How Political is Food? [Essay]

Thoughts on Alice Waters and Political Dissent

November 27, 2014

Flickr: Brent Moore

From it’s inception, Thanksgiving has been a marriage of food and politics. In 1863, with the country in the midst of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln established the national holiday in order “to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it… to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” But the idea wasn’t his. Lincoln’s action was largely a response to the tireless efforts of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who lobbied to establish a holiday that would serve as a peaceful, domestic counterpart to the military celebrations of the Fourth of July. For Hale, violence was just one means of political change; food was another.

Since then, food itself has become even more politicized. Terms like “local,” “organic,” and “seasonal” now seem commonplace, but in fact they are the result of a specific kind of food activism that emerged in the 1970s. One of the leading proponents of that movement was Alice Waters, who was on the show last month talking with author Michelle Wildgen. In that interview, Waters says that her cooking was meant to change the way people live, not just the way people eat. “It was so positive,” she says. “It wasn’t against something, it was trying to win people over, by feeding them something delicious and waking up their senses and then they’d change the way they wanted to live their lives.”

When I first heard that clip, as well as the rest of the interview, I’ll admit to being moved. Which is why I was surprised to find, a few weeks later, Waters’s words being cited as an embodiment of everything wrong with contemporary “foodie” culture. In a New Yorker essay, John Lancaster wrote that where food once represented truly local and utilitarian customs, it was now “an expression of an identity that’s defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice.” As someone who likes food and has spent some time rolling his eyes in trendy restaurants, this criticism is easy to get on board on with. I, too, tire of artisanal pickling, the fetishization of ice, and so on.

But for Lancaster, this focus on the local politics and microtrends of food culture misses the larger socioeconomic realities of the world we occupy. Interestingly, he quotes Waters at length:

Eating is a political act, but in the way the ancient Greeks used the word ‘political’— not just to mean having to do with voting in an election, but to mean ‘of, or pertaining to, all our interactions with other people’ — from the family to the school, to the neighborhood, the nation, and the world. Every single choice we make about food matters, at every level. The right choice saves the world.

Lancaster finds this notion both insufficiently political and naïve, and he sets it up as a kind of straw man for his big take-down: “Imagine that you die and go to Heaven and stand in front of a jury made up of Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Your task would be to compose yourself, look them in the eye, and say, ‘I was all about fresh, local, and seasonal.’”

It’s a great zinger, but I think it fails as a critique on two levels. First, it almost willfully misrepresents Waters’ actual ideas about the politics of cooking. As she states in our interview, and elsewhere, it’s not the food that is inherently political; food choices can affect economic and environmental change, and can inspire people to other forms of political action. Here’s another clip from the interview:

We have been deeply indoctrinated by a fast food culture. It’s not just the food. It’s the whole culture that’s grown up around the values We want our whole world to be fast cheap and easy… We are being manipulated in a way that has made us sick and addicted. I think the only way out of that is with a delicious revolution.

Secondly, Lancaster misses the fact that Waters and Dr. King both actively draw from a tradition of political dissent that has its roots in the work of the American Transcendentalists. King’s citations of Emerson are well-documented, and Waters’ has frequently cited the work of Mario Savio, the Berkeley free speech activist who drew on the work of Thoreau.

So when Alice Waters gets to heaven and meets Dr. King, I'm betting they'll sit down together to talk politics over a very nice meal.