Food, fear and power

I've finished the biography (the Artemis Cooper one) of Elizabeth David. I loved my adventure into her world with all the enthusiasm of a voyeur who can choose when to begin and when to slip away. Often I flag part way through biographies, but I wanted to know everything Elizabeth David did.

The term 'Mrs David' was one which she recognised as very useful. She saw marriage as somewhat essential for a woman of her era (and class, but really I suspect 'era' still covers it). I was struck by the number of people in her circle who divorced, sometimes multiply. It seems this scourge to morality and family life only became so once 'everyone' was doing it, perhaps from the 1970s. Or could it be that divorce and damnation was ever present and current conservatives choose to see it as a 'this generation' malaise rather than face what none of us wants to: our parents and grandparents and generations before all had sex, not always with one person only, and all lusted after it like us?

Elizabeth David had a huge determination to know food and know history and I think I have fallen in love with that. She knew that the power of food goes well beyond mere satiety. Of course her books are written for a middle class audience - how are cooking books any different these days? Some of us frequent the libraries to read food histories and recipe books and others can buy as many of the books as all of us dream of. Readers of foodie books have a confident literacy and a sense that they can participate in food choices beyond staving off starvation.

David's food journeys took place over terrain and time. She spent time in Egypt, Greece, India (her least favourite place), Italy and France and these experiences informed her food writing and brought romance and sensuous promise to post-war austerity British readers. They also took place over time as she became increasingly interested in scholarship and precise historical details. The only book I have read of Elizabeth David's is her one on bread and I would love to get hold of it and re-read it (not to mention all the others). I know now that this was one which she spent a great deal of time researching from an historical as well as a practical perspective.

I have also been thinking about food and expediency today. There is so much handwringing over the horrors of our recent past in food writing. Too much fat, not enough animals, overprocessed, too many animals, white grain, brown grain, the list goes on. Yet surely food consumption changes take place for perfectly understandable reasons. The householders who embraced pre-packaged food after World War Two had very good reasons for preferring to have time to do things other than stand at the stove. I admire them, frankly. Thousands of years ago when people embraced grains as well as proteins and herbs, I imagine the fact that you could gain weight and feel full more easily with grain-based meals was most advantageous. Only the most powerful were not a harvest away from hunger and a little fat around the belly must have been useful.

The fashions of food right now are fragmented in a rather post-modern way. In a multicultural society, most of us understand that religious beliefs can shape food consumption beyond the fish-on-Fridays-for Catholics that our Pakeha parents and grandparents knew. Everyone has heard of veganism, even if it does still hold freakshow status for some of my relatives who quizz my sister on meat each time they see her. Gluten-free, dairy-free, nut allergies and egg intolerance - these are all familiar terms to those of us with young children right now. If none of them apply to our own offspring, then we know of children at kindy or Playcentre for whom these are very important terms.

The official mantra which is maintained by the government and mainstream nutritionists is that fat is bad, most particularly fat from animals. Grains are good for these people and although sugar and processed foods are supposed to be in moderation, for some reason the focus often falls squarely on fats. Those of us who find the principles of the Weston A Price Foundation of value may or may not find some of Sally Fallon's research compelling (the criticism that she quotes in a circular and esoteric fashion is well placed in my opinion), but there is something which rings true about her text and our experiences as we flick off the low fat salad dressing and follow Michael Pollan's advice to eat food like our grandmas ate. I recently read about the blood type diets and while it makes logical sense, particularly in explaining why some people thrive on vegetarian and vegan foods and others find themselves so much healthier with more meat and more animal fat, there is a didactism in Dr D'Adamo's approach which ultimately put me off.

We are the generation with food allergies and intolerances on a mystifying scale. For me, the most salient factor is the whopping amount of antibiotics which us children of the seventies and eighties, who are now parents ourselves, ingested. No doubt one part of a larger puzzle, but the most significant piece for me. If we seem obsessed with what we put into our bodies, then it is not imaginary, but an attempt to balance systems which show serious signs of imbalance. Putting our collective trust in the medical system has empowered pharmaceutical companies and saved some lives. It has also disempowered many people, and food is one way in which unwell people seek to empower themselves, particularly those with auto-immune diseases which do not respond well to drugs.

The control of food is not only about 'health' or about body shape as it correlates to media models of sexiness, but also about control. This is most extremely seen in traditions of religious persons, in many faith contexts, fasting for ritual and sometimes ever-increasing periods of time. But it is more pervasive on a widespread scale as a sign of mind and body control. The 'good' person chooses his or her food carefully and modestly, just as they choose their mate carefully and just once. It is no accident that the narratives focusing on the control of food intake focus on women; in a patriarchal society the need to control the physical urges of women is paramount. A woman entirely at home in her own body is a dangerous thing to a power structure which requires endless expenditure on diet foods, gym subscriptions and fashionable clothing.

What I love about Elizabeth David is her determination to live her life her way, to fight passionately for what she believed was the best choice, and her joy in food.

Tonight's walk along the beach. Almost an entire day without rain.




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