Along with all the other things that today’s Americans have been trained to fear—Arabs, microbes, liberals, aging, immigrants, erectile dysfunction—is food. Food prejudice has become so common place as a personality trait that there is a full Internet smorgasbord of groups you can choose from to join of like-thinking devotees to your particular anti-taste.
Certainly, food taboos are as old as indigestion. Leviticus raised diet no-nos to an alchemical art form, with abominations based on abstract theories of the pure and the impure. Why is it again I can’t eat rock badger? (Did Leviticus suffer from a gastro-intestinal complaint? We know that Martin Luther was tortured by constipation.) Sure, lots of it made sense—Uncle Fred ate that and died. Every species figures out what it can and cannot eat. Nothing mystical or even mysterious about that. But the secret to our species’ frightening success is its rare and wondrous feat of being omnivorous. We even learned how to leach and cook the bad stuff out of poisonous food.
One of the revelations that remains with me from Stephen E. Ambrose’s wonderful saga of the Lewis & Clark Expedition Undaunted Courage is the description of what the expedition members ate on their multi-year trek. For weeks it might be just meat—bear or buffalo or horse or dog—then just foraged roots and berries for a while. Hard tack biscuit and salt beef for a spell? Fine. Those guys would eat (and drink) anything, and none of them died from their diet.
I was certainly raised to eat whatever was put in front of me. Sure, I had my favorites, but I did not pass the turnips without taking some. They weren’t punishment; they were food. Nothing to fear. Put some butter on them. Growing up, I never knew anyone with a food allergy other than lactose intolerance, which was a drag because she couldn’t eat ice cream. Nothing to brag about there. Nobody passed on the peanut brittle. Of course, our diets were limited. Our Irish American mothers never cooked Italian, for instance, which is why pizza places were such a hit when they arrived in our teenage years.
My first introduction to food as something other than just food came in the home of my name-same uncle Dr. John Enright, a family doctor (they weren’t called practioners yet) in Buffalo. I was maybe ten and was there for dinner. Uncle John would borrow me now and then because he had just girls. Reconstructing the scene from facts gleaned later in life, I think Uncle John had discovered the recently available Oesterizer blender and was experimenting on his family’s digestive systems by serving them food that they did not have to chew. On our plates were three mounds of mush—brown (meat), green (veggie), and white (carbs). I ate it, but I thought it was weird. I thought maybe I should be blind-folded as well, then led back to a cell.
Beggars can’t be choosers is among the most blatantly true clichés. And you can be on a socio-economic rung or two above beggar class to personally attest to the fact that the hungry can’t be picky. I do not want to look up the U.N. number of how many millions of children went to bed hungry tonight. (I get up to fix myself a snack of cheese and crackers.) Facts like that stop everything, and I do not want to stop. I want to go on about this fear of food thing. I just wanted to remind us of the reality, of the fact that our parents and their parents and theirs back to our let’s-get-out-of-the-trees ancestors were thankful for their daily gluten, for whatever they could get to eat. And happiness was going to bed with something in your stomach besides empty rumblings.
Fear. What a powerful cultural force fear is. If you can control what people fear, you can control them. Human communities were born because of fear and its perceived countervailing safety in numbers. A savage was once sauvage, just someone who lived outside the walls. The fear of death was used to ritualize and control the lives of our predecessors. Fear—fight or flight—and its resultant pheromones are as basic to our nature and survival as the reproductive imperative and its raging hormones. Only, fears are learned, and they are contagious. There are both rational and irrational fears, but the defining adjective does not alter their efficacy.
We have a word for irrational fears—phobias. The suffix phobic has become as familiar as backward baseball caps in America. As our contextual world has expanded, so has the universe of things to be afraid of. In some ways our phobias have come to define us. I know a woman who will not fly on any airlines with the word west in its name. Another friend, a nice guy but a filthy-lucre germaphobe, will not touch money. Perhaps it is because we are already protected from so many real dangers.
Food phobias constitute a special case, though. If we fear what we eat, and we are what we eat, does that make us fear itself?