As the parent of a three-year-old, I find myself confronted by issues around proper diet and eating habits on a regular basis. From what I have heard from friends and colleagues who are also parents of small children, picky eating is rampant among the American toddler set. It seems as if for many parents their biggest battle is getting food—of any kind—into their children. We are fortunate that our daughter has a fairly expansive taste palate, but even so, there are nights when she has no interest in eating the dinner we have prepared and tries to convince us that she should have a bowl of pretzels instead (as she has not yet mastered the fine arts of negotiation and persuasion, she always loses that battle).
Beyond our own kitchen, my family has been barraged by a never-ending stream of information and advice about what we should be feeding our daughter, both now and in the future once she begins attending elementary school. One outgrowth of the US’s concerns with childhood obesity has been that information about childhood nutrition is everywhere. Within our own community in the Bay Area of California, there have been local campaigns to ban toys from children’s meals at fast-food restaurants, add taxes to sodas and other “unhealthy” foods, and require schoolchildren to participate in garden activities as part of their educational curriculum. At the same time, there are constant messages from the media and political leaders admonishing California parents to improve our families’ diets and warning us of the dire health, social, and economic consequences of poorly nourished and overweight children and the poorly nourished and overweight adults they will surely become. A recurrent theme is that our children’s intellect and social skills will be stunted if they do not eat the proper foods. More telling is how often this advice is part of a larger cultural practice of fat shaming, which has become a national pastime in the United States, and one that is directed at children even before they can walk.
American preoccupations with diet and nutrition play out in other ways that may be less visible but just as forceful. Shopping at the grocery store might invite disdainful looks from other customers who feel emboldened to peer into your cart and inspect your choices—or even comment directly on them. Health insurance companies monitor subscribers’ medical records and send out recommendations for menus, exercise regimens, and even medications.
Above all, American concerns with diet and nutrition are coupled with a striking public moralism. Food choices are not simply correlated with concerns about health, but are also understood to represent proper forms of behavior and even citizenship. There is also a pervasive sense that it is an acceptable, perhaps even necessary, part of civic life to comment publicly on the food practices and bodies of others. My own students are not immune to this, as they eagerly participate in service projects that seek to educate low-income individuals about “healthy eating” through an indoctrination program that requires program beneficiaries to perform sweat equity in community gardens and community kitchens. What is often explicit, yet unquestioned, in such projects is the assumption that low-income individuals are both ignorant and unhealthy and that it is society’s duty to reform and heal them.
Yet what counts as “healthy” in these contexts is not necessarily an absolute, as the information regarding what types of foods are “good” changes frequently. I still remember the panic that erupted among my peers during our middle school years when a study came out claiming that peanut butter caused cancer. For us, peanut butter was a right of our American heritage, and we all swore never to relinquish that right. We were relieved to discover later that those claims had been discredited.
Concerns with nutrition and health are certainly not unique to the United States, especially in today’s world where fads and information spread quickly through social media and Internet-based news. What is curious, however, is that information about nutrition, diet, and health tends to be accepted (or discredited and ignored), with little attention given to how that information was created and promoted in the first place. In many cases, if we look more carefully at nutritional information, we find fascinating behind-the-scenes stories of scientific experiments and discoveries. In other cases, there are equally fascinating stories of moral evangelists and government officials realizing that diet and nutrition can be effective channels for cultivating particular moral, religious, and political values. In still other cases, the popularity of particular dietary and nutritional rules and practices provides revealing and sometimes unsettling insights into the values and beliefs held by the people who practice these rules, enforce them, or reject them. Above all, dietary and nutritional information matter, not simply because they provide guidelines for health and behavior, but because this information can serve as a proxy for critically important social, political, economic, and scientific debates about civic rights, responsibilities, and entitlements, personal freedoms such as free will and privacy, and legal protections and accountability, among many other issues. Clearly, nutritional and dietary information matter.
The articles in this special issue of Gastronomica take up this provocation of “what is nutrition and why does it matter?” through a series of research essays about “critical nutrition.” Representing a range of disciplinary backgrounds from the humanities, social sciences, and science and technology studies, the contributors to this special issue unpack nutritional discourses and practices in order to consider and explain these intriguing backstories. Working collaboratively at the intersections of their respective fields, the contributors investigate such topics as the historical roots of nutritional sciences in the United States, the cultural contexts in which certain scientific findings and popular knowledge about diet, nutrition, and health have been accepted and discredited, the moral valences embedded in dietary knowledge and proscriptions, and the implications of nutritional paradigms for global health projects beyond the United States. Through their respective research projects and their thoughtful debates with one another, the contributors persuasively call attention to the power of nutritionism as an ideological system itself. Ultimately, they suggest possibilities for rethinking both nutritional information and the power of nutritionist thinking.
This invitation to revisit and reconsider what we know about food and food culture is continued in the creative pieces in this issue. Sandra Gilbert and Leo Racicot offer fascinating glimpses into the personal and professional lives of two important figures in the food world: M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, respectively. With their essays, Gilbert and Racicot provide further insight into the significance of these two legends, their friendship with one another, and their contributions to food artistry. Edra Bayefsky takes us on a similar backstage journey in her illustrated essay about Toronto’s Kensington Market, as imagined and experienced through the work of artist Aba Bayefsky. Each of these three contributors provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at how these gifted artists used aesthetics to make their food worlds come alive in unexpected ways.
Ultimately, the contributions to this issue remind us that we should not always take for granted conventional wisdom about the world of food and food-related experiences. There are always other stories to be told and other possibilities to consider.