Food, Luxurious Food

Thanksgiving has come and gone, now drowned out by the near-hysteria which television commercials promote to make us think we’re missing out if we don’t get out and shop.

Last course.  Photo: JDickson

Last course. Photo: JDickson

Let’s rewind to last week and consider food, specifically how far attitudes toward food have traveled, in the past two generations.

There’s such a difference between producing and preparing food in a time period of limits than in our current experience with abundancy.  Since food is so connected with family, let me fall back on my own to make the point.  Sunday evenings, after my mother had toiled over a fairly elaborate family Sunday dinner in the middle of the day, she turned over food matters to my father for the evening supper.  A child of the depression who had never eaten an egg before he was 18 (and a man), he served us graham crackers and milk.  Right.  Broken up graham crackers in a bowl with milk poured over.  His goal was to fill up the stomachs of his hungry brood, with as little time and knowledge as he could muster up.

It should go without saying that my mother’s approach was quite different, but there, I said it.  With a little more disposable income, a little more time and know-how, she had a dual track approach to organizing the food for the family.  First, she had her box of file card recipes and cookbooks and drew from it to make regular, fulsome, varied dinners for us and for guests.  Yet, she also seemed to be first in line for the latest trends of convenience coming our way in the 1950s and 60s, ranging from frozen food dinners (chicken pot pies), freeze dried, preservatives, or mix-with-water foods (powdered gravies.)  Her goal was convenience, and freeing up her time for other endeavors, some leisure but mostly other pursuits, like parenting, volunteering or socializing around hobbies.  Her goal was convenience.

Oh, one other thing.   Even with disposable income, we ate out so rarely that I remember vividly the first time at a restaurant and, outside of travel, can count on one hand the number of restaurants we ate at before high school.

References to food in our histories calls to mind first, the amount of meat consumed by the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition, an average of 8 pounds of meat per day, per person!  Compare that to the annual single serving of meat for the family in Ireland at the brink of desperation before sending waves of family members to the U.S. and beyond in search of income.   Move temporally back to the present, but beyond our shores to large swaths of entire continents where all things food remain on the subsistence level.

When did our view of food go from filling up our stomachs or getting through the preparation time quickly to our current , near obsession with so many layers of food from production and handling all the way through preparation and consumption?

The changing roles of gender in the past 50 years must account for much of this.  With stay-at-home women traditionally more responsible for all things food moving into the workplace, the emphasis on convenience has extended beyond frozen food aisles in grocery stores to eating out or at least taking advantage of the fully prepared meals taking up large sections of stores.

At the same time as we are seeking convenience due to hectic working lives, though, we, with our expanded incomes, are able to spend more on differentiating food, into categories like sources or quality, or preparation and handling.  That means of course, spending a little more of our precious time to investigating and studying foods, which means full sections of newspapers and separate television channels dedicated to food.   We even have graduate history courses in our universities on food.

In a very real sense, food has become the new luxury.  Luxury in terms of money and in terms of time, even in the contradiction of having no time.  The Starbucks principle of people spending a little more of their money for quality, but also to have the luxury, has expanded to all our food.  For those with money and time.

I recently attended a workshop on Foodways, a history workshop.  I entered the room, one of two men, as a dissident, bucking against the current trend of luxuriating what had always been for me barely more than a bodily function.   I left with an appreciation for food as a window into our history, even in its current luxuriated stage!

Thanksgiving is part of that.  It’s not just how food at the table has changed, but the social history of Thanksgiving, offering a window into the daily lives of ordinary people.  When millions of those ordinary people do the same thing, as we do with infinite variations on the theme, then that’s another window.  Almost unique in setting aside a holiday exclusively for a meal and family with overtones of sharing, the country may merit exceptionalism, at least on that basis.

  1. #1 by on February 15, 2013 - 6:32 pm

    I want to know as to why you labeled this specific blog post,
    “Food, Luxurious Food timecapsulepilot”. In any event .
    I adored it!I appreciate it-Derick

    • #2 by dicksonjohn on February 15, 2013 - 10:42 pm

      Kind of a take-off on the song from the play “Oliver”, removing the word “glorious” in the play’s song and replacing it with the theme of luxury in the post. Glad you liked it

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