices.

Bodily Experience and Communal Experience – 

Media captivates our attention and implores our innermost desires when it comes to food. Oftentimes we find ourselves endlessly scrolling Instagram feeds, fantasizing over donuts decorated with galaxy scenes, sculpted avocado toast and rice bowls topped with spiralized vegetables. In her book, Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, Signe Rousseau describes this as a “consumption of images,” (xxi), but consumption in this context is only achieved through the visual. In reality, browsing Instagram feeds, watching cooking shows or pinning recipes to inspirational boards on Pinterest are all visual consumptions that are far removed from the actual preparation and eating of food. Although we were aware that the presentation of food media was something experienced only on a virtual, and therefore two-dimensional, level before starting this project, our group was surprised by the depth our interaction with food reached while we prepared and ate our meal.

The most notable discovery was the bodily experience cultivated throughout the entire process. In his book, Cooked, Michael Pollan describes the work of cooks in terms of “rhythms and textures,” (5). These are sensations we cannot see; instead, we either hear the rhythm or feel the texture. He goes on to explain that, “cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi. They get to work with the primal elements, too, fire and water, earth and air, using them – mastering them! – to perform their tasty alchemies,” (5). To use these elements is to interact with them, and that can only be done with the communal effort of all of our senses. Our sense of smell was engaged the moment the vegetables hit the frying pan and could be used to detect whether or not something was burning; we tasted our concoction along they way, determining whether or not it needed a little more salt, a little more pepper, etc; we listened to the snap and crackle of the sauteeing vegetables to gauge whether the heat was too high or not. To be a chef, we learned, one needs to be in tune with all of their senses.

Preparing our meal was also a communal experience. Media takes place away from space, disembedding us from our immediate surroundings. Through watching a cooking video or looking at someone’s scrumptious Instagram post, we engage in phantasmagoric communication with absent beings; we are not physically interacting with them. Our kitchen, however, was a dynamic space where we worked as a team to produce the food we would then be consuming. We chopped vegetables together, bounced ideas off one another in regards to how and when we should cook each ingredient and shared laughter and conversation – all within the same room, at the same time.

Pollan recounts a similar experience in Cooked when he describes brewing beer with his son, Isaac. “Brewing beer, even from a kit, turned out to be an enjoyable way for Isaac and me to spend a Saturday afternoon together… The work itself called for four hands and at least one strong back…, all of which combined to make for an agreeable collaboration of equals,” (388). Although Pollan and his son are from different generations, they were able to find common ground through this collaborative experience involving food. The same thing happened for our group. Each one of us comes from a unique background with our own preconceptions of how food should be made or eaten, yet we were able to come together, set aside these differences and worked as a team. We experienced one another as people, as friends who can create and laugh and enjoy a meal together.

Our project allowed us to step out of the virtual reality that is food media. Instead, we experienced the here and now reality. Our project went beyond the three dimensions, utilizing all of the senses and creating a interactive and collaborative environment. Even our own food media (our photos and video), though not portrayed with the same aesthetic as popularized food media, cannot portray these invisible phenomena; they can only be experienced physically and personally.

Stylized Photo our food media + video – 

 

In popular and mainstream media, food is very much focused around appearance. Media also dictates the way we prepare, eat, and value our food. The food media that we are bombarded with on social media, on billboards and even explicitly described through radio commercials creates an illusion of how food should be. It frames our expectations around experiences that are unattainable in reality. In an attempt to challenge this discourse, our project was documented throughout: from selecting the specifically unappealing blemished produce to taking the very last few bites of the finished product. We captured our performance in ways that ‘food’ is portrayed through food media but with our purposefully selected unappealing food. We were curious to see what our reactions would be. If we took pictures of our produce being prepared in a scene that captures our actual experience, would this food still appear appealing to us? This was a key question we kept in mind through the entire experience. In alignment with Signe Rousseau’s thoughts about how “media [has] come to determine how we think and behave when it comes to nourishing ourselves”(xx), we prepared to create a space to explore our imagination to generate our own media capturing shots of our own experiences. Through this process of documenting this group performance, there were challenges that our photographers faced. Much of our creativity was very much influenced by the discourses that are generated through mainstream media.

We made sure to exclude the preconception of food and had no plan and no expectation of the result of our cooking experience in the beginning, we were just on the hunt for unappealing produce at first and we were going to make a vegan stir fry. This connects with an idea Rousseau mentions in her book Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday

Interference “The more food media we consume, the less incentive we have to think for ourselves about how we should eat”(xx). With no plan or recipe to abide by for this project, we were forced to trust our own agency. This was especially tested when Alice decided to top our finished stir-fry with sliced over-riped bananas without removing the peel. Although the reaction was not captured, this was a test for all of us to see if we could ignore our conditioned views of food to be open to enjoying this meal. An additional obstacle we faced was when we caught ourselves falling into a pattern similar to that present in food media in preparing the food especially. It was mentioned while we were cutting the produce that the vegetables should not be cut in any specific way and that why should the produce all have to be cut separately rather than together. This was fun to explore with each other, it almost felt like we were breaking the rules of how food should be prepared which made us realize just how deeply ingrained the influence of food media influences our own agency and governs our decisions.

In comparison to mainstream media, we realized that we captured more than just the visual experience of the food itself. I wanted to capture the blemishes and hands and tools used to bring not only this meal but communal experience together. In Cooked when Pollan works with his son brewing beer, he emphasizes how the labor opens a door of social bonding: “The work itself called for four hands and at least one strong back (for lifting and pouring five-gallon kettles and heavy glass carboys), all of which combined to make for an agreeable collaboration of equals. Working side by side is always a good recipe for easy conversation with a teenager”(Pollan 388). This type of hands on work creates a very level atmosphere and each person played a part in this performance, our end product was much larger than a sizzling colorful stir fry in a skillet. It was an atmosphere of open and creative space. Much of the media in food today very rarely focuses on the space in which a food is prepared, it is disconnected from everything and its origins remain hidden. In comparison our food media was very much connected to an experience. It captured a narrative of a fun group of friends exploring in the kitchen and making something beautiful.

Another aspect of this project that was captured was focused through the lens of food porn. Food porn uses the techniques present in actual porn through fetishization of food.  “ ‘True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes’. As implicit here as it is explicit in non-food pornography is the commodification of fantasy–the ‘unattainable’…” (Rousseau 74).  This  connects us back to the idea mentioned earlier about an unattainable experience of food. Similar to actual porn, there are very few senses that are being highlighted in that artificial experience, not only is it staged from a actor and actress level, but the process of filming the sexual experience itself through the camera shots creates a perspective to a viewer that is extremely unrealistic. In food porn, the same themes apply: “desirable but achievable.. Food porn, like sex porn are all measures of alienation, not community”(Rousseau 74-75). We in comparison introduced a community experience and captured this through our own food porn.

 

While preparing the foods we embraced the sounds and textures of the foods (e.g. squishing the cherry tomato which then exploded on Sophia and Alice eating the avocado with her finger present in the video). These created a more intimate bodily experience with our food in rather than the alienated unachievable one so present in food porn. While taking video and shots of the group members eating the food, great candid shots were captured which showed a very holistic experience of enjoying the meal. In the photo (*Nina taking a bite*) she has her hand cupped around the nan bread with the stir-fry on top of it. The pepper in the photo had a visible blemish on it yet there are still vibrant colors present and appears to be a very real experience. We concluded that by following our own agency we created our our food media and most importantly we created our own food aesthetics as a result.  

Art of it being governed so much + trust our own agency – 

Itself a discourse that is “highly regulated groupings of utterances or statements with internal rules which are specific to discourse itself (Mills, 48)”, food aesthetic has its systematic practices that people in this discourse discipline inconsistency and difference constantly on daily basis, naturalizing ‘proper food’ while defining ugliness. It allows people to constantly perform the notion that the look of food is itself quality, social manner and status. Outweighing food itself, food aesthetics create a huge gap between people and holistic sensual food; due to this ‘defined ugliness’, people’s justified avoidance of certain food may lead to unnecessary food waste.

Our project aimed to challenge the constructed aesthetics of food by excluding preconceptions during the whole process of interacting with food, reversing ways that the food is supposed to look and be prepared.


During the food selection, for instance, we chose ingredients that people will normally avoid due to its “ugliness”: green peppers with worm holes, bananas with black peels, and non-standardized sweet potatoes. We meant to visualize and doubt the standard of food selection that construct people’s belief of what is ‘good food’ and whether it overstates the relevance between the look and the quality. Moving to food presentation, by abandoning harmonious ingredients combination and well-designed plating, we also aimed to reverse the normalized idea that only specifically-presented food can bring pleasure and property. We put bananas with black peels on top of fried rice and discarded plates. It is asked, why do we even need plates if the rice was already well-suited in the pot?

Including food selection, presentation and other interactions with food, we created freedom for ourselves to “not be governed so much” (Michel Foucault) by tossing out any constructed preconception of how cooking should be done, but still obtaining a highly pleasing and fun experience while also enjoying the final product.

Similar to Rousseau’s description of food media, the more we are being governed by food aesthetic, “the less incentive we have to think for ourselves about what we eat” (Rousseau, xx). However, being aware of the over-influence the discourse, we should all trust our own agencies starting with not prioritizing food aesthetic over the food itself.

With the rise of industrial agriculture and alternative food movements alike, we are entering a new episteme in how we consider our food and food choices. Those food choices are paradoxical: consumers are simultaneously dependent on food ‘experts’ that dominate our mediated spaces and yet they are held responsible for the repercussions of those eating habits. Our project attempts to embody Michel Foucault’s analysis on discourse and critique when he defines critique as “the art of not being governed so much” (Foucault). By assessing food media’s prioritizing of food aesthetics and the visual perception of food preparation and presentation, we were able to invert those same value systems in a conscious effort to create a sense of freedom. This practice helped us rediscover the sensuality in eating and food, the eroticism of food porn in creating a fantasy of the unattainable (and then attaining it), and to confront the expectations of food aestheticization. Just as in traditional pornography, food media creates heightened expectations for consumers, which oftentimes become unrealistic. Our rejection of media conventions and authoritative knowledge models helped us to trust our own agency in making food decisions, and ultimately translates to understanding the discursive structures that govern the rest of our lives, as well.

 

Bibliography:

 

Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. , 2013. Print.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday

Interference. , 2013. Internet resource.

Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2003.

 

Food, Community and Convenience by Ria Karve, Diarra Bell and Grace Weyand

 

As college students with busy schedules, eating seems to be one thing none of us can get right, whether it’s having the time to eat well, or the foresight to plan our meals ahead. Thus, we decided to explore our relationship with some of the food we eat. Reading Cooked by Michael Pollan in particular, motivated us to explore our relationship with our food through cooking it ourselves. When talking about cooking, Pollan talks about how, ““Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.” (Pollan, 21) Therefore, for this project, we decided to cook some food for ourselves and each other, reflect on the convenience of incorporating this food into our daily lives and evaluate its impacts on our understanding of community and the discourses that shape it.

 

First, we each came up with recipes that we thought would be easy, cheap, and the least time consuming. We went to Hillside and Abundance Co-op for ingredients and spent a day cooking the recipes in the Wilder floor kitchen. We bought and shared the produce and then went to the Wilder community kitchen to cook our food. Afterward, we continued to eat the leftover food throughout the week and incorporated this food into our normally busy schedules. Cooking together was a fun experience; we learned about each other outside of the classroom setting and it did provide an interesting communal experience overall. It was an attempt at imagining an alternative that wasn’t imagined for us. In Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies, Julie Guthman explains how “Neoliberalism’s other fix is to provide purchasable solutions to the problems it generates.” (Guthman, 191) We wanted to stray from the purchasable solutions so readily available at supermarkets: ready to eat processed meals, fresh vegetables or fruits already chopped up for you, perfect for a consumer who may perhaps not have time to create their own solutions.

 

In some aspects, it was successful. What we found to be the most interesting was the community aspect of our project. Cooking an all-vegan meal, and even going to Abundance Co-op, was a nice change from the typical environment on campus. Eating meat and other animal products is considered the normal and expected thing to do, and many people assume that those who do not eat meat are “missing out”. In Eating Animals, Foer says that “not making a decision – eating ‘like everyone else’ – is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic” (Foer, 300). This is similar to our situation in that we are constantly told that veganism is an inconvenience and to simply eat “normally”. but it was a pleasant change in perspective to be in an environment where veganism was considered normal and was the dominant discourse. This made us think of Sara Mills’ discussion of Foucalt’s work in Discourse. Discourse is defined as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” (Foucalt, 17). The discourse surrounding food is governed by many things: culture and community among them, and in the United States, it is usually meat heavy. We wondered if people would be more willing to try vegan food if they thought of it not as deprivation, but simply as food that doesn’t contain animal products. In going shopping together, buying our own produce and cooking together, we imagined we were creating our own space for creativity.

 

But to what extent was this a space of freedom, of creativity? Through our class discussions, we had accepted that we were all neoliberal consumers and that no matter what we would have to consume to an extent, to exist in a neoliberal society. But on reflecting on some of our experiences during the performance, we realized that our definition for what constituted a better connection to our food was myopic; most of our connection had to do with the triumph of buying and cooking the food ourselves, i.e., knowing where it came from. We felt more connected, perhaps, to the food we ate because we cooked it, but we didn’t really consider it in terms of the system that it came from. This made us think back to Information and Democracy in the Global Coffee Trade by Dan Reichman, because he highlights the dangers of mistaking a certain level of transparency for a connection. When he talks about Utz’s transparency oriented marketing, he says, “There is, therefore, a risk that ostensibly transparent information becomes just another form of marketing, used strategically to transform the relationship between the consumer and the product.” (Reichman, 169) In this type of relationship, the producer and the system of which the food product is a part is not considered. Similar to Utz’s consumers looking for information on their website, we took care to buy organic ingredients to the best of our ability and cook the food from scratch, determined to know what we ate. As a result, we didn’t look any further as to what kind of connection it was and didn’t consider that it had a much broader definition than the one we gave it.

 

Our convenient definition of the word connection, caused us to dig deeper into why we came up with this particular definition. Why hadn’t we considered the myriad of ways in which we had been disconnected from our food system, despite having learned about it all semester? It was the most obvious one, true, but it was nowhere near the ‘solution’. This train of thought took us to the idea of ‘organized irresponsibility’, Food Media: Celebity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference by Signe Rousseau. Rousseau uses Sociologist Ulrich Beck’s definition of organized irresponsibility when she says, “Beck describes modern life as informed by a series of manufactured, rather than natural, risks, and organized irresponsibility is the unproductive result of shifting responsibility — or blame — around the most convenient sites. Importantly, the most convenient place for responsibility is elsewhere, which is why organized irresponsibility is a useful way to describe the anxiety that paradoxically results from too much agency” (Rousseau, 31). The ‘convenient site’ that we could place the blame on, in our case was the basic definition of ‘connection’, i.e., cooking your own food, since it was immediately accessible to us. In doing this however, we disregarded some of the deeper, more complicated reasons that we’re disconnected from our food.

While cooking, there was also a feeling of anxiety in the environment and some of us reported being hyperaware of the time because we had other places to be in. The minute we were done using a pot or a pan, we would quickly wash it, so that something else could be cooked in it. This relates back to the anxiety felt by us because of organized irresponsibility; as college students, we have a lot of agency in what we want to do with our time here. But ironically, the freedom to choose left us with not that much agency over what we were doing in the moment. We also wondered whether we were passively consuming what Michael Pollan said about cooking being something that is ‘lost’ in today’s world. The phrases, ‘taking back the production and preparation’ and ‘making visible again, the lines of connection’ create a pastoral idea of what cooking used to be like and that going back to cooking will revive a long-lost connection. This wouldn’t be surprising: we’ve read about how media can affect us more than we want them too and food media is no different.

 

This raises a question: what is the extent to which we can free ourselves from the governance of culture and community in our immediate environment? What types of connections to food are easier to achieve than others because of purchasable solutions provided? Will we resist being governed at the risk of being lonely? Class discussions on modernity and the consequences of living in an industrial society based on Ben Singer’s in Meanings of Modernity tell us that ‘mature capitalism’ includes, “a money economy; extensive industrialization, highly centralized and mechanized manufacture; hired labor; organized entrepreneurial investment; competitive free markets; and significant international trade” (Singer, 21). The words centralized, mechanized, centralized all showcase a sense of efficiency and individuality: part of the reason for the disconnection we have been feeling from our food. This is what we tried to resist in our performance, only, we stopped at a superficial connection when we should have asked more questions, been more mindful. Critique, as defined by Foucalt is “the art of not being governed quite so much” (Foucalt). Working through this project, we realized that we need to do more work to critically evaluate the discourses surrounding food, and how they govern the community and environment around us, so that we can create holistic and complicated places of freedom.

