by Derek Neal
What to eat? A seemingly simple question, but one that has become increasingly difficult to answer. And why is that? My initial hypothesis is that as modern society becomes more and more distanced from traditional and local cuisines, people have less guidance as to what to eat; this puts increased pressure on individuals to make a conscious choice, but with unclear and often conflicting information about how to make this choice. In other words, people used to just eat whatever their grandparents had eaten, and this worked relatively well. Now, with an overabundance of choice and ignorance of one’s own past, we are lost, wandering through the supermarket aisles like a traveler lost in the woods. Thus, we see diets, meal plans, food delivery apps, and a myriad of other things jump in to fill the void that has been abdicated by family and community. But this story is perhaps so obvious that it does not need retelling. It is, after all, the story of the modern, global world. Nevertheless, it’s useful to pause, look around, and ask ourselves, “How did we get here? What is this place?” Let me sketch a few examples of people attempting to answer our initial question, “What to eat?” to help illustrate our general predicament.
Bill Murray in Lost in Translation calls home to his wife and says he wants to make a change: he wants to stop eating “all that pasta,” and instead wants to start eating healthy food, “like Japanese food.” Murray’s character, being an American, is already at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing what to eat, as he most likely does not have a culinary tradition to call his own. Thus, he insists not on a switch from American cuisine (whatever that would be) to something else, but a switch from Italian to Japanese cuisine.
There’s a story my friend likes to tell about another friend. One day, a group of them were trying to decide what type of cuisine to order for take-out. In this group were four people, three of whom had left our small hometown in Vermont and gone on to large metropolitan cities to study and work. The one friend, however, had never made it out of town. One person suggested Thai, another suggested Vietnamese, and another suggested Indian. The conversation continued for some time, with each person arguing the merits of their preferred Asian cuisine. However, no consensus could be found. Finally, the friend who had lived his whole life in Vermont, silent up to this point, asked exasperatedly, “Why can’t we just get, ya know, American food?” As my friend tells it, this is the punchline of the story, revealing the Vermont friend to be closed minded and conservative, while the others are open-minded and worldly. But I’ve always thought the joke was on the storyteller, who thinks that eating some sort of bastardized ethnic cuisine makes him culturally aware and superior to someone who likes cheeseburgers.
A few months ago, I noticed HelloFresh boxes beginning to appear at the door of my apartment building. This is similar to grocery delivery, although you only receive the necessary ingredients to cook a few meals, so instead of a five-pound bag of potatoes you’ll get however many are deemed suitable for a two-person dinner as a side dish to the salmon. Of course, it’s fewer than you’d hope for. These meal-delivery-services-that-still-need-to-be-prepared are a new phenomenon to me, and at first, it’s hard to see what need they fill. If someone is going to cook anyway, they could just have their groceries delivered; it would be more or less the same thing, and cheaper, too. This also applies if someone is worried about visiting a crowded supermarket in the middle of a pandemic. But perhaps this new trend speaks to my hypothesis here, which is that people simply have no idea what to eat and don’t know where to look for guidance.
In fact, HelloFresh markets itself this way, telling users to “take the guesswork out of meal planning.” It seems that something as simple as knowing a recipe has been forgotten and outsourced to a tech startup. In their commercials, which have been playing incessantly during the NFL playoffs, a young father looks into an empty fridge while his wife and children wait at the table. He begins to panic, but then, as if by magic, a HelloFresh package arrives to save the day, and everything ends happily ever after. In the same way, the HelloFresh packages arrive at the door of my apartment building every other week, as if by magic. This, too, is the modern world: labor made invisible, until you go outside and see the steady stream of delivery trucks moving up and down the streets.
Once I ran into my neighbor who orders these boxes, and I mentioned there was a package waiting for him. He seemed embarrassed to have ordered a meal preparation kit and mentioned that the food was “pretty good,” but that there was a lot of waste involved as everything was individually packaged. He was trying it out because they had a promotion for the first order. This sheepish embarrassment is perhaps indicative of our general condition when it comes to food, shame at how ignorant we can be about something so essential.
