Sunday, July 24, 2005

Well, of course it’s not that simple...

THE DISCUSSION CONTINUES re. food costs, quality, and quantity.

The issues raised Friday by Julie Powell (see below for web citation) were two: that organic food costs more than many can or want to pay; and that cuisine, both haute and peasant, evolved to make the best of available materials, even when less than ideal.

Let’s concentrate on the first issue, often floated these days in the press. Here too there are two things to consider: the relative cost, to both consumer and society as a whole, of the raw materials of food; and the relative amount we pay these days for our food.

It’s not news that a significantly greater amount of food consumed by today’s typical city-dweller is eaten in restaurants or as “take-out”: this enormously increases the cost of the food consumed. Unfortunately for the clarity of our discussion, much of this cost is hidden, subsidized, or simply ignored -- the direct costs of manufacturing, wrapping, shipping, and preparation; the indirect costs of advertising and marketing; the resultant costs (to society, primarily) relating to medical problems, many of these no doubt yet to be discovered — though the increase in obesity is clearly among them.

The same observations apply to the great increase in the consumption, at home, of food prepared from packaged mixes and the like. Beginning with the end of World War II these “convenience” items have quite changed the daily approach of most citizens of developed societies toward just what constitutes cooking and dining. It has finally resulted, of course, in the rise of a considerable backlash, and the return of cuisine — whether “traditional” or haute — to the household kitchen. But this backlash has yet to reach the mainstream, though its adherents have gained considerable attention — enough, in fact, to precipitate backlashes of their own: witness Powell’s piece in Friday’s New York Times.

Discussion of comparative costs of provender raised sustainably and not, and of conventional and pre-packaged food, generally ignores a larger question more directly important, I think. I have in mind the considerable shift of values represented by the rise of convenience as a factor of daily life. Food used to represent roughly a third of our household budget, shelter another third, everything else bundled into the remainder. This was the case in my parents’s household, and in my own in the 1950s.

In those days a good percentage of households employed one partner at home, preparing food, maintaining shelter and clothing, and supervising the education and well-being of the next generation. The other partner was employed outside the home, winning the money needed to maintain the entire system.

An interesting change in the social system developed in the generations before World War I, when the middle classes gained considerably in numbers. The labor of maintaining the wealthy or upper-class household involved a servant class. This was out of the question for the middle classes, for a number of reasons, and an entire industry evolved to solve the problem. You can follow it in advertisements in old issues of household magazines, not to mention ancient mail-order catalogues: electric lights, toasters, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, mangles all promised to replace expensive and intrusive and, finally, unavailable servants -- and in fact to rescue the middle-class housewife from being a servant herself, her own servant.

After World War II another significant step was taken in this evolution, when Industry promised the housewife she need never again be slave to her kitchen. Frozen food, cake mixes, and ultimately TV dinners were her liberation. At the same time, of course, women in increasing numbers went to work, and in our society the dual-income family has become the norm, necessary because of the increased cost of maintaining this kind of a life.

The costs, both direct and indirect, of this inherently inefficient and (to my way of thinking) over-industrialized urban lifestyle have changed our very perception of something as apparently simple as the cost of food. It's all very well to return to the argument that this discussion is irrelevant to the poor bloke faced with the cost of his radish or his artichoke: clearly the cause and correction of the social shift in food economy is beyond him.

But I think we must consider the injustice of continuing to promise cheap and wholesome life in an increasingly expensive and unwholesome economy, remembering the root meaning of the word “economy”: household management.

All of these problems, in my view, and a good many others (transportation, for instance, and education, and land use...) are interrelated, and have to do with the human animal’s proclivity toward irresponsibility, toward putting cost and labor off on someone else, inferior in social position, or not yet even born, or preferably both. In our present big democratic classless societies the average guy with his supermarket pushcart can’t or won’t think about these things.

It’s that much more important that others of us do, and that we continue this discussion.


John Whiting said...

There’s nothing here that I would disagree with. I would only reiterate that there is an increasing number of formerly well-off families who are obliged to obtain the calories necessary for subsistance with the least possible expenditure of time and money:

“Over the past 25 years the lives of working Americans have become ever less secure. Jobs come without health insurance; corporations default on their pension obligations; workers lose their jobs more often, and unemployment lasts much longer than it used to.” (Paul Krugman, “America Wants Security”, New York Times, 23 May 2005)

For such people, the production, acquisition, preparation and consumption of food is subject to circumstantial laws which are as immutable as those of motion and thermodynamics. If you are a slave to the temporal and financial cost of your calories, junk food is the cheapest food there is. And if you have small children to feed, you will know that their demands and those of their peers are so conditioned by advertising that healthy perishable food will not only be more expensive but will probably be rejected and ultimately thrown away.

Food ethics? They begin with not allowing your family to go hungry.

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