 

Works cited:

 

Singer, Ben . “Meanings of Modernity .” (n.d.): 34 . Print

 

Guthman , Julie. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of contemporary bodies.” (2009, NYU Press): 192. Print.

 

Pollan , Michael. “Cooked” (2013, The Penguin Press, NY): 21, 308. Print.

 

Mills, Sara. “Discourse” (1997, Routledge): 17 . Print.

 

Rousseau, Signe. “Food Media: Celebity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference”: 31. Print.

 

Reichman, Dan. “Food Activism: Agency, Democracy and Economy” (Bloomsbury): 169. Print.

Guilt: How literature helped me understand the harm of my eating habits and how to cope with the emotions felt after

By Gabby Pulsinelli

Food is personal. It is an object which fills the space of value, memories, and culture in our minds. It is an object that has the power to weigh on you and it can eat you from the inside out. Today, we are so distant from where our food comes from that we forget the awful circumstances that it originates from. When presented with the images of factory farming and other practices in the industrialized food system the reactions are different. Some continue to eat meat others go vegetarian or vegan, but there is a guilt that comes with seeing these images that no one can deny.

How do you deal with the guilt of eating meat and other animal products? What is the result from when you decide to omit these items from your diet? When you become educated about food how does it change what you eat, where you eat, how you eat and everything else that revolves around food. Some learn than say “that is terrible” and move on, continuing to eat their McDonald’s burger, I couldn’t do it.

After visiting Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glenn a feeling of comfort and discomfort fell over me. Even though I felt calm while petting the pigs and sheep a feeling of guilt came over me. It was a feeling that my eating habits for the past 22 years have been a contributing factor to their discomfort and suffering. Something about the factory farm footage paired with seeing the cages right there and meeting the animal’s after had an overwhelming effect that drove me over the edge to reconsider my food choices.

This guilt and gut-wrenching feeling after seeing the cages in person gave me the same feeling I felt in many of the passages in Eating Animals. This specific one I remember reading and I had to stop and get a piece of the picture to truly see what is considered a ‘humane’ practice.

“In its Animal Welfare Guidelines, the National Chicken Council indicates an appropriate stocking density to be eight-tenths of a square foot per bird…Let’s try to picture it. Find a piece of printer paper and imagine a full-grown bird shaped something like a football with legs standing on it. Imagine 33,000 of these rectangles in a grid…enclose the grid windowless walls and put a ceiling on top…This is a farm.”  (Safran 99)

Safran’s description is one that would shock a normal and decent human being, they take the reader on a factory farm. His language is direct, he knows what he wants his reader to feel. He brings the reader in with “Let’s try to picture it” to make them feel like they are the chicken, he uses the idea of anthropomorphism well here. Even though anthropomorphism has its dangers he is able to successful use it here to project the idea of claustrophobia and overcrowding. He puts you in the ‘farm’. Picturing yourself as the chicken does not feel good. It makes you feel guilty, it makes you feel as if you were the chicken and makes you feel bad for the animal.

This passage shatters the pastoral images we are fed in the grocery stores and on tv that most American’s feel their food comes from. Even though he does not state it, Safran in this passage he is describing the conditions in which a farm can be considered “cage free”.  So many people associate a false picture when it comes to “cage free” they think that the chickens are running around outside instead of an oversized shed. My initial impression of cage free was just that, until taking this class I did not realize that they get so little space. This brings me back to the Chicken Council’s videos they post on their website, they say their ‘happy’ but how do they know? I hate to use the word “natural” here because it is a loaded term but: a chicken’s natural habitat is not less than a piece of paper. There is nothing natural, moral or redeeming about the process in which we raise poultry, all the buzzwords on the packing are all lies.

His language throughout the book only gets more extreme to the point of making you question why you ever ate meat in the first place. Within the first 50 pages, the following is said: “half of all the layer chickens born in the United States, more than 250 million chicks a year –are destroyed.”(Sagran 38). The word destroyed is what caught me here, it is such a strong word to use, he could have said killed, tossed out, but he uses “destroyed”. Using this language implies violence, it is not a passive word. Chicks are destroyed simply because they are male, they do not even try to find a use for them. They view them just as a bycatch and toss them as if they have no value. The fact is just so mind-blowing it stops the reader in their tracks and makes them question their choice on eating eggs. This sentence is one of the ones highlighted in my book, it is one I returned too while trying to come to terms with myself and the food I choose to ingest. I typically would eat eggs as a quick breakfast, however, I never thought of the fact that millions of chicks die so I could have my breakfast or they were trapped in a small cage. After reading this I looked in my fridge in my eggs and could not touch them.

I had been thinking about going vegetarian for the past year, I did a short 4 month vegetarian moment after my environmental economics class while I was a sophomore and learning about the impacts of meat. I was preaching environmentalism as part of Team Green and as a Super EcoRep, but do not follow it myself. This did not last as soon as I went home, my parents thought of it as strange and did not support the choice at all. My parents have no concept of the environment, being green, or even think about their food choices. I do not even think we recycle paper in my house. There is something different this time around; the guilt this time around is eating me alive.

Something about farm sanctuary pushed me over the edge, it was stronger than just numbers. The guilt manifested itself into something I could no longer ignore and suppress, my conscious took over and forced me to think about the ethics of my food. It brought me to the conclusion that my morals did not line up with how I was eating. Cutting meat out was not enough for me, all animal products had to go as there is no end to the cruelty even if it is not their flesh. Can there be happy cows who I can get milk from? Can you humanely slaughter an animal? Is it sustainable to eat a small amount of meat?

 

Right now for me, the answer is no for all of those questions above.

 

Let’s talk discourse. The first time I went vegetarian I was fighting against the discourse that everyone should be eating meat to have a balanced diet. The government ‘teaches’ us that a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy on our plate each meal. This type of meal has been ingrained into me since I went to boarding school when I was 14. The person serving my lunch would ask what you wanted and there always be a meat, a vegetable, and a carb. The fruit was in the basket on your way out and the milk containers were on the side. This discourse shows that not drinking milk and eating meat within a balanced diet is wrong.

What is so messed up about the MyPlate image is that literally creates an entire category –dairy—in which all product(unless plant based) come from sort of animal exploitation. The reason why the government promotes drinking milk? To prevent osteoporosis, but ironically countries that they do not drink milk regularly(unlike the USA) have a lower percentage of people who suffer from osteoporosis (Safran 113). In order for a human to drink milk a calf is taken from her mother, if it a girl they are put through the same procedure of constant pregnancy to produce milk and if they are a steer more often than not they are shipped off to the veal industry. The veal industry is a result of the dairy industry as they did not know what to do with the male baby cows. The steer will get shipped off and live in a small white tent where they live their short lives out with no more than a few feet to move around with no social interaction with other cows or humans until their slaughter.

Our obsession with milk is extremely recent, it is a governmentally sponsored and celebrity endorsed phoneme: “This sums up the sense of Foucault’s analysis of power, that is, that power is dispersed throughout social relations, that it produces possible forms of behavior as well as restricting behavior.”(Mills 20). The power behind the dairy and milk industry is one that we can date back to 1950 that is the result of dairy companies advertising the “nutrition” value of milk and creating a demand through infants not breastfeed (Dupuis). There was no need to promote milk drinking; people were doing fine without it. It was people who had “power” and were in an authoritative position in which they could promote milk to the general public and not be questioned because they were “experts”.

This discourse that dairy is needed to be ‘healthy’ is a hard battle I need to fight with not only my parents but everyone around me. I have not yet received the “you’re not going to get enough protein” line but I am waiting. Milk and eggs are so relevant to ‘normalized’ cooking that when you choose to omit them from your diet in every fashion it makes you an alien in many people’s eyes. Eggs and milk are so prevalent in so many dishes on campus and in restaurants. While trying to find something to eat in Douglass on a revisit day I looked at the soup and it looked vegan until I read the label. Same with other stations, they all boast some type of cheese or dairy-based element. All the desserts that day had eggs in them, we do not need 5 different types of desserts. What kills me is that Danforth is all you can eat dining hall and I had 4-5 choices of a full meal and the only source of protein I could find was a poorly cooked veggie burger that I could not even finish.

It is one thing to say you do not eat meat at all, it another thing to say you will not eat red meat, some say they only eat fish, others will say they eat very little meat in generally. There are many discourses about choosing to not eat meat, being vegetarian is not viewed as so strange. Being vegetarian is still a fight against the discourse of myplate and that eating meat is normal. There are still many “normal” options people do not bat eyes at. For example, you can eat cheese a food our culture is obsessed with.  Many restaurants even feature a “V” on their menu to represent vegetarian meals. But people do not bat their eyes at this as much, even vegetarians are merging into the more widely accepted discourse of eating habitats. When you say your vegan, God have mercy on your soul for the reactions you get.

When you say your vegan a whole floodgate of questions, comments, and judgments come at you at once. So here let us dive into the world of Gabby’s social interactions, work life, RA life, and family drama. Most recently at a work place party, they were having a thank you lunch for the students and professional staff members(which I am one of) to wrap up the end of the year. Part of my job was helping the event planner carry in the food, place the soda, and layout the dessert tray. What was for lunch you say? Pizza, wings, mostly cream based desserts and soda. While at this party my co-workers were like “Gabby get food”, in which I had to politely tell them “I can’t eat ANY of that”. Gal, who organized and order the food, felt so bad after I told her I was vegan. Gal happens to be a vegetarian and we ended up talking about why we did not eat meat, part of it for her is her religion .

I got the question “why are you vegan”. As of right now while writing this paper I have never fully explained my reasoning as every time I get asked this question it is during while someone is eating meat. At the end of this paper I hope to answer this question fully but my answer while in company with others who are currently consuming animals products is the following: “After taking Animal Histories and Food Media and Literature and visiting farm sanctuary and seeing footage of factory farming I cannot look at meat/animal products the same way. If you want me to tell you the full reason I better not do it while your eating.” While this is the truth, it is not the whole truth. I said my line and we continue our conversation. Then our director joins us and notices I do not have food and gives me the nudge to go get food and I repeat the “I am vegan” line. What Christine then says is something that I related to the way to much, “Gabby can’t eat meat because she “overeducated” on the subject”.

I do not know how I feel about this word “overeducated”, am I overeducated or do I know the truth? This brings me to Mills again, “Truth, therefore, is something which societies have to work to produce, rather than something which appears in a transcendental way.” (Mills 18). This ties back into the idea of power Mills talks about and who has the power to produces these “truths”. While the chicken council says less than a sheet of paper is humane is that the ultimate truth? As a society, many rely on a “higher power” and these people who occupy these positions are the ones who typically create these “transcendental” truths. Many follow blindly and take the truth at word value never questioning at all, they see words like “cage-free”’ and organic assume that they are better than the other products in the store.

My “overeducation” is a result of taking a variety of narratives together to see the full picture, I decided to question my food and not take it at face value. The truth that is presented in the supermarket is a false notion and after learning these “truths” that society is slowly starting to piece together. This knowledge of knowing what goes on a ‘farm’ and how animals are treated weights on you, it reaches a breaking point. If I truly believe in the harmful effects of factory farming and can see through the “bullshit” (as Jonathan Saffran calls it) how can I still consume it?

What you choose to eat has consequences, either you see them or not, the truth is that we are so far removed we do not know what is true about our food anymore unless we grow it ourselves. There are not just animal abuse issues and environmental issues but the treatment of those who work in the food industry. Choosing to eat factory farmed meat is not only support the awful treatment of animals but the as equal horrible conditions of workers in the industry. One of the reasons I choose to be vegan is the treatment of workers in the meat industry. This is one of those reasons to be vegan is extremely difficult to tell people about because of the vivid images that are needed to understand.  While reading Fast Food Nation the descriptions and stories spoke to me and made me feel awful about all the meat I had ever eaten in my life. What Fast Food Nation does is bring forth a narrative and a truth that is buried by the big meat packing industries: “Every year about one out of there meatpacking workers in the country roughly forty-three thousand men and women- suffer an injury or work-related illness that requires medical attention beyond first aid.”( Schlosser 183) These are just the reported ones, there are probably much more that go unrecorded as well and are encouraged by plant managers to keep their injuries under the radar.

In the discourse of why people are Vegan are for a healthier lifestyle(according to some experts), boycotting animal abuse, rejecting practices of factory farming, and religious beliefs. However, you never hear vegans talking about the workers who are mistreated and taken advantage of in order keep the profit margin high. One of the reasons I became vegan was the fact that thousands of people working in this industry are affected by the industrialization food system. Families are torn apart by factory farms, in a paper I read in Animal History it talks about how the swine industry made a family live apart. The factory is so concerned about germs transferring between piglets and full grown pigs that the father, who is a manager, could not live with his family who worked with baby piglets (Blanchette 643). The people working in the meat industry are the lowest of the low, mostly illegal and pushed to the physical limit. They push the conveyor belt to make it “faster pace for higher profits” and sacrificed the safety of their workers (Schlosser 185). These workers are disposable, the company could care less about them and it is evident in the story Schlosser paints for us.

Through literature and personally reflection I have been able to come to terms with my guilt about eating meat and change my habits to support a lifestyle that does not support harming animals or exploitation of workers. However, this change has not been easy socially, mentally, or physically.

Food is an important part of the college experience and is a vital part in how I hang out with many of my friends. In Eating Animals Safran makes this point:

“Sharing food generates good feeling and creates social bonds. Michael Pollan…calls this “table fellowship” and argues that its importance…is a vote against vegetarianism. At one level, he’s right. Let’s assume you’re like Pollan and are opposed to factory-farmed meat. If you’re at the guest end, it stinks not to eat food that was prepared for you, especially (although he doesn’t get into this) when the grounds for refusal are ethical…How much do I value creating a socially comfortable situation, and how much do I value acting socially responsible?” (Safran 44)

 

Table fellowship is something I am struggling with, many of my friends are omnivores and when they ask me to eat out I have to check the menu ahead of time. About two weeks into my journey finding out what being vegan is like I get a text from one of my close friends on campus “let’s go out to olive garden tonight with the gang”. Very rarely do I get to hang out at once with them, the menu at Olive Garden has a total of three items I can eat: their salad with oil and vinegar, without their signature dressing, breadsticks, minestrone soup, and pasta with marinara or tomato sauce. Out of all of their options, those are the items on the menu I can eat four things. I decided to go with them and it was somewhat awkward at dinner. I felt bad having to tell the waitress that we needed two different salads for the tables, as my other friends wanted the other dressing. Even though it was awkward placing our orders overall at the table no one questions me or made me feel bad. In the back of my mind, I could not help to think of the animals harmed in making my friends meals.

Right now while I write this paper my friend messages me on facebook to our group chat, “if any of you are around there is free bbq in the wells brown room” my friends thought me going vegan was just for this class. They have blown away that I have decided to make this lifestyle change, in the conversation about the free food she typed: “I would not be able to live this life during finals I don’t know how you are managing.”  My friends are extremely tied up in their studies rarely do they cook or even think about the food the put in their bodies. They live in the discourse that being disconnecting to your food is accepted and to not question the industry. They also live in the world that you need meat to survive, most of the meals served on campus have some sort of animal product in them. My friends burrito bowls typically not only have meat but cheese and sour cream and other animal products. Even their salads will be topped with cheese and chicken with a dressing that most likely contains an animal fat. They do not think at all about their food, their concerned with others things that when it comes to eating it is just fuel and nothing more.

Physically this transition has been rough on my body, my face is breaking out and is draining thinking about what I can eat while at dining locations. Even cooking is becoming a drain—something I enjoy doing—after working till 5pm coming back to my room and trying to make something that will fill me and is nutritious takes mental and physical energy. With their being so few options available on campus I am forced to shop ahead of time off campus and to try to meal prep as much as I can. It is an adjustment to having to cook ahead of time, I believe this will be much easier once I have an oven at my disposal next year and not just a stovetop.

What is surprising is the amount of food I need to eat, that has been the shell shocker to me. I find myself hungry all the time, I will eat a full meal and then be hungry in an hour or two. It is taking some adjustment to this diet but it has become easier over time and I know that have to be more conscious of what is going into my body. While at Wegmans shopping for the week I was looking for vegan chocolate, took me like 10 minutes, and when I finally located it I found myself reading the labels to make sure it was vegan. I know with time these side effects will disappear and it will become easier shopping/cooking.