But let me not put myself above others. The very fact that I’m writing this essay should reveal that I, too, am in search of a better answer to the question of what to eat. I followed a very restrictive diet, the paleo diet, for multiple years, before realizing that I was missing out on actually enjoying the variety of food that different cuisines had to offer. My low point came in a Montreal diner at around 3 a.m. Everyone else ordered poutine and I, not wanting to eat carbohydrates, ordered some sort of meat dish that was a sickly grey color and as tough as rubber. I took one bite, but my resolve had finally met a force that it couldn’t conquer. I ate no more. Looking back at this incident, I’m embarrassed that I put my personal dietary preferences over the needs of the group—it would have been right for everyone present to eat the traditional late-night snack of poutine in Montreal—and perhaps because of this I still feel a tinge of embarrassment for other people when as a guest in someone else’s home they insist on having a main dish altered specifically for them, and not for a reason of allergies but because they simply believe that they know better than the cook. Imagine, if you will, the Danish sisters in Babette’s Feast informing Babette that they appreciate the special dinner she’s cooking, but they won’t be partaking—just the usual ale-bread soup for us, please! Of course, this viewpoint of mine is outdated; food has become a personal endeavor rather than a collective one.
Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way for me, and I began to think that there wasn’t one superior diet, one diet that humans had evolved to eat (the paleo diet), but that if enough people living in the same geographical area over multiple generations had collectively decided to eat in a certain way, then there had to be some logic and reason to this. Thus, a traditional Italian diet would be healthy, as would a traditional Chinese diet. I decided upon this understanding when I studied in France for a year and abandoned the paleo diet for good. This diet forbids bread, and I realized there was something deeply wrong about being in France and not eating bread. It was the same feeling I had when a fellow American exchange student criticized the local kebab shops, run by working class Algerian immigrants, for being “unsustainable.” The French had been eating bread for hundreds of years, and they were definitely healthier and happier than Americans, so to go to France and think that I knew better than a culture that had developed over such a long time would have been the height of ignorance, much like criticizing the owners of a kebab shop, simply trying to make a living, for not ethically sourcing their meat on a stick.
Americans abroad, like Bill Murray in Japan or me in France, provide a good representation of the type of person who doesn’t know what to eat. This is not to say that other peoples also do not know what to eat, but that the fullest expression of this condition can be found in Americans, as it is, as I proposed in the beginning, a symptom of modern people who are disconnected from their past, a break with the past being one of the defining traits of American identity. It may be considered passé to generalize about an entire nation of people, but for one thing, I am American, and for another thing, this type of writing allows us to explore a mysterious phenomenon and locate a truth, or a possibility of truth, that would otherwise prove elusive. The genre I have in mind is one that James Baldwin explored as an ex-pat in Paris, looking back across the ocean and using that distance to explore what defined Americans. In “A Question of Identity” (1954), Baldwin examines the postwar student colony—the soldiers who decided to remain in Europe to study—and uses this group to explore questions of American identity.
Baldwin notes that the Americans in Europe are defined by a “present shapelessness” they think of as “freedom,” but which is characterized by “a rootless wandering among the cafés.” There is no joy in this freedom, only confusion and loneliness. Baldwin writes that this “American confusion…[is] based on the very nearly unconscious assumption that it is possible to consider the person apart from all the forces which have produced him,” which is in turn based on our country’s history, “the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.” Could this not, in some sense, also explain the contemporary inability to answer the question “What to eat?” As I proposed in the beginning of this essay, when one cannot simply rely on culture and tradition to guide one’s choices, making a choice becomes difficult and burdensome, especially when information is as confusing as it is with food. And while Baldwin is talking about Americans here, I would argue that since his writing in 1954, more and more of the developed world has come not only to resemble the American point of view but to condone it. Baldwin’s final words on the Americans in Europe are the most damning: “The great majority of this group, having attempted, on more or less personal levels, to lose or disguise their antecedents, are reduced to a rubble of compulsion. Having cast off all previous disciplines, they have also lost the shape which those disciplines made for them and have not succeeded in finding any other.” Indeed, when it’s time to eat, who wouldn’t say that they are not sometimes “a rubble of compulsion,” looking for a new discipline, a new diet, or a new app to make things simpler?