In an otherwise banal blog essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how, when he joined the staff of The Atlantic, he was a fat guy, used to cleaning his plate. He thought failing to do so was a crazy white thing. But then he learned a different way of eating by observing the people around him — and found that he could eat a lot less and still feel satisfied. It was a revelation to him. What happened was a cultural shift. His previous way of eating had made sense in an earlier iteration of black culture, but now was harmful and unhealthy. So he changed, without quite realizing, it sounds like, what was happening to him. Here’s the cultural lesson TNC learned from this experience.
Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.
I think this is relevant to Erin Manning’s blog post about why our discussions over food and food culture are so heated. She writes:
The reason that the Food Wars get so personal is that it’s hard to hear the message: “I just want to encourage everybody to eat healthier, and in a more purposeful way, which is why you should really try [fill in the blank]. Instead, many of us hear: “Until you learn to do things my way, you’re probably no different from the junk-food junkies and drive-thru demigods whose only thought is to cram greasy, filling, salty/sweet garbage down their fat-engulfed gullets to satisfy their appetites as fast as they can–and did I mention, you’re probably poisoning your kids?” Alas, that’s not a message that’s ever going to win fans, especially among the people who already make daily compromises between what (in a perfect world) they’d like to cook and eat themselves, and what they need to do, as a service of love, to feed their families.
There’s something to this, and it goes both ways. I’ve written about the tension between my sister and me over food. I never talked about food around her, because I knew it was a big thing between us. But when we would visit Louisiana with the kids, we had in our family different, much more restrictive rules for eating sugar and junk food than she did for her kids. She resented that, and felt judged by it. We fed our kids in a way that was normative in our culture in Dallas and later, in Philly; she fed her kids in a way that is normative in her culture. She felt that our norms were weird and wrong, and it offended her that we restricted our kids’ between-meal snacking. She took it very, very personally.
Understand: it wasn’t that I lectured her about food, or even talked about it. It was our practice that she found so offensive, and took as a personal rejection. I was judged harshly by her on the food front. In our family, food was a huge culture-war battleground. Because that’s exactly what it was: a culture war.
Food is so intimate, bound up with our emotions about our bodies, our sense of social status, our feelings about our families — basically, our identities. In writing my memoir of my sister and our life together, I’ve had to think a lot about how my sister and I saw the world, and why we diverged so sharply on certain points. As I’ve said many times, this is not a matter of intelligence — my sister was very intelligent, and made better grades than I did — but of temperament.
Ruthie was extremely conservative, not in a political way (she was apolitical) or in a theological way (she wasn’t theologically engaged), but in a temperamental way. It was such a revelation to me to read the scores of letters Ruthie, at age 17, wrote to the man who would become her husband. My sister was someone who loved her life without reserve, and who was utterly at home in the world. She never felt conflict about her own identity, or her place in the world, or the way the world was. When I was 17, I was a cauldron of conflict, self-loathing, intense curiosity, and so forth. Ruthie was thoroughly acculturated to the norms and preferences of this place, and literally could not, or would not, imagine that they could be different. For her, difference — at least coming from me — was evidence of bad faith.
Me, given my nature, I have always been open to trying new things, and new ways of doing things, and thinking about things. If someone says, “Here’s why you should consider cutting refined sugar out of your diet,” I might listen to them and do what they say, or I’ll listen to them and decide they’re wrong. But chances are I’ll consider what they’re saying, and I won’t feel undermined by the possibility that I’m doing something wrong, and could do it better.
I’m getting long-winded here, but the point I’m making is that Ruthie and I had two different and even antagonistic ways of seeing the world — this, even though we both would have identified ourselves as conservatives. It was all but impossible for Ruthie to consider that somebody who was raised in the same place as she was could think and act differently about food, and do so in good faith. Food — even stuff like Pop-Tarts and Doritos — was culture to her in an unreflective but profound way. Food was also culture to me, but in a very different way. But see, we were the same way about God: I have always turned these things over in my mind, thought about them, tried new things out, and so forth; for Ruthie, loyalty to what she was given was the paramount thing, and to consider that there might be a different way to do things, one that’s more truthful, or better in some way, was simply unthinkable.
And as you’ll see in my forthcoming book, this utter tenacity, I think, gave her the grounding with which to resist her cancer. I seriously don’t know that I would have had the emotional wherewithal that she did.
Anyway, food. I think a lot of the anxiety we have about food comes from our own insecurities. It was hard for me to let my kids go when we’d visit family, and just let them eat the Pop-Tarts in the middle of the afternoon, or whatever. Partly that came from a genuine concern about the children’s nutrition, and not wanting to get off a routine that was hard to establish and maintain in a broader culture that wants kids to eat junk all the time. But a big part of it, I confess, came out of status anxiety within our family culture. Something along the lines of, Y’all have always rejected my way of seeing the world, and I’m not going to let you shame me into doing things I don’t believe in because you don’t understand it. You will respect me, even if you don’t understand me!
(Similarly, food has long been a bone of contention between me and my family; I love it and find a lot of my own identity in cooking, so when people I love don’t want to eat what I make, I experience it as a personal rejection, even though I probably shouldn’t be such a sensitivo about it. I keep trying to remind myself not to personalize it, but it’s hard. I bet Ruthie felt the same way about my views on food, though I don’t recall ever refusing to eat anything she served — and she was a good cook, too.)
I’m sure Ruthie’s thinking in the Pop-Tarts cold war was along the lines of, Look, you are a complete weirdo about food. Why are you depriving me of the chance to show these kids love by giving them Pop-Tarts? What’s the big deal? You’re too good to let your kids eat Pop-Tarts? What if they were organic Pop-Tarts from Whole Foods? Bet you’d let them eat those. You are too uptight. Etc.
I think we were both right, to a certain extent. The point is, the conflict was not really about a principled disagreement over the merits of allowing children to eat Pop-Tarts in the middle of the afternoon, or whatever snack food was at issue. It was really about a culture war my sister and I waged against each other on many fronts.
My point here is say that it’s so difficult to talk about food for the same reason it can be so difficult to talk about politics and religion. People — all of us — have so much of their own identities wrapped up in how we eat, and what we eat, that it’s hard to talk about these things with detachment. I don’t think that so-called foodies are necessarily any more moralistic than anybody else about food. People who insist that food and food culture has no moral meaning at all are, whether they mean to or not, taking a moral position — and they can be just as moralistic and high-horsey about it as the sniffiest Whole Foods shopper.
It’s interesting to observe that the more pluralistic and diverse American culture becomes, the less tolerant we seem to be of each other. Anyway, I take TNC’s point about the way to “guide” people through a “transition” is not to insult them, but to teach them a new way. What happens, though, when the idea of a transition itself is seen as an act of bad faith and a rejection of one’s identity?