Fear of Food

An hour ago, I ate a tablespoon of peanut butter on a rice cake. So healthy and responsible, I thought. Part of my Weight Watchers strategy. I hadn't checked to see if my brand was on the FDA's death-by-peanut list. But the concept of food-as-dangerous h

An hour ago, I ate a tablespoon of peanut butter on a rice cake. So healthy and responsible, I thought. Part of my Weight Watchers strategy. I hadn’t checked to see if my brand was on the FDA’s death-by-peanut list. It was so alternative I’d assumed I was safe.

Of course, I just checked five minutes ago, and it is.

I wonder if I’ll get sick. Or if I’ll die. These thoughts come and go just like I wonder if I paid my electric bill. The concept of food-as-dangerous has become part of my everyday consciousness.

I wonder if it’s become like that for all of us. I’m not just referring to the peanut alerts over the last month that have warned us that having a peanut is now more risky than having unprotected sex or the E. coli spinach and ground beef outbreaks that seem to occur more often than random acts of kindness in this country. I also wonder how our relationship to food has changed over the last 30 years, since the media starting feeding us the idea that the wrong foods can kills us and the right ones can make us live forever.

One scan of Google News’ food headlines from 1930 to today and you can see how our relationship with food has changed. From the 1930s to the ’70s, the high cost of meat, wartime rations, food shortages and fantastic discoveries of “vast untapped food reserves” in foreign countries dominated our headlines. Our relationship with food has never been free from fear; the fears just changed. First it was the fear of not having food, now it’s the fear of having it.

In the ’70s, we started fearing food additives, bacon, animal fat and saccharin. Gone were the naive and blissful headlines of the ’60s, like “Family Sings Praises of Cheeseburger Meat Loaf,” published April 16, 1964, in The Los Angeles Times. Headlines such as The New York Times’ “Hormone and Cancer; Possible Danger in Feeds Now Given to Meat Animals” became much more common. We also became more sophisticated and shrewder with announcements like “Vegetarian Diet and Breast Milk” and “Vitamin Pills: A False Hope?”

We then began worshiping certain foods, “You vs. the Pomegranate” (2008), while demonizing others, “Throwing the Book at Salt” (2009). But it wasn’t on the grounds of health — see “In New York, It’s Cheese-Cart Gridlock” (2001), touting a renewed love affair with cheese.

But what about our love affair with food in general? Not just politically correct food or food grown under quarantine conditions, but messy, I-don’t-know-what-the-hell’s-in-this-but-dammit-I’m-going-to-eat-it food. I was at Trader Joe’s with a friend of mine this week, and every time I picked up a vegetable — a bag of spinach, some button mushrooms, even broccoli — my friend, who has read more about potentially hazardous foods than anyone I know, would say, “Are you sure you want to buy that, because I just heard…” He then read all the labels out loud — checking for salt, gluten and whey — which sounded, to me, like the sawing down of the Sequoia National Forest.

Yes, there was more sun shining in the forest’s absence — I now knew everything I was eating — but the lushness, mystery and sensuality of the experience of eating were gone.

Food is life, and our relationship with food is often our relationship to life. Wouldn’t it be nice if life could be adventurous, sensual and free of fear again? We can dream.

CONTACT HEATHER SMITH: [email protected]

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