It has been a whirlwind the past month and I know that this will be an uphill battle, I have to face my parents and then find out how to be vegan while going to school in North Carolina (pretty sure BBQ reigns supreme there). It is finding a freedom within a system that makes the choices about what I eat more moral. This journey is far from over, I have to learn how to operate in a system at my home and within my family that is rooted in meat-loving-cheese-covered dinners. It is going to be plenty of awkward conversations and parties (not all beer/wine is vegan). I am not sure what to except when I leave Rochester, all I know is that the literature and our trip to Farm Sanctuary spoke to me and changed me. My habits are more conscious of what I eat and how I consume food.

Guilt is a strong emotion, one that has taken hold of me this semester and last. It is now that I understand the morality and power of my choices when it comes to food. I may be one person but maybe I can help someone learn how to eat morally (vegan, vegetarian, or “meat-eater” as Sophia has said). I can control my own actions and eating habits and will find that space of freedom is this chaotic industrial food system.

 

Bibliography

Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, Erna Melanie DuPuis

Herding Species: Biosecurity, Posthuman Labor, and the American Industrial Pig, Alex Blanchette

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Fast Food Dilemma, Eric Schlosser

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran 

Vegan Campus Comforts by Suzie Ziegler & Sarah Benraiss

Mean Greens vegan dining hall at University of North Texas
Vegan Campus Comforts By Suzie Ziegler & Sarah Benraiss

The University of Rochester is often referenced as one of the more vegan-friendly campuses in the nation. Peta2 gives the institution an A+ on its ‘Vegan Report Card’ (Peta2). The American Vegan Society has written a glowing review of Rochester’s efforts to support vegan dining options, and commended the school’s Student Association of Vegan and Vegetarian Youth (‘American Vegan’ 31). We’ve seen the separate coolers for almond and soy milk in the dining halls, we’ve seen the vegan section in Danforth Dining Hall, the soups labeled with the little green, the many purchasable packaged solutions in Hillside, etc. We know vegan options exist on campus for its vegan students. Off campus options are only a short distance away: Wegmans, the Public Market, vegan-friendly restaurants like The Red Fern and Owl House. As far as we are aware, no vegan student has dropped dead from malnutrition. It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that maintaining a vegan diet as a student of this University is perfectly doable.

We are not asking the question, can a student be vegan with only campus dining options? They obviously can. Instead, we are questioning the qualitative factors of vegan campus dining. We ask not if it’s possible, but rather how comfortable is it to maintain a vegan diet on campus? Is there a consistent variety of vegan options? Are the options healthy? Is the placement of vegan food widely accessible and convenient (i.e. do many dining locations reliably carry vegan options, or can you only rely on one)? Does the vegan food taste good? As animal product skeptics, but not strict vegans, we were curious about how easy and comfortable it would be to eat vegan from only campus facilities. We hope to gather data from our experience and construct a hypothetical proposal to Dining Services detailing improvements for the whole vegan dining experience, not necessarily just the number of vegan options.

Our method of investigation was the following: we practiced a vegan diet for one week using only campus dining facilities. Thus restaurants, GrubHub, Wegmans, Abundance, and any other off-campus food sources were not on the menu; we ate only what we could purchase on campus with our declining plans. In addition to eating vegan meals we also kept a detailed food log with both pictures and written entries. From this log we were able to see patterns, draw conclusions, and answer some of our initial qualitative questions. Out of coincidence, we happened to have very different dining plans which allowed us to cover an even broader spectrum of the vegan dining experience. Suzie has an all-declining plan and no kitchen access, which meant that all of her meals had to come prepared and ready to eat. Sarah however has a low-declining plan and full access to her own kitchen, which meant that she cooked many of her meals at home with ingredients from Hillside.

SUZIE

My vegan week was for the most part uneventful. To be candid I found that I did not deviate too much from my original diet. I had been vegetarian for the past couple of months, spurred in part by this class, and I had already drastically decreased my dairy intake about a year ago for personal health benefits. Detailed below is my food log. From these photos it is easy to spot some trends. Every coffee cup in the photo is a cappuccino made with almond milk. I often had vegetarian sushi either for brunch or lunch; in fact I had that for all three meals on Thursday. My staple evening or late night snack was some combination of vegetables and hummus, often accompanied by raspberries and peanut butter. Despite these patterns, I found that I was still able to have a varied diet. I would not necessarily conclude that multiple repeats are the fault of a vegan diet, but rather my own preferences and the limitedness of campus dining in general. This is to say that I believe I would repeat meals at least a couple times throughout the week even without the confines of a vegan diet. If I were to extend this project I would do a second week of logging food without intentionally eating vegan to eliminate some of the other variables of campus dining.

The largest palpable difference I noticed was the additional step of reading ingredients in the dining halls and other campus facilities. Before this project I had practiced an ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude towards foods potentially containing animal products. Although I had stayed away from anything that visibly contained meat, eggs, or dairy, I did not hesitate to grab pancakes or baked goods for brunch on Saturday mornings; if  the animal products were not visible then I acted as though they weren’t there in the first place. Thus for this week I made sure to only eat products that were clearly marked as vegan.

It is curious how the ‘unseen’ animal product is the default. It’s perfectly possible to make vegan pancakes and cookies, yet the baked goods offered in the dining halls always contain eggs and dairy. For someone with an insatiable sweet tooth such as myself, baked goods were an absolute must for my vegan week. Campus does offer some vegan alternatives but they are few and far between (e.g. the vegan cookies far below eye level at Connections, and the vegan tarts on the highest shelf at Hillside). The vegan section of Danforth Dining hall is at the far end of the room, near the back. This system assumes that everyone wants to or is willing to eat animal products and seems to intentionally disperse the alternatives out of reach. Why is this done? As Foer suggests in Eating Animals, a vegetarian [or vegan] meal may look very similar, and indeed be just as satisfying as a meal centered on meat. He describes a vegetarian Thanksgiving meal and asks, “what would happen if there were no turkey? Would the tradition be broken, or injured, if instead of a bird we simply had the sweet potato casserole, homemade rolls, green beans with almonds, cranberry concoctions, yams, buttery mashed potatoes, pumpkin and pecan pies?…It’s not so hard to imagine” (Eating Animals 251). Indeed Foer’s meal (minus the ‘buttery’ potatoes) sounds like it could be a very successful vegan alternative. Why is it then that at the University of Rochester foods stand out as marked vegan products, instead of foods containing animal products? Why are animal products expected and veganism the exception? As I mentioned in our project presentation, the University of North Texas has successfully implemented America’s first all-vegan dining hall, Mean Greens. Just as Foer suggests that a meat-free Thanksgiving is not so hard to imagine, neither is an all-vegan dining hall. More vegan options do not damage the integrity of the mental model of a campus dining facility.

Yet, the very nature of a vegan dining facility further segregates the ideas of a ‘traditional’ meat-eating diet and a vegan diet. It’s a frustrating paradox. I have just questioned the ‘othering’ of vegan food (clear labelling of vegan foods, physically separating them, etc) and at the same time praised an all-vegan dining hall. One might consider a vegan dining facility to be ‘othering’ at the extreme. It’s easy to imagine that if ‘Mean Green’ came to Rochester, it would be known not by its name but as ‘the vegan dining hall.’ Where is the line drawn between promoting awareness and normalization?

I find this to be a particularly nuanced situation at the University of Rochester considering the city’s prominent meat culture. Dinosaur BBQ is labeled as a must-see and local novelties like chicken wings and garbage plates are revered. Our own campus hosts an annual Boar’s Head dinner during which a real pig’s head is presented. Food trucks with garbage plates and burgers arrive at every major weekend event. David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster scrutinizes the default celebration and glorification of meat consumption. It details the (in)famous Maine Lobster Festival in a manner that calls into question the consumption of meat as a celebratory act. Why is it that celebrations revolve around meat? I find it hard to imagine that much cultural and social support would be garnered for such events if they were advertised as vegan. This is not to say that the food trucks that come to campus or the Boar’s Head dinner don’t have vegan options, they do. I am merely drawing attention to the fact that all major campus events are advertised with the promise of meat, not vegetables and grains.

 

SARAH

My “original” diet:

My diet might best be described as pescatarian, but certainly not vegan. I am the type of person that cooks most of my meals and I draw a lot from Mediterranean cuisine as it is the cuisine I grew up with and which is most representative of my French/Moroccan background. This diet, while it can be made vegetarian or even vegan rather easily, traditionally includes a lot of seafood and cheese.

Because I live in Southside, I have access to a kitchen in my dorm room, and do not usually rely on campus foods to sustain myself. I generally buy my groceries from Wegmans, Aldi or Hart’s, and supplement with what I can find at the Public Market and various smaller farmer’s markets when they are in season. Cooking for myself, my average meal is centered around some form of grain (couscous, pasta, rice or bread) and then  lots of fruits and vegetables. I used to eat chicken as well, but I’ve recently stopped purchasing it. However, I consume fish or eggs about 3 times a week, and eat dairy products almost daily (in the form of yogurt and cheese mostly, plus the occasional scoop of ice cream).

Why I did this:

Knowing I would have to select a more expensive, all declining meal plan for the next semester, and lose access to my kitchen now, I felt that a trial run exploration of vegan diet might look like at the University of Rochester would benefit me in more ways than one, Outside of this practical aspect, however, the three biggest factors might have been concerns about my health, my environmental impact and my personal code of ethics.

After learning that I was genetically susceptible to breast cancer earlier in the semester, I started looking into how diet can influence the risk of cancer. Around the same time, I also began taking some medication which negatively influenced my cholesterol levels, a metric which is usually influenced by diet. Both of these factors, it seemed, might benefit from a switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. A vegan diet in particular would also cut out the intake of growth hormones given to cows which wind up in meat and dairy products, which “have been shown to significantly increase the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancer in beef consumer” (“Factory Farming and Human Health”).

Another big factor in my decision was the possibility of reducing my environmental impact. The impact of factory farmed animals on climate change is undeniable. According to the Farm Sanctuary website, between 1990 and 2005, “methane emissions from […] cow operations rose {..] 50 percent” (Factory Farming and the Environment”). Methane being a very potent greenhouse gas, I have no illusions about my dairy consumption’s contribution to climate change and the pollution of our air, land and water.

But on some level, I also knew I wanted to explore this from a personal, humanistic perspective, outside of what science told me to be true. This is where the ethics side of my decision came in. When we visited Farm Sanctuary, our tour guide said

something that stuck with me even after we left: “we just want you to live by the values we know you already hold”. Knowing what I know about the horrors of factory farming, it suffices to say that my values do not align with eating factory-farmed meat, though I have found this point easy to ignore in the past. Outside of even my own socio-political ideologies, on a deeply personal level, I knew I couldn’t condone the pain and suffering felt by our factory farmed animals. After spending time with the animals at Farm Sanctuary, petting turkeys, pigs, sheep and goats, I was reminded and perhaps reassured about my stance on this point.

Since the only meat I already ate was that of fish, and we didn’t interact with fish at the farm, I would also like to credit Foer’s Eating Animals with prompting me to confront why I thought fish were okay to eat but a cow might not be. This quote in particular made me realize my hypocrisy in this belief: “although one can realistically expect that at least some percentage of cows and pigs re slaughtered with speed and care, no fish gets a good death. Not a single one. You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate had to suffer. It did” (Foer 193). Perhaps because fish aren’t mammals, or because we are unable to humanize them as we might humanize a land animal, the question of cruelty against fish isn’t as stressed as that against pigs, cows or sheep. Confronting my own biases and recognizing that every fish I have ever eaten has died in suffering solidified my need to truly abide by my personal code of ethics.

How it went:

For me, cutting out all meat and dairy products meant I’d have to start with breakfast. Normally, I’d have either some Greek yogurt with blueberries and some granola, or I’d eat some oatmeal with milk,  bananas and honey. I already drank my coffee black, so that didn’t need to change. To adapt to a vegan diet using only ingredients I could find on campus, I started making instant, water-based oatmeal for breakfast every day, with some Hillside bananas and honey to top it off. At first, I found that I missed the creaminess of milk, but after making some minor adjustments to the cooking times and methods, I could barely tell the difference. It made me wonder why I ever thought milk was a necessary part of oatmeal (of course, this is because dominant discourse praises and pushes for the consumption of dairy in as many meals as possible).

Having lunch on campus was similarly just a minor adjustment. I couldn’t necessarily get all the options I might want, but there was certainly enough for me to live off of. I actually only ate in a dining hall once that week, but I did eat at Cafe 601 twice (the Medical Center Cafeteria, which also accepts declining). Each time, I was able to find or easily adapt ⅓ of the dishes available to me to fit

my vegan diet and I personally didn’t crave any of the non-vegan options. However, it was obvious that a vast majority of the dining options were designed around the consumption of meat. Also, while there was no apparent price difference between dishes with and without meat at the River Campus, I found myself spending a lot more declining than usual at the Medical Center to avoid meat and dairy products. This economic divide seems like it only further reinforces the idea that eating vegan is a luxury which should be paid for accordingly, as it exists outside the meat-eating discourse we are conditioned to.

Cooking lunch and dinner back at my dorm was a little bit more challenging. The variety of produce at Hillside was very limited, so I could really only eat the same 2-3 veggies cooked different ways for most meals. I got by with lots of mushrooms, onions and canned olives, as well as sweet potatoes, strawberries, packaged  lentils and tomatoes. Buying these ingredients at Hillside was a lot more expensive than I would have liked and my declining certainly took a hit, and part of me was a little annoyed knowing I could get a cheaper and higher quality selection of fruits and vegetables at a grocery store or the Public Market.

As a challenge to myself, I also made vegan desserts twice that week, including an apple-based cake and vegan rice pudding, both of which came out delicious. I had to consciously stop myself from adding things like milk and butter to the cake and shift gears a little bit, but the finished product was amazing. Overall, it didn’t feel like I was “sacrificing” anything by eating vegan, but it was only one week, and I wonder if after a month or so I might have found the range of foods offered on campus to be rather repetitive.

What I learned:

One major aspect of my life which changed during this week was the comments which my friends made about my eating habits. Usually, they wouldn’t really say anything about what I’m eating. That week though, it seemed everyone had an opinion. When I read food labels a little more closely than usual to make sure the product I was eating didn’t include milk or eggs, I would be told “why don’t you just eat it? Does it really matter? or “I hate watching you read that thing obsessively… why are you making life more difficult for yourself”. I even had a friend tell me he was gonna eat twice the mozzarella sticks in front of me to see if he could get me to change my mind.

These were examples of social policing in which my friends were, perhaps subconsciously, doing their part to bring me back in line with the existing discourse around meat eating. Their disdain for my attention and care to what I ate was a performance to assure themselves that they were in the right and that my habits were abnormal. Even on a liberal campus such at the University of Rochester, this discourse is so deeply internalized and reinforced daily that minute changes in my behavior became personal offenses to my peers.

I also found that I had to read labels much more closely than usual because there was no real overarching labeling system. In the dining halls at least, each item prepped by the chefs was labeled clearly and consistently. When it came to pre-packaged foods, however, the lack of visible labeling especially when became a real nuisance for me, and I can’t help but feel as though this lack of labeling is intentional. It’s not an accident that the ingredients for these items were so difficult to sift through, rather it is a conscious act which further reinforces the idea that eating meat and dairy products is the norm, and that anyone making a decision not to do so should not be accomodate as it is their choice to make “life more difficult for [them]selves”.

Additionally, if I took anything away from my time in the University of Rochester’s dining halls, it’s that meat was the centerpiece of almost every dish offered. This was in line with the radical feminist-vegetarian theory of Carol Adams, “meat is king. […] Just as it is thought a woman cannot make it on her own, so we think that vegetables cannot make a meal on their own […] Meat is upheld as a powerful, irreplaceable item of food” (Adams 33). To truly cater to the needs of vegetarian and vegan students, a dining facility should not simply be portraying vegan dishes as the same dish everyone else is getting, minus the meat. This narrative may have been what led to the downfall of “Meatless Monday”, as it is phrased in terms of taking something away rather than opening new possibilities. Effort should be put into creating vegan dishes which stand on their own, and are varied, delicious and appealing.

To illustrate this concept, and highlight how our dependence on meat is nothing more than a performance, I actually found myself going back to the first text we read in this class, Things Fall Apart. Compare these two quotes: “Yam, the king of crops” (Achebe 30) versus “Meat is king” ( Adams 33). In Things Fall Apart, we can imagine a world in which meat is not the king. Can we imagine a future for America where the primary discourse is one of veganism and plant-based diets? In a smaller, but not insignificant way, I believe campus dining facilities play a role in changing people’s perceptions of the importance of meat. Even just shifting the way vegan foods are framed and priced on campus could begin the process of normalizing the vegetarian and vegan meals, and push people in a rather subtle way to decrease their consumption of meat and dairy products. Naturally, this will not be enough to radically alter and dismantle the discourse surrounding the average diet in the United States, but it could have a significant impact on the diets of  UofR students.

