Role Reversal of Food and Sex in Western Culture

The shared agreements in western culture have shifted significantly in the past fifty years.  In particular, this shift can be witnessed in the matters to which society interprets matters of moral behaviour, ideas of guilt, and notions of good and bad.

Mary Eberstadt has a fascinating essay about this topic:  Is Food The New Sex? A Curious Reversal In Moralizing in this month’s Policy Review magazine.

Just as the food of today often attracts a level of metaphysical attentiveness suggestive of the sex of yesterday, so does food today seem attended by a similarly evocative — and proliferating — number of verboten signs. The opprobrium reserved for perceived “violations” of what one “ought” to do has migrated, in some cases fully, from one to the other. Many people who wouldn’t be caught dead with an extra ten pounds — or eating a hamburger, or wearing real leather — tend to be laissez-faire in matters of sex. In fact, just observing the world as it is, one is tempted to say that the more vehement people are about the morality of their food choices, themore hands-off they believe the rest of the world should be about sex. What were the circumstances the last time you heard or used the word “guilt” — in conjunction with sin as traditionally conceived? Or with having eaten something verboten and not having gone to the gym?

Perhaps the most revealing example of the infusion of morality into food codes can be found in the current European passion for what the French call terroir — an idea that originally referred to the specific qualities conferred by geography on certain food products (notably wine) and that has now assumed a life of its own as a moral guide to buying and consuming locally. That there is no such widespread, concomitant attempt to impose a new morality on sexual pursuits in Western Europe seems something of an understatement. But as a measure of the reach of terroir as a moral code, consider only a sermon from Durham Cathedral in <2007. In it, the dean explained Lent as an event that “says to us, cultivate a good terroir, a spiritual ecology that will re-focus our passion for God, our praying, our pursuit of justice in the world, our care for our fellow human beings.”

There stands an emblematic example of the reversal between food and sex in our time: in which the once-universal moral code of European Christianity is being explicated for the masses by reference to the now apparently more-universal European moral code of consumption à la terroir.

Moreover, this reversal between sex and food appears firmer the more passionately one clings to either pole. Thus, for instance, though much has lately been made of the “greening” of the evangelicals, no vegetarian Christian group is as nationally known as, say, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or any number of other vegetarian/vegan organizations, most of which appear to be secular or anti-religious and none of which, so far as my research shows, extend their universalizable moral ambitions to the realm of sexuality. When Skinny Bitch — a hip guide to veganism that recently topped the bestseller lists for months — exhorts its readers to a life that is “clean, pure, healthy,” for example, it is emphatically not including sex in this moral vocabulary, and makes a point of saying so.

C.S. Lewis once compared the two desires as follows, to make the point that something about sex had gotten incommensurate in his own time: “There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” He was making a point in the genre of reductio ad absurdum.

But for the jibe to work as it once did, our shared sense of what is absurd about it must work too — and that shared sense, in an age as visually, morally, and aesthetically dominated by food as is our own, is waning fast. Consider the coining of the term “gastroporn” to describe the eerily similar styles of high-definition pornography on the one hand and stylized shots of food on the other. Actually, the term is not even that new. It dates back at least 30 years, to a 1977 essay by that title in the New York Review of Books. In it author Andrew Cockburn observed that “it cannot escape attention that there are curious parallels between manuals on sexual techniques and manuals on the preparation of food; the same studious emphasis on leisurely technique, the same apostrophes to the ultimate, heavenly delights. True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering colored photographs of various completed recipes.”

With such a transfer, the polar migrations of food and sex during the last half century would appear complete.

I found it interesting that there is a link between vegeterianism and religious thought.   And of course food laws and dietary restrictions are to be seen as significant aspects of major world religions.

Alongside macrobiotics, the past decades have also seen tremendous growth in vegetarianism and its related offshoots, another food system that typically makes moral as well as health claims. As a movement, and depending on which part of the world one looks at, vegetarianism predates macrobiotics.1 Vegetarian histories claim for themselves the Brahmins, Buddhists, Jainists, and Zoroastrians, as well as certain Jewish and Christian practitioners. In the modern West, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a prominent activist in the early nineteenth century; and the first Vegetarian Society was founded in England in 1847.

Around the same time in the United States, a Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham popularized vegetarianism in tandem with a campaign against excess of all kinds (ironically, under the circumstances, this health titan is remembered primarily for the Graham cracker). Various other American religious groups have also gone in for vegetarianism, including the Seventh Day Adventists, studies on whom make up some of the most compelling data about the possible health benefits of a diet devoid of animal flesh. Uniting numerous discrete movements under one umbrella is the International Vegetarian Union, which started just a hundred years ago, in 1908.

Despite this long history, though, it is clear that vegetarianism apart from its role in religious movements did not really take off as a mass movement until relatively recently. Even so, its contemporary success has been remarkable. Pushed perhaps by the synergistic public interest in macrobiotics and nutritional health, and nudged also by occasional rallying books including Peter Singer’s Animal Rights and Matthew Scully’s Dominion, vegetarianism today is one of the most successful secular moral movements in the West; whereas macrobiotics for its part, though less successful as a mass movement by name, has witnessed the vindication of some of its core ideas and stands as a kind of synergistic brother in arms.

To be sure, macrobiotics and vegetarianism/veganism have their doctrinal differences. Macrobiotics limits animal flesh not out of moral indignation, but for reasons of health and Eastern ideas of proper “balancing” of the forces of yin and yang. Similarly, macrobiotics also allows for moderate amounts of certain types of fish — as strict vegans do not. On the other hand, macrobiotics also bans a number of plants (among them tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and tropical fruits), whereas vegetarianism bans none. Nonetheless, macrobiotics and vegetarianism have more in common than not, especially from the point of view of anyone eating outside either of these codes. The doctrinal differences separating one from another are about equivalent in force today to those between, say, Presbyterians and Lutherans.

And that is exactly the point. For many people, schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith. Again, the curiosity is just how recent this is. Throughout history, practically no one devoted this much time to matters of food as ideas (as opposed to, say, time spent gathering the stuff). Still less does it appear to have occurred to people that dietary schools could be untethered from a larger metaphysical and moral worldview. Observant Jews and Muslims, among others, have had strict dietary laws from their faiths’ inception; but that is just it — their laws told believers what to do with food when they got it, rather than inviting them to dwell on food as a thing in itself. Like the Adventists, who speak of their vegetarianism as being “harmony with the Creator,” or like the Catholics with their itinerant Lenten and other obligations, these previous dietary laws were clearly designed to enhance religion — not replace it.

Do today’s influential dietary ways of life in effect replace religion? Consider that macrobiotics, vegetarianism, and veganism all make larger health claims as part of their universality — but unlike yesteryear, to repeat the point, most of them no longer do so in conjunction with organized religion. Macrobiotics, for its part, argues (with some evidence) that processed foods and too much animal flesh are toxic to the human body, whereas whole grains, vegetables, and fruits are not. The literature of vegetarianism makes a similar point, recently drawing particular attention to new research concerning the connection between the consumption of red meat and certain cancers. In both cases, however, dietary laws are not intended to be handmaidens to a higher cause, but moral causes in themselves.

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