I often think about the many ways my identity (specifically in terms of race, class, and gender) informs my interest in food. Recently, I’ve begun considering how the food a person eats is not unidirectionally shaped by their identity. Rather, the stream flows both ways; on the one hand, our identity influences our food choices, for example in terms of preference and access. On the other, our food choices shape who we are, how we understand ourselves, and how others understand us. This has been an important topic in food scholarship since the earliest days of the field (think Douglas and Mintz).
Recently, scholars like Biltekoff, Guthman, Cairns & Johnston have pointed out how participation in the “alternative food movement” can lead to judgements of character that are contingent on race and class privilege. In this way, the movement provides a new framework to distinguish good from bad, informed from ignorant, moral from immoral. It creates a binary of “do’s” and “don’ts,” of “haves” and have-nots.” In this case, a person’s background and race/class identities impact their interpretation of and participation in the AFM, and this participation (or lack thereof) then reflects back onto them, working as a stand-in for their morality and intellect. Those in the in-group of the AFM are rewarded with respect, authority, and prestige while members of the out-group (Biltekoff’s “unhealthy others”) receive scorn, blame, and disregard.
As someone who falls neatly into the in-group (white, female, middle class, educated, working in the specialty food industry while also studying food in school), I began thinking about how my identity and my food choices are interrelated in this particular context. Following in the footsteps of Marcos D. Moldes’ auto-ethnographic essay “Stumbling in the Kitchen,” I decided to take myself as a case study of sorts and create a photo journal of the inside of my apartment (a fitting endeavor in this moment of social isolation). I’ve focused on art, artifacts, decorations, and more, all of which work to reaffirm who I am and where I came from, but also project an idealized version of my relationship with food, by extension, my identity, into the space. Interrogating these objects has given me the opportunity to study the materiality of my own identity as it relates to food and the AFM.
How has my past influenced the way I eat today, and how do my decisions around food inform my understanding of myself as a person, intellectually or morally or aesthetically? More specifically, how do I signal to myself and others that I’m part of the in-group? In looking around at my apartment and reflecting on the things I’ve surrounded myself with, I find myself at Biltekoff’s “knowledge-pleasure-responsibility nexus.”
I grew up in a working-class family of dairy farmers in rural Maine. I like to romanticize my family’s history of farming and the impact it had on the way I think about food. However, the reality is that I grew up on weekly dinners of Hamburger Helper. My mother (I can only imagine) struggled to put food on the table for my three very hungry brothers and me, and the meals we ate were often the fastest, cheapest, most filling, and least likely to be rejected (though I somehow still rejected them… what kid doesn’t like mashed potatoes? This kid). The origins of my interest in food came not from my time spent on the farm (though I loved it, I didn’t realize until many years later how special it was). Instead, my interest in (read: obsession with) food arose during my adolescent years and manifested in an outright rejection of the food my family ate. Out of fear that this way of eating was making me unhealthy (read: fat), I began desperately grasping for any sort of control over my food (read: my body) within reach, which amounted to packing my own school lunches (a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread, a Fiber One bar, and an apple or cherry tomatoes) and making a separate dinner (salad) for myself at home. I became a vegetarian “for health reasons,” but really out of spite.
When I left for college, I brought with me all my anxiety around food. I ended up in Western Massachusetts, surrounded by fertile farmland and food activism and a battalion of young (white) farmers and entrepreneurs committed to making healthy food accessible for everyone. I studied food and farms like my family’s in a classroom setting. I suddenly had a unique perspective and “real world experience” that I’d always taken for granted and never considered to be all that interesting or useful. My anxiety around food, rooted in financial insecurity back home, and my obsession with healthy eating, rooted in toxic notions of weight and body image, were absorbed and reconfigured by the “alternative food movement.” I got a certificate in sustainable food studies and I volunteered for a local food nonprofit. I studied agriculture and international trade for my senior thesis. After graduating, I worked at a small seed company in Maine, assisting farmers in New York and California, before moving to Spain for a year to teach English and write for this very food blog. Now, I’m working in food full-time and studying food part-time.
I am never not thinking about food. This is nothing new for me. What’s new is the positive slant. My obsession with food, so taboo and so embarrassing when I was younger that I never confessed it to anyone, has somehow become a noble passion and a respected career. Perhaps this is because it has been distilled, slowly over many years, through the language and ideology of alternative food movement into a purer, more acceptable form.
Photo 1: My mother’s kitchen
I have filled my kitchen in Somerville with homey decorations, mostly relating to food, I think in part because the walls would otherwise be bare and unbearably brown, but also because it reminds me of my childhood home. My mom filled her kitchen with flowers and herbs and chicken art (there are chickens truly everywhere, it’s a little unsettling) and by filling my kitchen with similar materials I feel comfortable, at home, like I’m emulating her. But I’m also trying to recreate a mystical, imaginary farm life that I associate with my home in Maine. I know that this non-existent fairytale farm world is what people imagine when I tell them I grew up “on my family’s dairy farm” (a sort of simplified half-truth). Maybe it’s also what I tell myself a little bit.