 

Citations

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2009. Print.

Adams, Carol J. The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory.

“Check out University of Rochester’s Vegan Report Card Grade!” Peta2’s Vegan Report Card. Peta2, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

“Factory Farming and the Environment”. Farm Sanctuary. 2017: n. Pag. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

“Factory Farming and Human Health”. Farm Sanctuary. 2017: n. Pag. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

Jaros, Melody. “Quality Vegan Food on University of Rochester Campus.” Quality Vegan Food (n.d.): n. pag. Americanvegan.org. American Vegan, Winter 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2017                             <http://americanvegan.org/UnivROC.pdf>.

UNT Meal Plan Guy-Mean Greens. YouTube. University of North Texas, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd1oCP0pdBM>.

Wallace, David Foster. “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Aug. 2004: n. pag. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

 

The Neoliberal Aesthetic: How Images of Food Conjure Identity by Emilee Brecht

The imaging of food has changed significantly over the course of the last century. By imaging, I refer to the development of aesthetic idealizations and portrayals of food as elements in a carefully constructed narrative. Our culture is defined by visual processing of images designed to infiltrate the conscious with underlying messages. These messages create discourses about the object in question, which the object itself helps to create. Within the context of the industrial food system, the manipulation of imaging of food creates false pretenses that destroy the connection between the individual and food. The inaccessibility of images marks a misunderstanding about industrial food that allows us to become ignorant of the signals images send us. The industrial narrative of food derives from the modern promise of progress. Images of food can be used to craft industrial standards, create art, persuade us to consume more, and to create truths in representations that are ultimately designed to fail us. By creating and attaching images to food, we are assigning it an identity constructed on the foundation of false representation and discourse. Why are modern images of food so abstract and far from our realities as contemporary consumers? The hidden truth behind the industrial narrative of food is this: The deeply rooted, false imaging of food that controls markets of today stems from a historically broken connection between the individual and food.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspective on imaging and the creation of truth is useful in the initial understanding of how and why these elements of discourse are formed. According to Nietzsche, images are metaphorical ideations that are processed through nerves and interpreted visually. Images first manifest as naked stimulus in the brain as our conscious experiences of the world bombard us with stimuli. If we are in constant contact with images, our brains receive them and attach metaphorical attachments to them. We learn to prefer certain images over others due to the conditioning of our brains in seeing repetitive images that are associated with positive stimuli we’ve previously experienced. This pattern has created a culture of visual stimulation that drives our need for visual pleasure, thus making the creation of industrial images so successful. But in fact, the truths that we conjure are really ambiguities that lie within an object. Similarly, Michael Foucault’s discussion on discourse weaves a parallel path of creation. Sara Mills’s Discourse explores Foucault’s idea of truth that echoes Nietzsche: “Truth is of the world; it is produced there by virtue of multiple constraints… Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is the types of discourse it harbors and causes to function as true” (Mills 18). Power’s role in discourse shapes the ability to keep a truth in place. “Power is dispersed throughout social relations” and “it produces possible forms of behavior as well as restricting behavior” (Mills 20). The agency to form discourses and to create narratives out of them lies in the hands of those with power. This raises an important question in the understanding of the reigning industrial food industry: Who possesses the power to rewrite narratives and who does not?

The overwhelming influences of the American media and government dictate much of what is created within the discourse of industrial food. The entertainment sector of the media creates representations of food linked to art and identity. For example, the identity of the celebrity chef creates an image of food portrayed as an art form to be visually consumed by the viewer. “Chefs are different because they are connected with something that we may get aesthetic pleasure out of and even call art” (Rousseau xvii). The celebrity chef simultaneously creates a relationship with the viewer as well as an image of identity. The food itself becomes secondary, irrelevant to the reality of viewers’ lives, leaving a much more impactful mark on the idea of lifestyle. Rachel Ray, for example, holds a great deal of agency over the marketing of lifestyle. Her image creates representations of compatibility with the average, working class American.  “Her unaffected girl-next-door style validates the lifestyle choices that many people make, particularly those-like using convenience products-that lie distinctly outside traditionally elite and professional food cultures” (Rousseau 68). Despite Ray’s significant affluence and success that places her in the top earning margin of American workers, her viewers are nonetheless enchanted by her image supported by the illusion of ease in her marketed “30 Minute Meals.” The modern constraints put on the individual place emphasis on the necessity of time in a world lacking adequate time to carry out the responsibilities of the default contemporary role. Ray’s image creates the illusion of time through her meals crafted on television, somehow permeating the notion of “saving time” to the viewer. Although time and convenience are crucial to Ray’s brand, the fact that her media is being consumed through the screens of televisions creates another sense hypocrisy. “The central feature of television is not that we consume its images, but that it consumes our time” (Rousseau 67). Viewers gain a sense of satisfaction in consuming the visual tools Ray provides in order to be a more successful participant in fast-paced modern life. “But the distraction she provides is all the more powerful because it parades as real life, an effect which is jointly achieved by the reality component of many food shows and the fact that these representations can and do influence the way people eat and behave” (Rousseau 69). Ultimately, Ray and other celebrity chefs hold the power to craft whatever narratives about food they wish to within the realm of media consumption. By giving viewers the ideal identity, a need to spend and consume is initiated in order to achieve such lifestyles. Celebrity chefs pride themselves on the selling point of their images of not only their identities, but the food that is comprised of their identity. Identities created by images are essential in the process of selling food to consumers. Visually, consumers are manipulated to buy industrial foods. The outside forces are able to control the consumer due to the individual’s lack of agency left in the wake of modernity. Before industrial foods conquered the supermarket, the relationship between the individual and food looked very different.

In the pre-industrial agricultural landscape of the United States, farmers were deeply connected to their crops and land. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the First World War altered agriculture by mechanizing its elements in order to make processes more efficient. “The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes” (Pollan 41). By synthesizing nitrogen that was once utilized in the process of bomb-making, fertilizer became cheaper and more useful than ever to the modern American farmer. A shift in social structures marked new habits concerning food, as well. The migration of bodies from the countryside to urban areas altered socioeconomics and brought more consumers to the forefront of the burgeoning economy. The pastoral life of primitivism once championed by Romantics became a landscape of soot and smog that modernists like T.S. Eliot lamented over in modern poetry. Most importantly, the post-war culture of food gave rise to a new modern era of freedom of choice due to lack of scarcity. Technology delivered the ultimate gift for the industrial food system: abundance of capital. “Perhaps the central element of modernization- and, indeed, a crucial factor in all the facets of modernity that I will highlight- is the rise of mature capitalism” (Singer 21). With the rise of capitalism came changes such as “rapid urbanization and population growth, new technologies and transportations, and new forms of mass communication” (Singer 21). These modern advances stemming from mature capitalism evolved into elements of a neoliberal construct. According to Singer, “Modern capitalism redefined the basic social unit from the group to the individual” (32). In this way, more responsibility, or “neoliberal responsibilization,” is put on the individual to consume and act in accordance to individual needs (Guthman 193). The term “neoliberal” is applicable to such advancements made in the age of mature capitalism because they serve to control and dictate actions of consumers. Many technologies arising from this age pose as “purchasable solutions” that enter into a cycle of commodification designed to keep the consumer spending more money (Guthman 191). The USDA, for example, is another organization that holds agency to create neoliberal narratives of food and nutrition. If we look at the “food pyramid” designed by the USDA to educate the public about healthy sectoring of diet, we can see that its image and design has changed along with the current narrative in place, usually based on the current scientific climate and research. Most recently, the image of the USDA’s food pyramid has been replaced with the image of a plate divided into four sectors with an additional outside sector of dairy. The evolution of images is a testament to the evolution of power within the discourse of industrial food. Images are used to persuade the consumer to purchase and consume what is labeled as nutritious for the body. The lost connection between the individual and food is replaced with an image, a guide to navigate the aimlessness of “the now” that was once connected to the individual.

To combat the sense of aimlessness, the key role of neoliberal imaging in the industrial food system is to harness the power of nostalgia and genetic memory that once revolved around an intricate system of primitive food practices. Images harness this power and drive the marketing of specific varieties of mass-produced food that support the structure of the industrial food system. For example, the creation of Betty Crocker’s image in 1921 defined the branding of General Mill’s food merchandise. A fictional character characterized by a smiling, early forties-aged woman evolved over the years as American culture changed. Betty Crocker’s iconic status in the lives of American housewives is built upon a historical foundation of “simultaneous loneliness and false intimacy” according to page 47 of Pamela Rossi-Keen’s “A Taste of America’s Story through Finding Betty Crocker. “Such a relationship allowed for an identity construction- or identity rejection (at least a theoretical one)- for the homemaker” (Rossi-Keen 48). By creating identities between food and the consumer, a representation of a relationship is produced. “Brand loyalty” is one concept that arises from the relationship of the consumer and product. In the early case of Betty Crocker, the image of her identity provided a level of comfort for the disillusioned housewife and became a critical success in the marketing of food images. Culturally, the crafting of a false identity greatly impacted the constrained images of roles women played in the early twentieth century. These representations not only extended themselves to the reworking of the individual identity, but the identity of one’s landscape, as well.

Pastoral fetishism permeates through modern images of food, crafting pastoral identities that consumers live vicariously through. Common processed foods that are manufactured through technologies like genetic modification are identified by images of animals, sunshine, and blue skies. The call to nature that is seen through images triggers an innate desire of the individual to revert back to primitivism. Technology has allowed for abundance and surplus of food that seems to conjure a sense of ultimate freedom from the binds of nature. Yet, pastoralism in itself possessed a definitive sense of freedom based on the wild of the land. Pastoralists were not bound by societal constraints or practices that dictated their lifestyles. “In societies that rely on gathering and hunting for their food, neither land nor wild animals can be claimed as the property of any one individual” (Sayre 3). An immense degree of freedom was held within the American pastoralist to move freely about the land, living in symbiotic bliss with nature. The modern individual is constrained by the freedom of the supermarket. Choices limit the imagination, and images of pastoralism are one of the few ways in which primitive desires are provoked, initiating purchases to compensate for this loss. The deeply rooted cultural practices of food have been forsaken. In their places remain solutions designed to subdue the consumer. 

Another way to discuss neoliberal imaging of food is to expose its hypocritical technologies; in the wake of the industrial revolution and initial manipulations of images, new neoliberal technologies continue to control the discourse of faith in progress. As we’ve previously touched on, the realm of government institutions and science dictates the discourse of food imaging. Technological practices paradoxically create physical images of food that contradict the images created by its discourse. To illustrate this, we can use hyperspectral imaging, a neoliberal technology designed to break down and image the nutritional content of food, as a means to show the impact of the way in which the industrial food system perceives food itself as well as nutrition. The scientific community describes hyperspectral imaging as “one of the most powerful and fastest-growing non-destructive tools for food quality analysis and control” (Sun xiii). Yet, the image of nutrition captured by an infrared picture is vastly different than the image of a lush green valley on a container of a product like Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing. Quality assessment and assurance are of driving importance behind the motivation to promote hyperspectral imaging. Through quality assurance of a product’s safety, “it encourages loyalty in consumers and results in the expanding market share” (Sun 4). The thinly veiled promise of capitalism covers the scientific rhetoric of technologies like hyperspectral imaging. Behind the veil, the actual physical process of the imaging begins with a conveyor belt filled with food products. The belt passes underneath the hyperspectral camera, and the images are transferred to computers as small, miscellaneously colored infrared shapes. The database detects the individually colored images and processes their nutritional content based on color. For example, three different types of cookies pass underneath a hyperspectral camera. The camera is able to detect the variations in fat content of the cookies and transfers the data to the computer. This type of technology utilized by the food industry poses as a scientific solution to provide more accurate nutritional information to a society plagued with one of the world’s highest rates of obesity. Technologies like hyperspectral imaging ignore the underlying issues behind public nutritional issues because the technologies themselves are neoliberal solutions that sustain not only the industrial food industry, but the construct of modern capitalism itself. Technologies of our “faith-in-progress” era are designed to keep us in the dark. The real issues are invisible, shrouded behind commoditized solutions with satisfyingly numbing images attached to them. The reality of imaging lies within small efforts taken on by activist organizations whose missions are to expose the truth behind industrial food imaging. As a result, smaller initiatives are beginning to expose the main discourse of the disillusive reality of imaged foods.

Animal right’s organizations like PETA, although possessing their own individual agendas, work to illustrate a different reality of food through images labeled as the truth. Through use of graphic imaging to shed light on the abuses of industrial farm animals, viewers are confronted with a reality that goes against the narrative that has been normalized in their lives as consumers. “Such tactics assume the shock or surprise of violating norms of appropriateness allows the message to get the audience’s attention and have them attend to the pertinent message” (Scudder 1). In a 2007 study of the effectiveness of PETA’s use of graphic imagery, it was reported, “that PETA’s attack message against abuses at corporate pig farms was effective in eroding the credibility of the corporate food-industry raising animals for consumption” (Scudder 1). Yet, “It is unclear, however, whether the use of negative graphic imagery resonates with the public to change attitudes” (Scudder 1). While images may expose or attempt to rewrite truths, the overall attitude and climate of reality may remain unchanged. Whether this stems from the power of discourse preventing change in attitude, it is unclear but may stand as a substantiated theory. 

The severed connection between the individual and food is responsible for the neoliberal discourse of industrial food. Connotative images attached to food represent the idealized identities that subconsciously transport the consumer back to a time of pastoralism and primitivism. Modernity has rewritten the narrative of food. Over the course of the twentieth century and onward, food became conquered, economic, and lost all cultural connections to intimacy. Images of pastoral scenes on packaging of products hide consumers from the reality of its manufactured and processed contents. Yet, it’s the visual satisfaction of the images that blind the consumer into believing a truth designed to coerce and subdue the neoliberal mind. The narrative of industrial food must be performed and practiced in order to keep its sustained power over consumers. This practice of structure naturalizes the creation of its truths. The only way to revert back to primitivism is to consciously reject the climate of neoliberal practice, yet this is nearly impossible to abandon completely as an active consumer. In order to survive, we must consume. However, the conscious understanding of the images that we visualize serves as a tool against the systematic practices of neoliberal imaging, perhaps offering the modern consumer a small victory of agency.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Guthman, Julie. Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies. New York: New York U, 2009. Print.

Mills, Sara. Discourse. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Rossi-Keen, Pamela. “A Taste of America’s Story through Finding Betty Crocker.” Review of Communication, vol. 9, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 47-50. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15358590802276069.

Rousseau, Signe . Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Inference. London: Berg, 2012. Print.

Sayre, G. M. “The Oxymoron of American Pastoralism.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, vol. 69 no. 4, 2013, pp. 1-23. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/arq.2013.0028

Scudder, Joseph N., and Carol Bishop Mills. “The Credibility of Shock Advocacy: Animal Rights Attack Messages.” Public Relations Review 35.2 (2009): 162-64. Web. 7 May 2017.

Singer, Ben. “Meanings of Modernity.” Melodrama and Modernity. Chichester: Columbia U Press, 2001. Print.

Sun, Da-Wen, ed. Hyperspectral Imaging for Food Quality Analysis and Control. London: Elsevier, 2010. Print.

Veganism, Individual Responsibility, and Institutional Deception (Broc Miller)

 

Howard Lyman, a fourth-generation family farmer in Montana and activist for family farmers on Capitol Hill, provides no sympathy for the non-vegan environmentalist in the documentary Cowspiracy: “You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products, perod. Kid yourself if you want, if you want to feed your addiction, so be it, but don’t call yourself an environmentalist” (Anderson and Kuhn 1:16.12). Does the statement rely on idealism in a world dependent on animal-based products? If evidence exists for Lyman’s statement, then why does 75% of the United States self-identify as environmentalist (Anderson and Kuhn 1:24.24), when only a fraction of the percentage embraces a plant-based diet? Clearly, our values and our actions lack consistency in a world where climate change leaves many vulnerable groups without food security. As a non-vegan who self-identifies as an environmentalist, I plan to analyze why the majority of people in the United States, in addition to the world, have not quickly adopted a vegan lifestyles, when the claims in favor of veganism contain evidence backed by scientific research. Through analyzing (1) individual blame, (2) rhetoric, (3) nutritional science, (4) education (5) access and (6) perception of cost, I provide evidence to suggest that institutional power holds significant influence over the eating habits of the people, ultimately preventing the populace from embracing a vegan lifestyle.

