What would you say are the defining characteristics of the American eater?
If you look at our obesity rates, they'd suggest we’re mostly overeaters. But beyond that, the question is tougher.
It’s not so much that we lack a U.S. food personality — if anything, we have multiple, conflicting ones. At the same time, more consumers are demanding that their food be “natural,” organic and GMO-free, even as Taco Bell sells record numbers of Doritos Locos tacos. We seem more interested in celebrity chefs, cooking shows and recipe videos than ever before, and yet we’re also spending a record amount of money eating out and ordering in.
To address our nation’s diet-related concerns, it would seem necessary first to better understand what we eat, how we eat it and, of course, why.
In her new book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies — How What We Eat Defines Who We Are, Culinary Institute of America program director and food writer Sophie Egan digs into these questions.
It turns out previous attempts to dissect our dietary schizophrenia have ignored some important pieces. Principal among those, Egan argues, are the ways in which Americans working longer hours than the rest of the industrialized world has impacted both their motivation — and ability — to make healthier food choices daily.
So how do we go about resetting our workplaces, cafeterias and the norms they help instill to a healthier default? The Huffington Post recently spoke with Egan about the challenges ahead and the reasons for hope.
What prompted you to explore this question of how we wound up with the food culture we have today?
I’ve been working in food professionally for a number of years and was thinking about how powerful a mirror food is for who we are at a much deeper level. I was tired of hearing that in the U.S. we’re so diverse and are such a huge country that we don’t have anything we could identify as a national food culture. I felt like, well, what can be said? I dug into that question of who we are as eaters, these core values we have as Americans -- these are things we don’t even see sometimes because they’re so deeply ingrained in how we think.
And that led you to this discussion of how the way we work impacts the way we eat. It almost seems so obvious now that I’m asking you about it, but we don’t really talk about that relationship. Why is that?
It really comes down to a reframing of how we look at the root causes of our eating choices. We typically center those conversations around individual willpower or these character accusations, if you will: That Americans don’t cook because they’re lazy or we just follow whatever we saw on TV. But I would say work is a root cause. In addition to a lack of financial resources [being a factor for many people], another important root cause of some eating behaviors that maybe aren’t as healthy as people would like is lack of time. If we’re working more than we used to, something is falling by the wayside.
What was stunning to me was seeing how technology has really blurred the lines between work and home for many people. This mindset of, well, if you can work, why wouldn’t you? Whether it’s on vacation, in the evenings or on weekends, all of it. So with the increase in the numbers of hours we’re spending working, we’re not focusing on food. We look at food as fuel. You squeeze in a sandwich if you have three minutes in between meetings, or grab a Kind bar when you’re racing to catch the subway in the morning. Eating is a secondary need as opposed to something people used to design their days around.
And this starts in childhood. Kids in K-12 schools usually don’t have enough time to eat, so they’re scarfing down pizza or hot dogs or whatever is being served in their cafeteria in 10 minutes. By the time you’re in college, it’s a grab-and-go, grazing mentality. So you’re trained from an early age to see food as secondary. This is a huge cultural norm that’s very difficult to reverse.
I’ve noticed that the “food as fuel” mindset is behind a lot of the marketing of Soylent and similar products. I tried one last year and thought it tasted just as joyless as you would think. Why is this sort of message at the heart of a lot of so-called “foods of the future” today?
Culturally speaking, Soylent is a huge step backward. There’s this sense that we can take food and improve on it, to take what nature gave us and say there’s got to be a better way. A life-hacking approach. A Silicon Valley approach. But [AOL co-founder] Steve Case has this great quote that food is not something disrupting the disrupting you have to do.
Soylent is an extreme, but I would say it represents a larger idea of reducing food to its nutrients. Food is so much more than that. It does nourish us and we need certain things to survive, but I hope that people are starting to realize that flavor and taste and joy are some of the greatest pleasures of life. I think in the U.S., we have a very related discomfort with leisure and with pleasure. It’s sort of unspoken that if you sit around and do nothing, you’re lazy and you’re lesser. I think similarly there’s this sense of taboo around pure enjoyment of taste and of eating food with other people.
There’s also an element of purity to utilitarian foods like that. In the book, you make a strong case for food — whether it be a particular diet or the practice of going to brunch — as a sort of "secular church." Is that a hypothesis you held going into this, or did it develop along the way?
I started with this question about the contradiction of why we’re willing to spend basically the whole day seeking out brunch when our typical mindset is to go to extreme lengths to minimize the time we spend obtaining, eating and cleaning up after food. So it was more of this question of what is so different about that. Very quickly, my research led me to this discovery about how different our weekday eating habits are from our weekend eating habits. We spend the least amount of time of any major developed country preparing and eating food. We’re hardwired in terms of that idea of efficiency.
But looking back, it’s very clear weekends are about indulgence and treating yourself after a long, hard week. These are also some of the only times we aren’t as scheduled, though many families have soccer games and a million other activities too.
Your book also discusses how Americans are so used to getting our food exactly the way we want it, and points out how companies are always pushing new flavors and innovations or “stunt foods” like Doritos Locos. How do you balance these trends with ideas that could push us in a healthier direction? The answer can’t be to go back to the “good ol' days,” right?
This is a really tough question. It’s not just that we all should return to the old ways, because there’s clearly some innovation or new ways forward that should be welcomed. But what kinds of pieces from our past do we really want to resurrect?
Everyone talks today about how people are paying more attention to food than ever before, but from a policy standpoint, a number of things are still missing. One is the amount of time in schools for lunch. I think, at a broad level, going forward what I’m hoping for is for us to collectively find ways to focus on food more. And what I mean by that is, if more employers could make the American lunch break the norm in office settings. I’ve heard of a handful of companies where they ring a cowbell and everyone knows to take a break. You can’t expect individual change in the midst of the same larger environment, not only the physical marketing environment, but the cultural environment. I’m calling for cultural change, and it has to come from the top down.
I think the piece most worth resurrecting from the past would be teaching people to cook. You don’t have to call it home economics. But it should be painted as essential life skills. What if, in order to graduate from college you had to demonstrate that you knew how to cook an omelette so that you could feed yourself? If it was considered the same way as learning a language or riding a bike?
We’ve outsourced the preparation of food to the professionals. Are we going to stop eating food that comes in packages? Of course not. But we would be wise to see for what it is the availability of real, whole foods and the power that comes with feeding yourself and preparing food yourself instead of being sort of over-reliant on new solutions.
Are you optimistic that we're moving in the right direction, toward getting back into the kitchen and eating more “real” food? Or are we too set in our ways at this point?
I am optimistic. I think our appreciation for novelty and innovation is a double-edged sword. We’re eating more foods from around the world than five years ago, which is a silver lining to how much more we’re eating out. But it’s really brought a world of flavors to the masses. It has tremendous potential for healthier eating habits, because some of those other cuisines taste amazing and happen to be good for you without being positioned as good for you. That’s the best way to go.
I’m also optimistic about how much consumer awareness can change Big Food, and we’re seeing that in food companies removing artificial flavors and colorings, or antibiotics. Consumers’ collective demands are really starting to make change happen faster. I think in some ways we’re more empowered than ever before.
It is only with this greater awareness that we can we collectively take more control over our food choices. And with that, we can celebrate the aspects of our food culture that we sometimes overlook, and change those aspects of our food culture that are hurting us so that we can end up with healthier, happier relationships with the food we eat.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.