Last week at the Fancy Food Show, an annual marketplace where over 1,000 food and drink purveyors showcase their wares, I tasted buttered coffee, beet ketchup, bay-leaf bitters, cilantro kombucha, vegan marshmallows and chocolate cheese.
Licking organic small-batch grass-fed cream-top yogurt off a spoon, I realized that my life and yours could be charted as a series of food fads, each one aimed straight at our self-esteem.
What purchase is more personal than food? Each choice we make assuages not just primal hunger but a constellation of desires involving flavor, color, culture, temperature, identity, quality, quantity, chronology, history, company and cost.
I was born in an America that adored TV dinners, cake mixes and instant everything. These bold new products made many homemakers feel like ultra-mothers, whipping up with superhuman speed and ease snacks and meals more nutritious and delicious than they thought their own sparse talents could manage from scratch.
I was in grade-school when the focus switched to foods and drinks that promised slenderness—not because slenderness promoted health but because, advertisers told us, only slim bodies were beautiful. And, given an array of brand-new artificial sweeteners, not being slender had become a choice—a devastating, isolating, stupid choice.
I watched a thin-faced model in a TV ad caress her parted lips and jutting cheekbones with an icy glass as a voice said that Fresca, with under three calories per serving, "will make a beautiful difference in you." Another ad from those days showed a lissome miniskirted woman descending stairs as a voice sang: "Don't you want to have a good shape? He wants you with a good shape. ... Tab can help you stay in his mind. It's sugar-free."
It was a compliment wrapped in a threat, warning us to outsmart our own awful biology while staying sensual, indulging our desire for pleasure with the help of space-age chemistry.
Imagine growing up with such beliefs. Imagine doing so while being raised by someone who was hypersensitive about her weight and thus determined not to let her little girl be fat. Imagine gorging on sugar-free drinks, gum, cereal and candy whose main selling point was laboratory-produced sweetness provided mainly by carcinogens. Imagine approaching puberty believing that not being super-slim rendered one ugly, thus unlovable.
Thank you, food-and-drink industry, for twelve years of bulimarexia.
But then the industry blithely moved on. Still fixed on weight control, albeit now murmuring piously about "science" and "health" to make us feel intelligent, proactive, cutting-edge, it launched the fat-free fad, in which huge quantities of salt, sugar and flour in sweets, snacks, dairy goods and other products allegedly compensated for the satisfaction formerly granted by butter, tallow, palm oil and their pals.
Then "science" recast certain fats from Satan into saviors. Food became a "thing"—not merely fuel but a fetish, worthy of a TV network. "Foodie" as a positive identity entails adventure, fashion, daring, exploration, expertise.
From this sprang new fads, which pervaded this year's Fancy Food Show: Fusion. Farm-to-fork. Veganism. Paleo. Gluten-free. Wellness. Whole-animal. Sustainability. Superfoods. Driving all these is the promise of empowerment: By eating this, not that, you will help farmers, workers, animals, plants, the planet and, yes, yourself.
This too targets our self-esteem. Being told drink this, or the earth will burn or only idiots eat meat makes us feel at once omnipotent and ashamed. It's yet another way to make us fear being imperfect and unlovable. But hey: Choosing foods because you dread harming dolphins or not getting enough pinoresinol is way less self-destructive than choosing foods because he wants you with a good shape.