(1) Individual Blame

First, one of the pitfalls of groups that advocate environmentalism through plant-based diets is that blame is often placed on the individual, when lack of veganism in society is largely the result of institutional intervention. Throughout my research, I will introduce a variety of institutions holding such responsibility. For instance, “Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility and the Problem of Corruption” emphasizes the power of the individual: “Thus, an individual’s identity is a conglomeration of all the social interactions and relationships that individual holds. If an individual can be interpreted in this manner, then any or all unilateral actions made by an individual can influence others within a shared social contact” (Chi 65). Chi argues within a social contract, the actions of individuals hold significant influential power. While there is truth to this statement, discussing influence without mentioning institutional power and media presence is misleading.

To draw a parallel, in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies”, Julie Guthman notes the responsibility of the “epidemic” of obesity should not be placed on obese individuals. Notions of simplifying “eating less” lead to the removal institutional responsibility: “I am sympathetic to a project that aims to understand how high calorie, nutritionally debilitated, and otherwise unhealthy food has been made too available, too cheap, and too profitable […] As explanations for “obesity”, however, they are highly problematic […] The argument still places responsibility on the individual, as evidenced in Nestle’s pervasive “eat less” message in Food Politics” (Guthman 189). In other words when the cause for obesity is reduced to overconsumption of food by individuals, the institutions responsible can continue to generate revenue without making significant changes to the corrupt business plan. This is directly relatable to veganism, because placing the blame on individuals for eating too much meat leaves particular institutions without blame.

For instance, the US Department of Agriculture compiled twenty-one recipes in a cookbook titled “Meeting Your MyPlate Goals on a Budget”, in an attempt to provide inexpensive and healthy recipes to its readers. Interestingly, while no descriptors were given to the vegan recipes (Lentil Stew or Lemon Spinach), descriptors were added to recipes containing meat products to elicit a sense-inducing response (Manly Meat Loaf and Mouth-Watering Oven Baked Fish) (US Dept. Agriculture 18-20, 23). The use of such descriptors for the meat containing recipes is not by accident, as the US Department of Agriculture is fiscally motivated. By presenting “healthy” and inexpensive recipes with some vegan options, the department is essentially “double-dipping”, since it can continue to please the meat industry by encouraging continued meat consumption by the populace, while still appearing inclusive and progressive by posing some alternatives. In addition, the alternatives presented are almost comical: “lemon spinach” is exactly that, cooked spinach flavored with lemon juice and some black pepper. Thus, how can the individual be held responsible for choosing not to be a vegan, when a supposed “unbiased” institution like the US Department of Agriculture juxtaposes “mouthwatering” fish and “manly” meatloaf with lemon spinach? Thus, embracing a plant-based diet is a shared responsibility between institutional power and the populace, and information provided by such institutional powers must be read with a critical lens.

(2) Masculine and Sensual Rhetoric

In addition, the use of rhetoric to convince the populace to eat more meat is often crafted in such a manner to elicit feelings of masculinity and sexuality. First, the portrayal of meatloaf as “manly” is consistent with Carol Adams description of meat as a symbol for masculinity in The Sexual Politics of Meat: “The sexism in meat eating recapitulates the class distinctions with an added twist: a mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating a male activity […] According to the mythology of patriarchal culture, meat promotes strength; the attributes of masculinity are achieved through eating these masculine foods” (Adams 48). In patriarchal culture, the discourse of masculinity develops through the consumption of meat. Further, neoliberal feminism may characterize the consumption of meat by women as empowering and defying the patriarchy, when in reality meat consumption, regardless of gender, continues to encourage environmental degradation while leading to a public health crisis in terms of both heart disease and cancer prevalence.

Second, the portrayal of fish as “mouthwatering” is pseudo-pornographic, relying on the sexual desires of the reader. In Food Media, Signe Rousseau characterizes how enjoyment of food often requires help of auditory and visual cues associated with feelings of indulgence: “Food literature ‘commanding’ readers to eat […] underline how unnatural “direct and actual enjoyment” has apparently become without the help of writing and images to temper the guilt increasingly associated with ‘indulgence’” (Rousseau 78). Rousseau notes preluding consumption with descriptors such as “mouth-watering” allows consumers to feel as if they are indulging. However, in the situation where the recipe is labeled as “healthy” by the US Department of Agriculture, consumers can indulge without having conflicting feelings of guilt. This characterization of meat can leave readers with the wrong impression, since consuming the “lentil stew” or “lemon-spinach”, a proxy for a vegan diet, must lack the sensuality, and therefore taste, associated with the animal-based recipe. Thus, strategic use of masculine and sensual rhetoric by institutional powers in descriptions of meat can deter the populace from veganism, further encouraging consumption of meat.

(3) Nutritionalism

Furthermore, although well-intended, nutritional science often gives people the wrong impression regarding vegan lifestyles. In many cases, such entities fail to properly define veganism. For instance, “A Scientific Review of the Reported Effects of Vegan Nutrition on the Occurrence and Prevalence of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease” was an epidemiologic cohort study intended to provide evidence for the benefits of veganism on human health, but the much of the paper portrayed veganism as a diet of omission that leads to nutrient deficiencies: “Vegan diets, however, are not defined by what they incorporate, but rather what they omit. Whereby any diet can increase protective dietary components and limit detrimental ones, on a molecular level the difference between ‘limiting’ and ‘removing’ food groups is significant. Vegans omit meat, fish and dairy, lending conjecture toward protein, calcium and B12 deficiencies and variations in essential fatty acid levels” (O’Neil et al 198). The title of the article notes it is presenting the “reported” beneficial effects of vegan nutrition, immediately removing credibility before the reader has a chance to read the abstract. Defining a vegan diet as a diet of “omission” rather than “incorporation” implies the vegan diet is not complete. In reality, a plant-based diet, as displayed throughout O’Neil et. al, provides societal benefits with regards to both cardiovascular disease, and many cancers. While utilizing the phrase, “on a molecular level” implies the paper is taking a scientific approach to the issue, the phrase itself provides no additional meaning to this paper, and can skew the opinion of the reader. In addition, the quote implies “limiting” meat intake is a healthier option than “removing” meat from the diet, as “protective dietary components” found in meat cannot be replaced entirely by a plant-based diet. There is nothing inherently wrong with this claim, if the paper were to provide evidence that the plant-based diet fails to provide significant “protein, calcium, B12, and essential fatty acids”. While the study does show a significant proportion of vegan people questioned lack the nutrients in question, the study does not show that this is due to the plant-based characteristic of the diets of the people questioned. Alternatively, such nutrient deficiencies can be due to education or access, as will be discussed later in this paper.

Research institutions hold significant power of the opinions of the public, and thus research should be presented in a manner such that the public can interpret the data, without making false assumptions. Similarly, such institutions have the ability to manipulate the current discursive structure regarding food and nutrition. Sara Mills, in an attempt to summarize John Frow’s understanding of power in Discourse, noted, “Power is dispersed throughout social relations, that it produces possible forms of behaviour as well as restricting behaviour” (Mills 20). In other words, power, a characteristic of discourse, has the ability to both restrict and enable particular behaviors, which can be applied to vegan and non-vegan lifestyles. While the intent of O’Neil et. al was to provide evidence that the vegan diet decreases prevalence of heart disease and certain cancers, the ambiguous language present can inhibit the reader from reaching this conclusion. The paper characterizes veganism as a more of a trade-off than an inherent benefit: if you want to decrease your chances of disease, you are going to have to live with a nutrient deficiency.

In reality, plant-based diets, like meat-based diets, have the ability of obtaining all essential nutrients the body cannot produce on its own. For instance, “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts” demonstrates that the plant-based component of vegan diets is not to blame for the nutrient deficiency present in many vegans: “Vegans may have a greater challenge in meeting the nutritional adequacy for vitamin B12, protein, and calcium compared to lacto-ovo-vegetarians and meat-eaters. Thus, the potential adverse effects of vegan diets deserve consideration […] Vegans had 30% higher fracture rates than meat-eaters. However, when adjusted for calcium intake, vegans no longer had higher fracture rate” (Le et. al 2141). To summarize, when vegans with an adequate calcium intake were compared to non-vegans, there was no significant difference in fracture rate. This is an important finding, because it shows veganism, if done correctly, provides no additional risks when comparing to non-veganism. More importantly, it shows diets containing animal products do not contain any particular nutrient that cannot be obtained through a vegan diet. As predicted by Michel Foucault in Discourse, “All of the knowledge we have is the result or the effect of power struggles” (Mills 21). In other words, knowledge originates from the holders of power, and the discourse that vegans are putting their bodies at risk for choosing not to consume animal products, is a product of power placed in the hands of those set to benefit from an economy dependent on meat products. Thus, the current discourse of nutritionalism, developed by institutional powers fiscally invested in meat consumption, portrays vegan diets as diets of “risk” rather than “precaution” and diets of “omission” rather than “incorporation”, which can lead the populace to consume more meat-based products than plant-based products.

(4) Food Education

Now that is has been established that the distinction of a diet as “vegan” does not inherently add risk, it is relevant to analyze why vegans often have nutrient deficiencies, through examination of both food education and food access. To begin, vegans are often put at a disadvantage with regard food education, because the choice to not consume animal products places vegans outside the normalizes discursive structure. To draw a parallel, in a discussion regarding the publication of academic journals, Mills notes that publication is dependent on consistency with the accepted discourse: “The article will only be published if it submits to the formal rules of the discourse governing the structures contained within academic papers (Mills 14). In other words, when only the accepted discourse if given a voice, all other parties are silenced, and what is presented as “truth” may be presented in such a manner to benefit the parties providing funding for the paper.

An example of a biased educational portrayal of veganism can be found in Michelle Obama’s MyPlate program. Although the intent was to help children and adults learn how to develop healthier lifestyles, the program is quick to isolate vegans: “Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal products. Vegetarians should choose fortified foods such as cereals or soy products, or take a vitamin B12 supplement if they do not consume any animal products” (US Dept. Agriculture 9). Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this statement, if it is indeed factual. However, as expressed in “Microbial Production of Vitamin B12: A Review and Future Perspectives”, “Vitamin B12 biosynthesis is confined to few bacteria […] and as such its production relies on microbial fermentation” (Fang et. al 1). In comparing the information presented by the US Department of Agriculture and the scientific literature, the evidence of inconsistency becomes obvious. How can vitamin B12 be naturally only found in animal products when it is only produced by a select few bacterial species? Clearly, the US Department of Agriculture utilizes its power to convince the populace avoiding meat products is impossible, when in reality, animal products are not required to obtain a healthy source of Vitamin B12. Rather than isolating vegans, the US Department of Agriculture could easily include recipes in its “Eating Healthy on a Budget Cookbook” utilizing fermentation to provide a plant and microbe-based source of Vitamin B12. Thus, a higher prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in vegans can partially be attributed to education, since institutionally-defined “knowledge” of nutrients can isolate vegans, preventing societal embrace of a plant-based diet.

(5) Food Access

In terms of access, vegans are also put at a disadvantage. Vegan food is often marketed as a  “substitutes” for food, rather than food. Notably, the notorious “tofurky”, or tofu made to taste like turkey, is easily found in supermarkets. “Veganism, Identity and the Quest for Authenticity”, describes some additional shortcomings of the vegan presence in grocery stores: ”Vegan food is not necessarily the healthier option. There are many vegan substitutes for meat, cheese and dairy and most of it is all processed. Therefore, a person who eats meat in moderation can still be healthy, while a vegan who eats a diet full of junk food can be unhealthy” (Greenebaum 136). The distinction of a diet as “vegan” or “non-vegan” cannot be the sole determinant as to whether the diet is “healthy” or “not healthy”. Thus, when food access is limited to “food substitutes”, vegans can suffer from nutrient deficiencies, because such products lack the nutrients found naturally in plant-based foods. As described in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies”, Guthman identifies this as a purchasable solution: “Neoliberalism’s other fix is to create purchasable solutions to the problems that it generates” (Guthman 191). In relation to “food substitutes”, neoliberalism created a meat-dependent society. When the members of the populace want to become vegan in such a society, a smooth transition from meat-based to plant-based food requires the plant-based food to resemble meat, or other animal products like milk and cheese, further separating people from food. This can lead vegans relying on such substitutes to falsely believe they are living a healthy lifestyle and are exempt from the health issues found more commonly in meat eaters. Thus, a higher prevalence of nutritional deficiencies in vegans can to an extent be ascribed to access, since neoliberal institutions provide purchasable solutions in the form of “food substitutes” to meat eaters wanting to become vegan without giving up the need for meat-tasting food.

(6) Perception of Cost

Practically, one of the biggest barriers preventing society from adopting a vegan lifestyle is the cost, particularly in communities of low income. However, evidence suggest that the high “cost” keeping consumers away from veganism may be just a high “perceived cost”. As demonstrated in “Contribution of Food Prices and Diet Cost to Socioeconomic Disparities in Diet Quality and Health”, assumptions about food prices can describe how people eat in communities. Particularly, for areas of low socioeconomic status, there appears to be a widely-held misunderstanding regarding the prices of fruits and vegetables: “There is an implicit assumption that the higher cost of vegetables and fruit may be a potential barrier to the adoption of healthier diets” (Darmon et. al 656). Such assumptions can have significant societal costs, as communities lack the information to make informed purchases in grocery stores. For instance, price per kilocalorie often takes precedence over price per kilogram: “Potato chips, sweets, and biscuits (cookies) were more expensive in terms of euros per kilogram than were low-energy-density apples, tomatoes, and carrots but were cheaper in terms of euros per 100 kcal […] Given the economic importance of obtaining 2000 kcal per day at an affordable cost, the preferred method of comparing food prices has been per calorie, as opposed to per serving or per unit weight” (Darmon et. al 647). Foods high in nutrient content but low in energy density, like fruits and vegetables, are often consumed infrequently in areas of low income, due to the false assumption that calories must always takes precedence over nutrients content.

In general, the United States and other developed countries are unique in that the poorest people are more likely to be nutrient deficient, rather than calorie deficient. While it would be erroneous to generalize the entire population of the United States struggling with poverty, prevalence of obesity is higher in areas of low socioeconomic status than areas of high socioeconomic status: “Studies on the social gradient in obesity rates also concluded that “the association between poverty and obesity may be mediated, in part, by the low cost of energy-dense foods and may be reinforced by the high palatability of sugar and fat” (Darmon et. al 644). There is a direct correlation between obesity and poverty, and such a correlation can be attributed to a variety of causes. One of the greatest reasons for such a correlation is the immense targeting of low-income communities by fast food companies, that rarely advertise the few plant-based options found on the menu. In “The fast food chains, like the tobacco companies, are now aggressively targeting African Americans, Latinos, and the poor. America’s low-income communities now boast the highest proportion of fast food restaurants— as well as the highest obesity rates and the highest rates of diabetes” (Schlosser 272). Clearly, the targeted influence of institutional powers like fast food companies can alter the eating patterns of a significant proportion of a community.

Now that the influence held by fast food companies is understood, it is important to understand how this related to meat consumption. To begin with an extreme example, let’s start with Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Clean Eating Burger” with “unsweetened almond yoghurt” and topped with an “ice-cube relish”. This satirical commercial intended to mock vegan culture by juxtaposing a plant-based burger with their new “Dirty Louisiana Burger”, noting “Nothing satisfies like the Dirty Louisiana. It’s finger-licking good!” (KFC 1:52-57). The notion that “nothing” can satisfy hunger like meat can further isolate low income communities, convincing them that nutrients present in such plant-based foods is of no match to the high caloric density of the comparative animal-based burger. In addition, the deep masculine voice of the speaker alongside the sensual description of the burger, as discussed through analysis of Adams’s and Rousseau’s works, can further persuade consumers to purchase the meat product. Therefore, institutional powers can influence societal understanding and perception of food cost, leading to an increased consumption of meat through targeted advertisement campaigns.

Analysis of individual blame, masculine and sensual verbiage, nutritional science, food education, food access, and perception of cost demonstrates that institutional powers hold influence over the consumption of animal-based products, leading to the creation of a society dependent on meat. While individuals often carry the blame for choosing not to adopt a vegan lifestyle, the eating habits of communities are clearly defined by the discourse established by institutional powers, like the US Department of Justice, fast food companies, and nutritional science laboratories. When Howard Lyman makes the case that being an environmentalist implies a vegan lifestyle, he clearly is placing the responsibility to be vegan on the individual, leaving said institutions free from blame. Such statements isolate large sectors of the population, most often those of low socioeconomic status, and can thus be counterproductive to the goal of decreasing meat consumption. This argument is not intended to provide an excuse to non-vegans, like myself, because the responsibility to preserve the environment through making sustainable diet choices in one shared between institutions and the individuals present in the communities where such institutions hold their power. Therefore, rather than isolating individuals through the use of unproductive rhetoric, I recommend that people in positions of power like Lyman, and the institutions that support him, provide resources to individuals to allow for greater independence from animal-based food.

