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.
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.