ng_nighthawk (ng_nighthawk) wrote,

Food Porn and the Importance of Being Crafty

There's this nice, short article about a concept art piece I like quite a bit. Well, I haven't seen this art installation, but I like the theory.

The article itself engaged me beyond the description of the installation itself. The first I'm not going to talk about beyond quoting it, as it could occupy its own post and that's not what I'm most interested in today:

"Contemplation is concept art’s purpose, which is often why it’s ignored in favor of more profane, visceral explorations like Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ or the trendy, tribal tattoo art emblazoned on Tapout clothing."

Feel free to develop your own post about that, I'd love to read it.

But the other point seem like a useful topic, so more on this inside the cut:

“There has always been an erotic quality to fine dining, but gawking at footage of luscious chocolate cakes served up on television is biologically perverse,” Keats said. “The patent artificiality of the situation only adds to its appeal, because the experience is one of unequivocal fantasy, which is of course the trick of pornography. But gourmet cuisine, while perverse in its own right, is often counterproductive in terms of basic nutrition, much as eroticism is often counterproductive in terms of sexual reproduction.”

That pornographic dimension of humanity’s food obsession is a predictable counterpart to overpopulation and climate change. According to sustainability pioneer and decorated agriculturalist Lester Brown, mounting food shortages could knock civilization as we know it off its hyperconsuming pedestal.

Food--both preparation and consumption--is at its best an activity that builds and reinforces social bonds. As I'm fond of quoting from Lorna Dee Cervantes, "Your community is who you feed and who feeds you."

To obtain food, we have to enter into trade with other people. Even if you grow your own food, there is something you can't do as well as someone else--due to geography, skills, or just bad luck with weather. You're bound to be dependent on other people to maintain a healthy diet.

To prepare food, even in situations where you are cooking alone, you're using skills and knowledge given to you by others. For many people, eating a traditional food is a nostalgic experience but that pales in comparison to the person preparing food in the way they were taught. But it's not just traditions--other people can teach you new techniques, better nutrition, and of course there's the great experience of working alongside one another in the kitchen, chatting or tasting each others' work.

Eating is probably the most common social experience we have. Family dinners may be elusive, but most cultures honor major life events and holidays with a big feast of some kind. Dates usually involve dinner.

Of course, eating isn't the only thing that should build social bonds, and since the analogy was to pornography, naturally another one is sex. Sex should also ideally build social bonds.

So the common element between pornography and food programs is this idea of vicariously enjoying the physical pleasure of the act without any sense of community being built.

This is where I'll disagree with the article's author. By this measure, not every film that involves sex is pornography. A film depicting sex that results in stronger social connections (or which demonstrates the problems with sex that doesn't do this) I wouldn't call pornography. By the same token, one of their examples was Bourdain's No Reservations. This is a show that is all about using food to build relationships--it shows meals as a way to bridge a cultural gap. The exoticism of eating odd foods always seemed secondary to me to the idea of introducing us to the people and institutions that offer the food.

But this begs a deeper question: if food and sex can both generate forms of pornography, it stands to reason that there can be a culinary one-night stand which is as troubling as the sexual one. If there's a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, isn't there also a gulp-slurp-thank-you-sir?

[Yes, I just wrote that. Chew on it for a while.]

The article points out one way in which that troubling nature can be produced, and that's through the lack of nutritional benefit of many of our eating habits. It's true that we don't have sex just for baby-making, and we don't eat just to get the optimal nutrition for our bodies. Converting sex into artificial insemination would be just as disappointing as that long-theorized protein pill that fulfills all your nutritional needs for the day.

And just adding in a social aspect to the experience wouldn't make it complete, either. The sharing of physical pleasure is part of the social bonding. It's a time when you know, in rough terms, that the other person is experiencing something good at the same time you are, and it means that you can share an emotional state. Of course, this makes it all the more heartbreaking when it becomes clear the other person isn't enjoying the experience the way you are, or vice-versa.

But even though the pleasure is an important part of the social bonding, there is more to it than that. The social bonding occurs because of the pleasure, but also because there is a purpose to the act. It's not just something that you do to pass some time--it's a fundamental part of life.

Sex is something you do as part of a loving relationship. A committed, romantic relationship without it is missing something important. But it's not just sex and the associated pleasure, but also the love and affection that is expressed there. Without that love and affection, the sex doesn't "feed" the relationship.

Food obviously needs to sustain us and keep us healthy, in addition to providing an opportunity for pleasure and building communities. A series of fast food meals with your family might provide you with immediate pleasure and time with your family, but it would be missing one of the virtues of eating.

The balance between these three virtues--community, pleasure, and sustenance--is a tough one to maintain, and inevitably there will be experiences where one of these becomes dominant at the sacrifice of the others. That's normal, so long as that doesn't become more and more unbalanced over time, until the practice loses a large part of its meaning. It takes a lot of work to get that meaning back once its gone.

But there's one more point he touches on with regard to food that doesn't really apply to sex, and that's sustainability. I suppose you can draw some analogies: just as overpopulation makes us turn a rare but important resource like food into a fetish, so the impersonal mass production of commerce and culture makes us turn the sex (and the personal, emotional weight it carries) into a fetish.

But to say that creating a fetish out of something is unique to our current circumstances is to ignore the etymology of that word. The idea that there might be too many people is, however, a relatively new idea, and it impacts how we must think of both sex and food.

We've been humbled by the fact that the Green Revolution, mass production, and automation have not created an end to shortage. I think there was a time in the twentieth century where people began to believe that economics was going to become about scale, institutions, and specialized labor. Some saw promise in that, others horror. What we're realizing now is that shared risk is not minimized risk--shared risk must still be managed just like any other risk, and when that management fails then we all share the consequences. This is true in manufacturing, finance, real estate, and agriculture.

There's a different economy of scale to be pursued, however. Large agricultural operations can accomplish huge supplies of monocultural produce, but imagine the food that would be supplied if every family grew a 20 square foot garden? Call this the Victory Garden economics of scale. The labor and resources that would be needed for this work would be immense, but a few hours a week and a modest investment from each family would accomplish this.

It's not just gardens. People make clothes, pottery, they install windmills or solar panels to produce energy, or they create art. There are lots of ways that many small-scale producers can make an impact across an economy.

Of course, we're not going to produce a more robust energy grid from our backyards, even if we installed a solar panel or windmill. We're not going to build computers or energy efficient windows in our garage, even if we can make sweaters or pottery.

The question of sustainable production comes down to this: What makes sense for you to produce yourself? What makes sense for you to obtain locally? Regionally? Globally?

The analysis is going to be based on skills, resources (including capital and time), and what kind of community you can tap into. You can only produce the things that it makes sense for you to produce--sure, I could build a greenhouse and grow lemons in Denver, but a better use of my time would probably be squash, corn, and peppers. And so on for any other items you need. There are many reasons to rely on the economic institutions that seemed so omnipotent in the twentieth century, but what doesn't make sense is to rely on them thoughtlessly, without considering other possibilities.

There is another instance of the trinity of values that make sex and food such important parts of our lives. Another place to find community, pleasure, and sustenance is in work.

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