Works Cited

“10 Tips: Healthy Eating for Vegetarians.” ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, 8 Mar. 2017. Web.

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2016. Print.

Chi, Vesak. ” Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility and the Problem of Corruption.” Stance 6 (2013): 63-69. Web.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. Dir. Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Prod. Kip

Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. Perf. Howard Lyman, Michael Pollan, Michael Klaper, Will Potter. Cowspiracy. Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and Rainforest Action Network, 26 June 2014.

Darmon, Nicole, and Adam Drewnowski. “Contribution of Food Prices and Diet Cost to Socioeconomic Disparities in Diet Quality and Health: A Systematic Review and Analysis.” Nutrition Reviews 73.10 (2015): 643-60. Web.

Fang, Huan, Jie Kang, and Dawei Zhang. “Microbial Production of Vitamin B12: A Review and Future Perspectives.” Microbial Cell Factories 16.15 (2017): 1-14. Web.

Greenebaum, Jessica. “Veganism, Identity, and the Quest for Authenticity.” Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 15.1 (2012): 129-144. Web.

Guthman, Julie. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” The Fat Studies Reader (2009): 187-96. Web.

“Healthy Eating on a Budget: Cookbook.” ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, 9 Mar. 2017. Web.

Kentucky Fried Chicken. The KFC Clean Eating Burger, 28 Feb. 2017.

Le, Lap, and Joan Sabaté. “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts.” Nutrients 6.6 (2014): 2131-147. Web.

Mills, Sara. Discourse. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

O’neill, B. “A Scientific Review of the Reported Effects of Vegan Nutrition on the Occurrence and Prevalence of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease.” Bioscience Horizons 3.2 (2010): 197-212. Web.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Barcelona: Debolsillo, 2007. Print.

Racialization of Food Spaces: A 19th Ward Case Study by Anderson Lim & Eva Reynolds

Do university students isolate their perception of certain Ward food spaces from their perception of the Ward as a whole – and is this a result of racial coding?

Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness” article inspired us to consider the fact that “No space is race neutral; there is an iterative coding of race and space” (Guthman 2011, 267). More concretely, we wanted to examine the 19th Ward as a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood with limited food options and a fairly shady reputation among students of the mostly-white university. How do students at the University of Rochester feel about the prospect of eating at a deli or shopping at a convenience store in the 19th Ward? By comparison, how would they feel about going to the Westside farmer’s market, also located in the Ward? (Do their answers differ because farmer’s markets are coded white i.e. “safer”?) Moreover, how do the owners and customers of Ward establishments feel about racialization, student perceptions of the Ward, etc? In addition to using Guthman’s text to analyze these questions, we referred to the music videos “Food Fight” and “Hood Diet” along with our readings from Mills’ book to discuss the impact of discourses of race and food.

To explore our question, we chose to interview the store owners at D&L Grocery and Millennium Deli as well as students from the University of Rochester. Our methods contrast the techniques used by Guthman in her whiteness paper: she recorded the CSA managers’ responses to survey questions and interviews regarding the dearth of participation of people of color in their markets. Guthman also made assumptions based on her informal conversations with loyal African-American shoppers and activists who attend the markets in her home region. While Guthman’s paper mainly represented the views of white CSA managers, our project seeks to provide a different perspective on racial coding of alternative food spaces from our interactions with store-owners of a primarily low-income neighborhood.

Initially, our plan was to conduct video interviews with store owners and customers in the 19th Ward. After attempting to talk to some customers, however, we quickly decided that it would be too difficult because people might feel uncomfortable with us, as we would be interrupting their daily lives, and because there were signs of language barriers. Thus, we decided to abandon the customer interviews. Furthermore, we realized that recording people on video might make them tense, so we dismissed that method as well. The store owners seemed comfortable with us asking them questions and writing their responses down. We asked them about their clientele, what attracts people to their stores, whether they try to cater to a specific group, what kind of relationships they have with UR students, and their opinions of the Westside Farmer’s Market.

In talking to members of our school, our student-selection method was far from scientific: all but two of our interviewees were friends or acquaintances of ours. The two “strangers” are two sorority sisters of one of Eva’s friends and live in Riverview. We also spoke with two guys as well as a female Neighborhood Ambassador who live in non-UR housing in the Ward, a guy who lives in Brooks Crossings, and Asad Muhammad, who lives in the Greater Rochester Area. Asad, a student-entrepreneur selling bakery goods at the Rochester Public Market, is also a vendor at the Westside Farmer’s Market – this year will be his fifth time vendoring at Westside.

Due to the limited time availability we had to complete this project, we did not speak with other local community members from the 19th Ward nor did we speak to other student members residing on River Campus. With the exception of Asad, all student interviewees had lived on River Campus previously, so they also spoke about their prior experiences. All but one of the student interviewees were white and/or Asian-American, and four of them grew up in the Rochester area.

During the student interviews, we were initially vague about our project’s intent so as not to bias the respondents’ lines of thinking. We started by asking the interviewees how they felt about farmer’s markets in general, whether they had heard of or been to Westside, and then segued into talking about the Ward and its food options. For our final prompt to students, we explained the motives behind the project:

This project is about racial coding: the idea that farmer’s markets are inherently “white spaces,” and that shoving them into a low-income, non-white context, like the 19th Ward, doesn’t really address underlying issues. Offering fresh produce in seasonal markets is just a bandaid solution over the problem of food access: that these communities tend to be marked by convenience stores and fast food. Similarly, many people negatively associate places like the Millennium Deli and D&L with the crime and poverty of the Ward but have an isolated perception of Westside market, since it’s a differently-coded space. With all that in mind, do you have any last comments?

Unsurprisingly, most of the student interviewees were a little overwhelmed by the topics.

Background & Experiences with Store Owners

The D&L Grocery is a Jamaican-run convenience store selling primarily imported products from the West Indies. There is also Caribbean-inspired hot food and a limited selection of fresh produce for sale at the back of the store. Deloris, a co-owner who also manages the store, claims that her clientele is very broad, including students from UR, RIT, and Brockport as well as customers from the Greater Rochester area seeking for Caribbean products.

The Millennium Deli, on the other hand, is located down the block from the D&L Grocery and is run by Shamsan, an immigrant from Yemen. Similar to D&L, there is a hot food station at the back of the store, but it offers American fast food (e.g. fried chicken, burgers, gizzards) rather than ethnic cuisine. Whereas the D&L offered more imported “taste of home” goods, the products at the Millennium Deli were limited to American packaged food products and a range of cigarette brands and hookahs.

In our interviews, we tried to gather the owners’ perceptions on the Westside Farmer’s Market, which is located a few blocks down the street from their stores and opens once a week from June until October. Shamsan initially did not know the Westside Farmer’s Market by name, but when we said that the market was located in the the neighborhood, he recognized it but had no comments about the market. Deloris, on the other hand, recognized the Westside Farmer’s Market and described it as being “good for the neighborhood because they have fresh vegetables and such.” We certainly noticed that Deloris’ D&L store had more fresh produce to offer compared to Shamsan’s Millennium Deli.

Color Blindness

Throughout our interviews with the D&L and Millennium Deli store owners, we found evidence of colorblindness in their responses. Similar to the responses of the CSA managers in Guthman’s whiteness article, both Shamsan and Deloris expressed eagerness to attract all types of customers regardless of race and income. The store owners also welcomed having more UR students as customers. In Guthman’s paper, one of the CSA managers stated, “We also hope for more people and do not focus on ethnic — what we present attracts all!” (Guthman 2011, 269). The similarities in the responses of the CSA managers and the store owners that we interviewed raises the following question: Are the store owners and CSA managers responding in a way to sound politically correct?

Both Shamsan and Deloris were indifferent in their responses when asked about their perceptions of UR students. The store owners admitted that they didn’t really know much about the students. Perhaps our interview questions pressured them to respond in a way to sound politically correct (i.e., “we want UR students here”), and perhaps their markets’ exclusivity is needed to make nonwhite and other 19th Ward customers feel comfortable. After all, the Millennium Deli and D&L Grocery are both market-driven businesses. The store owners may feel obligated to say that they welcome UR students to their stores, especially since we, the interviewers, are UR students. We are not claiming that the owners want to restrict their markets’ exclusivity to the 19th Ward, but if they had simply responded with negative or apathetic perceptions of UR students, they might have been afraid that it would ultimately hurt their business.

Farmer’s Markets as White Spaces

When asked what they thought of farmer’s markets, the students had overwhelmingly positive reactions. They said that they love being able to buy cheap produce and wish they had more time to shop at markets regularly. Most of the students hadn’t been to Westside Market, although they’d heard of there being a market in the Ward. Some said that they would go if it were at a different time or didn’t only take cash, but there wasn’t a ton of enthusiasm. One even admitted that it sounded fine but added, “I don’t know if I’ll actually be committed to go.” The students that had been to Westside had differing experiences. For instance, one was disappointed by how small it was because it couldn’t offer much produce, while another said he loved getting cheap produce there and was surprised more students didn’t go. He added that the vendors seemed to be extra friendly towards students because they were so surprised by and grateful for their presence. Contrary to our assumptions, students did not consciously register Westside Market as a separate space. They all said that the market was populated primarily by African-Americans.

When we described farmer’s markets as being coded white, some interviewees more understanding of concept than others. On the one hand, two student interviewees were in strong agreement (“Oh yeah”), and another said that she hadn’t thought of farmer’s markets that way before but could definitely see our point. Others, though, argued that markets simply reflect demographics of their location. Many of them cited the diversity of the Public Market as evidence that farmer’s markets are not coded white. However, it is important to note that the Rochester Public Market is not, in fact, a farmer’s market. Tour guides there will tell you that outright, explaining that the Market gives preference to local farmers and producers but still offers a variety of non-local products, even items from wholesale clubs. The misunderstanding of the Public Market as a farmer’s market confused some of the students’ views of racialized spaces.

Asad offered an important elaboration on the fact that farmer’s markets tend to reflect their location’s demographics by saying that most are focused on targeting white suburban neighborhoods. “Lower income families need access to alternative food institutions,” he added. This harkens back to Guthman’s whiteness article, in which she points out that “few farmer’s markets are located in communities of color…and those that exist in African American neighborhoods tend to be very small” (Guthman 2011, 268-9). Yes, farmer’s markets in non-white neighborhoods will likely have predominantly non-white customers; but when speaking of farmer’s markets generally, the fact that they tend to be situated in white, affluent areas codes the entire institution as white. Moreover, Guthman observes that, even in locations with fairly mixed racial demographics, blacks do not participate as much in alternative food opportunities (Guthman 2011, 269). This could be a reflection of the fact that they do not feel like these institutions, generally, are “for them.”


The Effects of Discourse on the 19th Ward

The students exhibited varying levels of comfort towards the Ward. Some described it as “fine,” “a decent place to live,” while others perceive it as unsafe. One local girl said that she doesn’t worry about it, but her parents do. The safety concerns are undoubtedly the product of a dominant discourse that paints low-income, black, urban neighborhoods as being ridden with crime. As Mills says, “each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is the types of discourse it harbours and causes to function as true” (Mills 1997, 18). One interviewee made a comment that spoke precisely this idea, saying that “the Ward represents the space in [students’ minds] that pop culture has depicted blacks to be criminal…Most students don’t make an effort to think that they could be wrong, nor are they ever told they’re wrong.” Specifically, Public Safety reinforces the idea of the Ward as dangerous by sending out emails every time a student falls victim to mugging or other injury. These stories dictate students’ perceptions of the Ward, especially when they’re living on campus and only venture there for parties. Campus students don’t register it as a family neighborhood and make no effort to interact with residents and experience it for themselves before making comments on its “sketchiness.”

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In addition to creating fear of violence and theft, the “sketchy black neighborhood” discourse presumes that these types of areas are full of drug activity. When I (Eva) was a freshman, I was told that the Millennium Deli was a drug front, so I came into this project curious about what our interviewees thought of it. Most said that they did not see it that way or had not heard that “conspiracy theory.” However, one friend of mine had more to say on it. In speaking casually about this project with me, he confidently said, “The Mil Del is a front…People will just park their cars at the stop sign, go in for five minutes, and walk out with nothing.” This prompted me to ask him for an interview, which he gave a few days later – only he toned down his answer, saying it only seems like a drug front and might just serve as a popular meeting place because it’s very centrally located on Genesee Street. Still, he said he does his best to avoid the store.

The Millennium Deli might strike someone as a drug front because, in terms of offerings, it is very reminiscent of the types of convenience stores depicted metaphorically in “Food Fight.” It doesn’t occur to people of more privileged backgrounds that the unhealthy, industrialized food that it stocks might be most of what’s available in low-income, in this case also non-white, communities. Because UR students have access to healthier foods from a variety of sources, and given the Ward’s unsavory reputation, we might assume that a store like this isn’t really trying to feed people but rather just serve as a front for illegal activity. While visiting the store and speaking with Shamsan, we did not observe anything suspicious.

Despite our awareness of discourse and biases, the two of us certainly felt out of place when we were in the stores, as the only non-black or Middle Eastern people there. We compensated by being overly friendly to make sure we didn’t come across as critical, judgmental, or hostile. This feeling of intrusiveness and not belonging is something most of the student interviewees mentioned, but they did not attribute it solely to overt racial differences. “The thing about the 19th Ward is there’s like two different communities: the students and then the families.” Students living in the Ward typically don’t think of it as super unsafe, though one interviewee did say that he is “glad [to] live on the outskirts, closer to the school.” Our interviews and, to be honest, personal experiences have also demonstrated that they/we will not necessarily try to interact with residents. “When students move off campus, they have the opportunity to reshape their misconceptions” about the Ward, one girl noted; but dismissing misjudgment doesn’t translate into integrating into the community. The Public Safety emails play a role in this as well by employing an “us vs. them” rhetoric that underscores difference and fosters a gap between the Ward residents and the students. Even if off-campus students don’t feel scared of the Ward, they don’t feel like a part of it either.

When it came to food, all respondents said they don’t really eat in the Ward. However, those that had done so said they’d been to the The Wok or Brue Coffee, as is probably the case for most students. A couple interviewees described the plaza as a student space, essentially extensions of the college, where they never saw Ward residents. We realized that the university’s presence in the Ward is not limited to its official spaces, Riverview and Brooks Crossings, but also includes the food plaza and the houses that landlords cater to students. The off-campus girl commented on this, saying that she feels like she’s contributing to a gentrification of the Ward that is facilitated by the school. For instance, UR offers to subsidize housing for professors who choose to relocate to the 19th Ward. Though gentrification is a larger topic than our project was aiming to tackle, it is worth noting that the Wok plaza is coded white for students rather than for the Ward’s black community. It is also worth wondering what might happen to the Millennium Deli and D&L if the university establishes more housing on that side of the river.

The reason that students gave for not eating in the Ward was, to borrow the words from “Hood Diet,” “choices are few and slim.” They prefer to drive elsewhere to eat out and do their grocery shopping. “Everybody goes to Wegmans, Costco, an actual store,” one student said. The choice of words “actual store” reveals a degree of unacknowledged privilege, the same that makes people assume the Millennium Deli is a front: many of us would never consider convenience stores or ethnic grocers as primary sources of food. We might try the D&L as a cafe, for a convenient, “exotic” meal, but we would go to a larger establishment for more grocery options. However, as “Hood Diet” and “Food Fight” emphasize, many low-income and non-white communities have limited immediate choices. As one student succinctly put it, “the big problem for the Ward is that there’s no real good grocery stores that provide fresh produce year-round. The farmer’s market is a nice touch, but it doesn’t run year round, and the selection is small.” Though he didn’t use the phrase “food desert,” that is exactly what he described. However, he tried to argue that the Rochester suburbs where he grew up were technically more of a food desert than the Ward only “everyone had cars,” which demonstrates a blatant misunderstanding of the idea of food deserts. Whether an area is a food desert is not a question of sheer geographic distance but rather of the ability of the majority of the residents to access fresh, healthy food options. The Ward could be described as a food desert if many residents lack the means or time to get food elsewhere, given that Rochester does not have a very efficient public transportation system. If so, the Westside Market is nothing more than a bandaid on the issue of food access. It provides the neighborhood with cheap, fresh produce, which the local establishments lack, but it only does so once a week, certain months of the year. The market doesn’t solve the scarcity of healthy food in the Ward.