The apron is a souvenir from the food writing course in the Gastronomy department at Boston University, where I’m a student. I liked the floral pattern, the adjustable waistband, and the cavernous pocket in the front. Despite its practicality, I’ve never used it. It’s become a decoration which, I think, projects an image of culinary know-how that I can’t actually claim to have. Or perhaps it suggests that, when I’m not working or studying, I’m spending hours in the kitchen baking soufflés for fun. There’s a gendered element to the apron, which I thought about even as I decided to take it home; I think about the “radical homemakers” that Inness discusses, who employed home cooking, gardening and canning as explicitly anti-corporate practices. But then, who has the time and knowledge for all that? And why is the AFM always framed in terms of the hard-working, thoughtful, crafty individual against the evil corporation?
Similarly, the poster next to the apron suggests that I have some knowledge of vegetable crops. Perhaps I know a bit about their discrete categories and physiologies and seasonalities. Though this is partly true, I have never grown most of these crops myself. I wonder if the poster says something about me, its owner, that isn’t entirely accurate. I also think it’s interesting that the poster’s text is in French. I appear to have bought into the idea that all things French, from haute cuisine to tiny D’Avignon radishes, are superior simply by nature of them being French.
Hanging next to the poster is a bouquet of dried flowers from a happy moment in my life. I love flowers, and that bouquet is especially loaded with meaning, but I wonder if this is yet another example of one of the ways I’ve subtly worked to distinguish myself from “others.” I’m A Person Who Appreciates Flowers. This, again, suggests access to knowledge and money, as well as access to a safe, normative femininity that aligns with an appreciation of flowers (although, I occasionally attempt to subvert this by buying flowers for my girlfriend). Is that, at least to some extent, a product of my privilege rather than just a facet of my personality?
Photo 2: Some small good
These images come from a calendar I purchased from Hudson Valley Seed Company, a small company that works to protect disappearing seed varieties in the US. Though I worked for one of their competitors, I’ve always really respected their mission and have supported it by buying their calendars, filled with art from local artists, every year.
I love these images because they brighten up my bedroom and remind me of beautiful things outside when I’m stuck inside. But I also like the feeling that I’m doing some small good for the world when I buy these calendars. In thinking about what these images say about me, I am reminded of Bourdieu’s theory that social status is borne out of distance from necessity. While food is a necessity, food art and images like this are arguably a safe distance from it. In admiring these images, am I just further convincing myself of my superior morals and good taste?
Photo 3: Funny-looking
The final photo highlights two elements of my active, ongoing participation in the AFM. First is my subscription to the produce delivery service Misfits Market. This service provides subscribers with a box of organic fruits and vegetables that, for whatever reason, wouldn’t make it to supermarket displays and would otherwise have been wasted. Sometimes they’re funny-looking, but usually they’re excellent examples of the types of fruits and veggies I would never normally buy for myself at the grocery store. These misfits present the strange challenge of using seven limes and two pounds of celeriac in one week so as not to waste the food I’ve just rescued from the literal mountain of food waste Americans produce every day. While the subscription has forced me to cook (and enjoy!) things I normally wouldn’t, sometimes the pears go bad before I can eat them all and they end up in my compost bucket, also pictured here. Garbage to Garden, my compost service, then picks up my bucket and turns my trash into another person’s heirloom tomatillos.
Hidden behind the campy taglines and aggressive alliterations of these services is the fact that they perfectly illustrate what Biltekoff would consider a neoliberal undertaking of the alternative food movement. Food access and waste are a massive, systematic problem and policy failure that happen to be two sides of a 20-sided coin. Yet instead of addressing policy issues through collective action, we are made to believe that the solution is one small company siphoning off a small percentage of produce that would otherwise be thrown away and delivering it to people who have the money to pay and the time and the skillset to prepare it into something resembling a meal. Or, rather than implementing policies to handle household food waste (as has already been done by our neighbors in Cambridge), we promote the values of innovation and entrepreneurship to solve yet another social problem.
What do these subscriptions say about me, my values and my approach to addressing injustices in the food system? I’m educated enough to know about these problems. I care about these problems, and I want to fix them, but only if fixing them involves minimal effort and zero interaction with other human beings. I think of Guthman’s “neoliberal conceit,” which absolves “people of the need to do anything else beyond selecting products for purchase” (Biltekoff, 111). I belong to the small demographic of people who benefit from the AFM’s neoliberal approach to addressing issues in the food system. My privilege is reinforced simply by being included in these “solutions” in some small way, rather than being left out.