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A second problem with the Westside Market’s performance of fresh food access is that it perpetuates a discourse of individual responsibility to make healthy choices. The United States’ current episteme –  “the sets of discursive structures as a whole within which a culture thinks” (Mills 56) – of food and diet is based on reductive nutrition science, focusing on educating people about nutrients based on the assumption that informed consumers make smart choices. For instance, there is a stand at the market for Cornell Cooperative Extension that offers nutrition education. In the photo above, there is a demonstration of how much salt is hidden in popular foods. The MyPlate prop in the background suggests that there was also a lesson about nutrient servings. While teaching people how to eat better is important, the issue is that it reinforces the importance of responsible choices rather than addressing the underlying causes of poor diet, namely lack of access. The Cornell Coop says, “This is how you should eat, so now go do it.” To get a frozen dinner from the Millennium Deli rather than buying raw, whole, fresh fruits and vegetables at the market is then interpreted as the shopper’s bad decision. However, in the months of the year that the market is not running, residents are stuck with their same old, less than ideal options. Again, the market fails to call attention to (effectively invisibilizes) the problem of food deserts and how they can be intertwined with institutional racism.

Shortcomings of our Method (What our Research Leaves Out)

Whenever interviews are used as a method of research, it is important to acknowledge that the respondents might be speaking carefully, i.e., not as candidly as they could. The student who adjusted his comments about the Millennium Deli as a drug front was a glaring example of how the formality of an interview makes people more self-aware by forcing them to be accountable for their remarks. We had encouraged our student interviewees to put their guards down, such as saying “Just be honest, don’t worry about being PC or whatever, there’s no judgment,” but we cannot know whether that worked. And, as mentioned earlier, there is good reason to suspect that the Ward store owners were speaking politically.

We should have interviewed more black students to hear their views, given the racial sensitivity of the topic. Specifically, it would have been interesting to explore how they perceive the gap between the Ward and students, how comfortable they feel in the Ward compared to non-black students, and whether they feel just as intrusive because of their student status or if this feeling is mitigated by a lack of racial disparity. By saying “they,” we are not claiming that one or two interviewees would encapsulate the experience and opinions of the entire black student population, of course. All of our research is anecdotal and, as stated earlier, unscientific.

Findings and Potential Solutions (but not really)

The three recurring themes that came up during our interviews were colorblindness, divide between students and locals, and the lack of access to healthier options. Deloris and Shamsan were both open to attracting more people including UR students, which shows evidence of colorblindness that is similar to the responses of the CSA managers in Guthman’s paper. To a certain extent, our findings from the interviews supported our assumption that certain Ward food spaces – the Wok plaza, rather than Westside Market, to our surprise – are isolated from students’ perceptions of the Ward as a whole. On the other hand, the students’ perceptions of the farmers market were mainly positive, but their discourses on the 19th Ward were mixed with both positive and negative reactions.

The divide between locals and students is only a small example of the ongoing socio-economic disparities between whites and minorities in the country. In “Food Fight,” the rapper states, “It’s the wild wild westernized world of deception and lies” (Food Fight). This line reinforces the concept of universalism – the spread of the “right” values and knowledge held primarily by whites – which often creates barriers to participation for non-whites, not just in alternative food institutions, but also in other socio-economic aspects of life. One student interviewee said, “Our history needs to be thrown out and replaced with the actual events and not a representation that pushes aside and dismisses blame, committing people of color to cycles of poverty and the inability to accumulate wealth.” In order to address the racial coding issue in alternative food spaces, we must first address the ongoing institutionalized racism that is prevalent in our economic and political system.

With the seasonal exception of the Westside Farmers Market, there is certainly a lack of access to healthy food options in the 19th Ward. A rapper in “Hood Diet” suggests that there is “a  fabulously ghetto shortage of nutrition on my block/The farmer’s market’s missing/They don’t come up in the hood … And that’s why I be racking up this corner store credit.” The lack of access to healthier food option is an ongoing problem in lower-income neighborhoods across the country because many alternative food institutions, although claiming to be a social-driven enterprise, have market-driven intentions. Thus, these institutions typically choose to locate their markets away from lower-income neighborhoods due to a lack of demand or even the lack of the “right” values and priorities that are shared with the people who live in those neighborhoods. Instead, lower-income neighborhoods often succumb to industrialized food options, becoming food deserts where there is lack of healthy options and the population falls prey to fast food companies.

A student suggested that “a lot of the reason that poor communities eat poorly is because bad food is made available cheaply. I think food that is healthy does not necessarily need to be expensive. Providing resources to make that more clear would be good.” This comment begins by making an important point about how healthy food is made expensive not only monetarily but also in terms of time and effort required to secure it but then takes an unfortunate turn that reestablishes individual responsibility. Teaching people about what food is healthy and the fact that produce is cheap at farmer’s markets does not help them gain access to it. Policy solutions should not stop at consumer education but rather look to reducing the ubiquity of egregiously unhealthy food and making fresh options more accessible across all income and racial demographics. We don’t claim to have the answer to this issue, but we recognize that the problem is there.

A Ride on the Rochester Subway: An Adventure in Transit

A Ride on the Rochester Subway: An Adventure in Transit

“Because inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change. It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it.” – Marshal McLuhan

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     The tunnel entrance is spacious, slipping away from South Street, careening underneath the public library, and curving west over the Genesee River. The ground beneath our feet is what remains of the Erie Canal bed, used as the foundation for the subway. The space is large and bright. The walls are open arches. Pillars are dressed in radiant colors. I pass out our tickets from the Rochester Transit Corporation, valid for one week in April- they expire in a few days. As we stood on the platform, we could hear the train’s roar approaching the Court Street stop. It’s about a mile to West Main Street- a scant two-minute ride.

     However, it took our group 45 minutes to emerge on the other side of the subway tunnel. Why you wonder? For readers who are familiar with the city of Rochester, you are already aware that the last train car operated on this line in 1956. This year marks the 60th anniversary of that last train’s commute. Most of the subway today is gone- the western section buried, some parts built over, and tracks removed. What remains is a submerged mile, directly beneath Broad Street. The airy section with open arches has become a local hot spot for graffiti artists and urban explorers.

     The “ride” on the Rochester Subway was meant to replicate the experience of a once-elite public transit system. The tickets distributed were copies from April 1950. We “boarded” at the court street stop and exited at W. Main street, following the original pattern of the rails. The sound of our approaching train was prerecorded track of NYC’s subway played back through headphones. The sounds of the subway we listened to were meant to give life back to a now ghostly remembrance of what was once an elite public transportation system.

     We slipped underneath Broad street, leaving the sunlit arched tunnel behind. Darkness welcomed us into a cavern of abandonment illuminated by the electric light of flashlights, headlamps, and cell phones. The train “riders” were mostly quiet, drifting one way and then another, allowing the scene to make an impression on their own silver guts. I encouraged them to adopt the stance of the urban flaneur, french for “stroller, idler, or walker.”  I asked them to “ride with the intention to experience the subway, absorb the sights, sounds, smells and feelings.” Occasionally someone would draw the group’s attention to an interesting graffiti artwork, a sealed off entrance or the remains of the rail tracks.

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     The cars speeding by overhead- thump, thump, thump- created an eerie echo- the percussion of present technology reverberating into a past layer of infrastructure. Our feet kicked up dust that sprinkled white dancing specs of reflected light back to my camera as it flashed. We passed through the silent darkness, ourselves ghosts, a collection of bright orbs idling through the void.  What business did we have down here in the absence of the train cars? We were walking through a space that was never meant to exist as it is, and yet it is. How can walking the path of what once was help us understand what now is?
Transit technology is something most of us experience every day. The majority of people drive cars. Yet attached to this technology is an ecology of infrastructure, embedded in the backdrop of our lives, silent and unnoticed. Roadways, bridges, and parking lots are the obvious components and easily gain opacity when thinking about infrastructure. But the infrastructure of the present is built on the past, creating invisible layers upon layers of filtering and mediation. It becomes troublesome to see the reality of the environment clearly. We are one step behind our own technology, and fail to recognize the new environment  that infrastructure creates. The “ride” on the subway re-contextualized transit, asking the questions we didn’t know needed to be asked.

Walking through the subway on foot was meant to disrupt our usual method of seeing (or not seeing) the infrastructure of transit. To break free temporarily from our blasé attitude as urbanites to adopt the flaneur’s, to really look at one piece of infrastructure and question the use of another. Instead of driving over a dead space in the city, we explored it, questioned its existence, and persistence and reconsidered the perversions of the automobile and its infrastructure into our everyday lives.

A Mediated Journey Through an Ecology of Infrastructure

“People commonly envision infrastructure as a system of substrates- railroad lines, pipes and plumbing, electrical power plants, and wires.  It is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work.” Susan Leigh Star

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     Most attendees, myself included, drove to the abandoned subway. I listened to a CD as I traversed the city. My wheels guided by white and yellow lines, my tires gliding over the asphalt and my engine burning the gas I pumped earlier that week. My movements, restricted to the paved roadways, were guided by electric light, mostly green. We arrived after parking on a bridge between two other cars, feeding some coins into the meter, and placing a crinkly parking pass on my windshield. On a four mile journey, it seems outlandish to have interacted with so many technologies. These components of infrastructure usually escape our attention. With so much stimulation in the urban environment, its easy to move about with a blasé attitude, filtering the scene with a blunted perception. (e Silva 33).

     This filtering gives us a weak impression of the city. Infrastructure is more than a flat layer of material construction. It’s “a multidimensional set of relational properties that become an ecology of infrastructure.” Rather than a flat facade dropped over the original landscape it has dimensions- a physical layering upon layers. Nor are these layers uniformly stratified but rather these “spatial arrangements of relationships draw humans, things, words, and non-humans into patterned conjunctures.” (Murphy 104) For the technology of the car, there are also roads, and crews of people and machines to maintain those roads, who also use the cars on the very roads they maintain. There are gas stations for those cars, with pumps designed specifically for adding fuel to cars, and the gas is delivered to the station in trucks. Specialized shops exist solely for the purpose of repairing those cars and trucks. Not to mention the factories used to make those cars. Streetlights guide the drivers and need metal to hold them up, wires to transport electricity, electricity that is generated elsewhere and fed through wires to provide energy to the streetlights and the gas stations, repair shops and factories. It’s intertwined- separating the connections of layers is difficult.

“The future of the future is the present.”- Marshal McLuhan

     IMG_6037      But this ecology is also temporal. It reaches into the past. Broad Street embodies a century of transportation history in the form of layers upon layers of infrastructure. The subway stands on the arches of the Erie canal aqueduct, is below Broadstreet and will soon also be beneath a new promenade complete with apartments. The story of the Rochester subway begins with the shifting of tons of earth to build the Erie canal, linking Lake Erie and the Hudson River, “connect[ing] local agricultural products to distant markets in the U.S. and Europe” according to a historical sign along the river. The canal mobilized commodities and people, doubling the city’s population twice in as many years. This first layer of infrastructure transformed the city from a “wilderness settlement” know as the “lion of the west” into a “prosperous”, “four city.” The canal infrastructure embodies some old views of nature; it tamed a wilderness, and “harnessed” the power of the Genesee.

     The aqueduct was diverted from its original route through the center of the city the bed was untouched until the subway construction began in 1927. Building on the canal’s foundation prevents further shifting of tons of earth retired for a subway. With the light rail came more goods and commodities, fueling corporations like Eastman Kodak, Bausch IMG_5959& Lomb, and General Motors continuing the boomtown trend. The city was “carried along on technology’s currents”  from the canal to the light rail. And we began to move away from a “connection to local places, to the earth itself,”  as the rails transferred us “into a world of places being homogenized… dispelling the independence of wilderness,[and] remoteness.”  The local, the wild nature of the bioregion, the glacial characteristics of the regions and the health of waterways disappeared.  In other words, “it was as though they sacrificed the near to gain the far.” (Solnit 22)

     However, the canal route was less than an ideal path for the urban subway. Its future was underpinned by the past. Additional problems plagued the subway, spelling its decline. The subway itself was constructed in anticipation of rapid urban expansion that was predicted based on past growth. However, Rochester’s Version 2downtown population peaked in 1950, declining as sprawl pushed people into the suburbs, beyond the reach of the subway lines. People used the automobile more than ever and demand the subway dwindled. The power houses of industry also began to crumble.

Home Ecology: A “City of Circulation”

     Today, as the railroad has fallen from the radar of public transit, the “near is still sacrificed to gain the far.” Sixty percent of the land in downtown Rochester is parking lots. More than half of the city is space for cars. And what if we include roads in that figure. What is left? A local environment dominated by dead spaces. The urban flaneur is also extinct, lost alongside the vibrant and busy spaces of the city accessible by foot. Rochester is a city that has favored “mobility over sociability, and homogeneity over heterogeneity.” With globalization, cities became less individualized and more homogenous, and the privatized space of the automobile reigns large. Time is spent “alone and isolated within an iron bubble” that “enables a ‘partial loss of touch with the here and now.’” (e Silva, 31) That “lens through which to read and participate in the city exploring new angles and avenues… [as] a distant critic and immersed specter,” (e Silva 40) donned by the urban flaneur has clouded.

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     Instead, we approach with the blasé attitude. The spaces between our mobilities are invisible, so mediated now we cannot see them. In this way “physical space is mere transit space.” (32) We travel here and there, oblivious to the spaces between our destinations. Rochester is now a “City of Circulation” (e Silva 32) propelled by mobility via the automobile.

     “The “City of Circulation” ultimately contributed to the erosion of urban centers and the justification for their renewal.”(e Silva 32) With downtown declining, the site of the east subway entrance, an apparent dead space to city planners, is the target of a revitalization effort.  A $ 4.7 million project is underway to build the Erie Harbor Park, a public promenade.

     Moving forward with the project entails a permanent closure of the south entrance to the subway, burying a past layer of “defunct” infrastructure while further immortalizing another. There is no direct mention of the underground subway on the cities website despite its claims to “educate the public of the site’s industrial history. To the City of Rochester, this is a story of celebrating local history, the creation ofIMG_6042f new public space, and the beauty of the river. Plans even call for the consideration of once again adding water to the original route of the Erie Canal, through which the subway now stands and supports Broadstreet. This narrative obscures the history of the Rochester subway, overlooks the problems implicated by the need to “educate” the public about their own city space, and overall creates an area of pseudo-functionality.

Environmental Invisibility: The Rear View Mirror

“Most people… still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world. By this I mean to say that because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has preceded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus, we are always one step behind in our view of the world. Because we are benumbed by any new technology – which in turn creates a totally new environment – we tend to make the old environment more visible.” -Marshal McLuhan

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All new media and technologies create new environments that change the “scale or pace or pattern [of] human affairs.” But we can’t see these new environments. “The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly.” (McLuhan) The invisibility of infrastructure which has become the landscape of our lives also renders invisible the change that has occurred. We think that cars, roads, media and technology distract us from the environment, the original landscape and from the ecological damage done to these landscapes. But we are living with “an outdated view of the world as ‘natural systems with humans disturbing them’” and  still struggle to see that “’human systems [have] natural ecosystems embedded within them’”(Ellis and Ramankutty qtd in Shock of the Anthropocene). It’s more than being blind or ignoring the environment. Rather, technology has amputated our ability to understand that our environment as we once knew it is gone. The ecology, derived from the greek word meaning home, is of infrastructure and mobility, stitched together by dead transit spaces. We living in a new paradigm and are still thinking in terms of the old, but we are also completely blind to this new environment. It’s as though we are looking in the rearview mirror living by the rules of the last environment, unaware of our current environment.

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Looking Through the Windshield

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

     In our efforts to save the environment, we continue with old ways of thinking. The proposed solutions, especially with the automobile, are disconnected from reality and represent a major failure to act in a way that brings about meaningful change. Using the hybrid car as a solution to climate change is to look at the past to save the future. Today’s efforts in sustainability “work from the presumption that a certain kind of amputation has not already occurred.” The amputation is the numbing of our ability to see how the automobile and its ecology of roadways have taught us to poison our world while imitating superficial solutions. Weston describes this phenomenon as  “rest[ing] [hopes] on supplements and substitutions, rather than a concerted attempt to reorganize a mode of production.” (Weston 449) We’ve extended our bodies and our nervous systems but numbed our ability to recognize our solution “entails no fundamental reorganization of business as usual, no critical perspective on the industrial strategy of profit-driven reinvention, or indeed any deep appreciation of the limits that business as usual has soldered into place.” (Weston 446)

“There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” Marshall McLuhan

In words of one participant, “going down there with the added soundtrack created a more immersive environment to reflect upon the abandonment of the subway. It really made me wonder what it was actually like back then when all those people rode the subway regularly and it was actually in use, especially because the soundtrack was anachronistic — there are electronic sounds that you hear in it that you wouldn’t have heard back then presumably (I’m sure they had some equivalent sounds… or maybe they just had people yelling?). But I suppose the anachronisticness of soundtrack aided you in recontextualizing the subway in today’s world–i.e. this experience begged the question, how would the experience of Rochester be different if there actually were a subway with these sounds? It’d be a totally different city.”

    Walking through the subway on foot was meant to disrupt our usual method of seeing (or not seeing) the infrastructure of transit. To break free temporarily from our blasé attitude as urbanites to adopt the flaneur’s, to really look at one piece of infrastructure and question the use of another. Instead of driving over a dead space in the city, we explored it, questioned its existence, and persistence and reconsidered the perversions of the automobile and its infrastructure into our everyday lives.

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Sources:

“Abandoned Subway.” Rochester Wiki. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://rocwiki.org/Abandoned_Subway>.

Adey, Peter. “Mobility.” London & New York: Routledge, 2010.267

“Back to the Tribe.” Next Nature Network. 2009. Web. 08 May 2016. <https://www.nextnature.net/2009/12/the-playboy-interview-marshall-mcluhan/>.

“Erie Canal.” Rochester Wiki. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://rocwiki.org/Erie_Canal?action=show&redirect=canal>.

e Silva, Adriana de Souza, and Jordan Frith. Mobile interfaces in public spaces: Locational privacy, control, and urban sociability. Routledge, 2012.

Governale, Mike. “Rochester Subway: MIke Governale at TEDxRochester.” YouTube. YouTube, 2013. Web. 08 May 2016.

Murphy, Michelle. “Chemical Infrastructures of the St. Clair River.” Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945 (2013): 103-15.

“The Promenade at Erie Harbor Park.” City of Rochester. Web. 08 May 2016. <http://www.cityofrochester.gov/article.aspx?id=8589947272>.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The ethnography of infrastructure.” American behavioral scientist 43.3 (1999): 377-391.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild west. Penguin, 2004.

Weston, Kath. “political ecologies of the precarious.” Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (2012): 429-455.

Forgiveness

Some notes for the reader:

  1. I saw Laura in the library and she said that she hoped that my final paper would make her laugh. Not wanting to kill the pos vibes, I told her that it would despite the fact that my subject is not very funny. I put jokes in the footnotes, ignore them if you don’t get my sense of humor.
  2. This essay is about a caricature version of myself. I simplify a set of weird, complicated experiences down to an ultra-quick story that borrows elements from my mostly uninspiring life. I obviously left out a lot (you should be thankful I decided against telling about my sex life, even though there is certainly something to say. Just read the essay, you’ll get what I’m talking about.)
  3. This paper was possible because of Leila Nadir and the amazing students in this semester’s Food/Media class.

 

 

Two and a half weeks before I was done with senior year, my relationship to food transformed. Work on my senior thesis stalled when code I was working with wasn’t creating the correct figures that I needed for my presentation and write-up. My adviser was out of town, I was scheduled to present a poster in a week, and I was in over my head.

Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to fix the problem by myself and wouldn’t have new research to present at the undergrad expo, I got so stressed I stopped being hungry. The sight and smell of food grossed me out. I tried to eat because I knew badly hunger would affect my ability to do good work. Bad nerves can cause nausea, but there was also a component of self-punishment: I was disciplining myself for being a sub-par student.

Expressing my academic insecurities through food is nothing new. My first efforts at vegetarianism were a major piece of an identity that I created sophomore year in response to the U of R’s environment.

This story starts the year before. I had a wonderful freshmen year. I smoked a lot of weed and played video games with my friends all day. I missed a lot of class and rarely studied. I ate delicious garbage like wings all the time and gained a bunch of weight. I had friends I liked, I rarely worried about the future, and I was happy when I wasn’t taking a test or writing a paper.[1]

But my dad told me the summer before sophomore year that he wouldn’t pay for me to get a 2.85 GPA. This lit a fire under my ass because I liked college!

So my sophomore year featured a profound shift in my academic and social life. I started working really hard, spending endless hours in the library. I got scared of leisure time that threatened to distance me from good grades. I spent far less time with my friends, viewing time not devoted to grades or quantifiable extra-circulars wasted hours. The loss of some valuable friendships didn’t really trouble me: I thought it was a necessary externality of getting good grades.

Food was a way I ran away from personal pleasure When I started being vegetarian, I consciously did so for solely environmental reasons. I looked down upon, and happily talked negatively of, other vegetarians for whom the well-being of animals was a motivating factor. One aspect of this was an insecure young man performing heteronormativity by rejecting a focus on feelings and cute animals. But my desire to be a responsible student was also at play: I was embodying the characteristics I thought my dad and professors and future bosses wanted: motivated, responsible, rational, predictable. By adopting a low-emissions diet, I was extending my studies of environmental science into every aspect of my life. And by doing so for purely logical, results-oriented reasons, I was sub-consciously trying to avoid my messy feelings which seemed like a threat to my success.

I honestly wanted to be above eating for pleasure. I focused on protein to get bigger muscles, ignoring how I didn’t like what I was eating. I seriously judged those who ate to excess just like I judged those who openly enjoyed their leisure time.

This new identity that I forged such a short period of time succeeded in achieving the goal of getting my grades up and making sure my dad still paid tuition. It utterly failed in making me happy. What was so remarkable about this new Sasha was how consistent he was. His answer to all problems was to run to the stacks. By making sure he was never happy with any amount of work he did, he replaced the rise of pride and fall of humility with all-purpose misery.

But I found some wiggle room by my senior year. I realized I could try to be a little happy sometimes without torpedoing my GPA. I was working towards the middle ground between uptight robot and lazy stoner shmuck. I realized I could spice my food and express my love of eating with friends without being overwhelmed by gluttony and putting that freshmen fifteen back on.

I started to really enjoy food shopping. I talked about food with others, and wasn’t so afraid to talk about what I ate and even liked. I enjoyed myself at the farm sanctuary, allowing myself to form an affectionate relationship with a rescued animal was even though it wasn’t a rational response to the horrors of the meat industry. (This may seem trivial, but it was a meaningful departure from the cold hard logic of my previous versions of vegetarianism/veganism, which had been about transcending feeling.) I engaged with others about how to eat responsibly, and shared jokes about how difficult it was to make good choices. I was becoming comfortable with the pursuit of personal pleasure, and food was helping me get there.

But then came my fiasco in the lab at the very very end of senior year. I was so hard on myself for not being more foresighted, so disgusted at myself for being a lacking student, that food took a new role. The part of my brain in charge of preventing a descent into irresponsible freshmen-year Sasha got it’s starring role back. And it wasn’t happy that I still made mistakes even at the wise old age of 22[2].

And with that part of my brain back at the steering wheel, it decided that my failures warranted the harshest punishment it could muster via food. I wasn’t going to get to eat without nausea. I would walk to hillside to get a meal, microwave it, and leave 3/4 of it uneaten next to the computer. I would walk home having eaten barely anything all day and force down two pieces of matzah as I played games on my Iphone.

I was angry at myself for taking Saturdays off, for taking my lunch breaks to spend with my friends. In sophomore year fashion, I decided that all the problems I was facing were 100% my fault and that it would take a 100% focus just to keep my head above water.

I never consciously wanted to punish myself. People make mistakes. A project like that thesis was something new that I had never had to prepare for before. That experience made me realize that I need to learn how to forgive. Specifically, to forgive valuing personal pleasure over making responsible choices. I haven’t yet figured out how to forgive myself. But I do know how to forgive other people. So I’ll look outwards first.

There is a choice that every person I know makes every day. This choice involves the abuse and torture of thousands of beings, and it’s so clearly a matter of black and white to me. This choice is whether or not to eat meat.

But most people don’t understand meat eating through that context of good and evil. They understand it through a discourse whose primary architects are meat-eaters. Sarah Mills explains how perception to shaped by discourse in her book Discourse: “… the only way we have to apprehend reality is through discourse and discursive structures. In the process of apprehending, we categorise and interpret experience and events according to the structures available to us. (54)” Meat-eaters engage with a set of answers to the question “why eat meat?” The answers to this question include

  • Humans evolved to eat meat
  • Wolves, bears, and lions aren’t amoral, are they?
  • Meat is manly
  • Humans have earned their role as dominant creatures, and we should take full advantage
  • Meat tastes good

 

If the anxious, judgmental, uptight, leisure-fearing part of Sasha can find a way to understand these sub-discourses, then that part of Sasha can also find a way to forgive meat eating. And then maybe that part of Sasha can learn how to forgive himself.

The idea that humans evolved to eat meat plays to the idea that we need to learn from our ancestors. I share this respect of evolutionary direction. I’m a big believer in how fresh air and walking in the woods are a more reliable path to happiness than TV or video games. It’s an essentialist discourse about what humans were created to do, a discourse that I engage in.

And that essentialist line of thinking is bolstered by the fact that evolution created carnivorous animals. It’s not the wolves’ job to consider the happiness of the lamb, it’s just the wolves’ job to feed its own pups. It’s not humankind’s role to look out for the feelings of the organisms we share the earth with. Without bleeding-heart omni-caring humans, there would be no expression of benevolence on earth. Evolution just selects for survival.

My fingers are buzzing with a counter-argument that wants to be tapped out so bad. But that’s not what this essay is about. This essay is about engaging with ideas that makes me uncomfortable instead of dividing the issue up into black and white like I’ve been doing all semester.

My most egregious crime against the humanities[3] was when Leila assigned Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I didn’t read closely at all. I was so upset about Wallace’s lack of conviction! He admitted that the question of whether or not lobsters feel pain doesn’t have an easy answer. His writing lacked confidence: “I am also very concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused (64).” When Polland said “I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian… Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” he was attacking my clean-cut vegan discourse of good vs evil, which some people understandably want no part in. They can accept a level of moral ambiguity associated with their choices. I’ve had no room for ambiguity for so much of the past three years. Maybe I could use some.

Is anything about the discourse of meat and masculinity my U of R self could understand? There is a deeply ingrained discourse about how eating meat is a way to achieve heteronormative masculinity. Carol Adams examined this aspect of meat advertising with her slideshow on the sexual politics of meat, which included advertisements like this one

Sexual_politics_meat_2

Men like big cars and yummy food. Seems pretty benign.[4] Then Carol moved on to ads like this

Sexual_politics_meat_1

That’s pretty fucking weird. Still, it’s just a silly cartoon, at least they don’t rope actual women into this sex-meat cross-fetishization. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Sexual_politics_meat_3 Sexual_politics_meat_4

By reducing both animals and women as commodities that have potential to please men, advertisers participate in a discourse that says that the value of women, like animal flesh, is controlled by market forces. Getting wings or getting pussy is as simple as engaging with the market. Control of commodity combined with the competition required by masculine heteronormativity leads to a focus on domination.

Meat is also a way to distance one’s self from the fear of hunger. The internet is rich with videos of men eating quantities of meat remarkable in both dollar value and weight.[5] In a world where TV’s second biggest portrayal of the developing world (outdone only by terrorism) are shots of wide-eyed hungry children accompanied by the pleas of Hollywood actors to do something, the fixation on such an inefficient and sensory-rich food source is a way to remind ourselves that we are still winners in the global food order. People fear hunger and compensate by embodying abundance, often via meat.

Carol Adam’s slideshow and the “Epic Mealtime” genre both give insight to a discourse of hierarchy. Which uptight Sasha is very familiar with. He defined himself through competition: he wanted to out-study his classmates. From where I sit today, I can certainly forgive getting caught up in a way to define one’s self via an established hierarchy and then uncritically playing by the rules to try and get to the top.

But what about that last bullet point, the bullet point that meat tastes good? That rationalization for eating meat isn’t wrapped up in any complex pre-existing societal structures, it doesn’t play to any hidden insecurities, it doesn’t give anyone an avenue for finding self-worth.

It’s just about valuing pleasure. Eric Foer expresses this so perfectly on page 74 his book “Eating Animals”

 

“Sentimentality is widely considered out of touch, weak. Very often, those who express concern about (or even an interest in) the conditions in which farmed animals are raised are disregarded as sentimentalists. But it’s worth taking a step back to ask who is the sentimentalist and who is the realist… Two friends are ordering lunch. One says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” and orders it. The other says, “I’m in the mood for a burger,” but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?”

 

Stoic, morally upright, broomstick-up-his-ass Sasha knows eating meat is an expression of valuing one’s own momentary pleasure over the life of another being and the health of the planet. He knows that anyone who does such thing is simply weak, succumbing to their own desires which they should have control over. Because the difference between eating meat and not eating meat is the difference between experiencing the salty, savory taste of a steak versus the incomparable taste of a couscous-chickpea-spinach salad.

Except that isn’t true. Food is culture, memory, community, identity. My list of bullet points needs one more: once meat becomes an established part of one’s diet, it takes on a significance most don’t really think about and even fewer can adequately explain. I am one of those who can’t really explain. I’ll let Eric Foer do it:

“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting…Remembering and forgetting are part of the same mental process. To write down one detail of an event is to not write down another (unless you keep writing forever). To remember one thing is to let another slip from remembrance (unless you keep recalling forever). There is ethical as well as violent forgetting. (189)”

Totally transforming one’s diet to conform to a new set of rules is violent forgetting. In my case, these new rules were based on carbon emissions data, but for some they are a response to seeing a documentary, or going to a farm sanctuary and feeling a connection to the animals.[6] Changing one’s diet can mean changing one’s identity. Changing one’s identity to rapidly can lead to painful losses of community and identity.

Freshmen year Sasha had a lot of qualities I’m happy to be away with. But he also had some I’d like to get back, but can’t yet find. He didn’t worry about the future the way I do now. He didn’t take himself so seriously. He let go of context and reason and what was expected of him too much, but today I can’t let go of context at all. Those of you who heard me rant and yell in Food/Media know how much I want to prove how smart I am and everything I can recall. Freshmen year Sasha didn’t feel he had so much to prove.

There are many reasons people have for throwing one’s identity away. Mine was to gain the discipline I felt I needed to succeed at the U of R. Having gone through that experience, I don’t wish it on anyone, even if they eat beef twenty times a week and I think they could use some self-control.

I have thought hard about the power of discourse and achieved forgiving meat-eaters. That means I can forgive myself, right?

I’m sitting here in the library, having turned in that gosh-darned senior thesis and feeling about a thousand times less stressed, not believing that the essay therapy worked. I actually do feel better, both about being surrounded by omnivores and about having left my research project for the last minute.

Good people subject to weird discourses do shitty[7] things to themselves and others. I was in an environment that put an emphasis on competition. I uncritically internalized that at first, but then I matured and realized that I had other goals that needed to coexist with grades. It didn’t stop this most recent freakout, but the best I can do is think critically about what happened. Which I’m doing.

So the next time I’m so angry and disgusted at myself, I need to remember that my hyper-competitive mindset and the linear definition of success and value that come with it are a construct that I borrowed from the U of R. Food has helped me find avenues to think outside that discourse. The least I could is show a little love and enjoy eating even when I’m pissed off.

[1] I got a C in Writing 105

[2] This is getting recursive. I’m being hard on myself about being hard on myself. I take myself too seriously, then I don’t take myself seriously at all.

[3] That’s “crime against the humanities,” not to be confused with crimes against humanity, which are generally much worse. In this case my crime against the humanities was thinking in terms of how to arrive at the correct answer instead of thinking in terms of questions that have no right answer. My crimes are due to the fact that the meat-eating issue just gets me so worked up! I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m boiling over with counter-arguments to the pillars these meat-eating discourses stand on. But I’ve been so worried about being right for such a long time. This essay is about understanding how to cope when things go wrong.

[4] Unless you’re a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg

[5] The consumption arms race youtube video world also features a subset of videos where heavily made up women in skimpy outfits eat unusually large portions of meat. I have an intuition that there is some deep-seated Freudian reason why men are so interested in watching giant pieces of meat enter tiny women, I just can’t figure out what is is.

[6] The time Nina told us her boyfriend ordered tofu at a restaurant after he came to farm sanctuary with us was my favorite moment of the Food/Media class.

[7] And eat meat with shit ground up in it. Just because I’ve forgiven omnivores doesn’t mean I’m getting off my high, high vegan horse.