Monday, February 14, 2011

Gourmets, Guilt, and Parenthood

I'm probably not a real foodie, because I used to live just a few blocks away from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley and I never actually ate there. Chez Panisse advocates humanely, locally, and sustainably-produced meat, fruits, and vegetables. As the restaurant's website explains for the uninitiated,
Since 1971, Chez Panisse has invited diners to partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has established a network of nearby suppliers who, like the restaurant, are striving for both environmental harmony and delicious flavor.

I thought about the time I spent in Berkeley when I read B. R. Myers' "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies" published in The Atlantic online. In the essay, he equates the foodie quest for the perfect food or meal not with morality and environmental harmony but with with gluttony. "The Catholic Church's criticism [of gluttony] has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food - against foodie-ism, in other words," Myers writes.

Those with personal or religious (or medical?) restrictions on what they eat are laughed at by foodies, Myers writes:
In the involuted world of gourmet morals, constancy is rudeness. One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons. [Michael] Pollan says he sides with the French in regarding 'any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.'... guests have a greater obligation to please their host... than vice versa.
The obesity epidemic clearly demonstrates that you are what you eat. But for some people, what you eat also reflects your class, income, and general merit. And those are more important factors for them than health.

Meanwhile, a study came out in the journal Child Development that found that 8 to 12 year old children of working mothers tend to have higher BMIs than those whose mothers don't work, particularly the older children in the study.

"The longer a mom's employment - whether she's toiling at a regular 9-to-5 job or works irregular hours - the more likely her child is to gain more weight than is healthy," wrote Kathleen Doheny in a WebMD article about the study. Working mothers might have heavier children because they spend less time planning and cooking healthy meals at home than mothers who don't work.

"This is a not a reason for moms to feel guilty," said the study's lead researcher Taryn Morrissey unreassuringly. After all, anything that makes mothers feel guilty, worried, or horrified usually gets media attention (Tiger Mom, anyone?), and this study has received a lot of press.

A mother who overthinks food because she wants to define herself and her class by what she feeds her children might be amoral and shallow. A working mother who does not spend enough time thinking about and planning what she feeds her children might be making her kids overweight and contributing to the obesity epidemic. The middle ground, where feeding the family is a function of budget, time, and effort (and where this task is not assigned immutably to the woman in the family), is a quiet, perhaps dull place. But that's where most of us live.

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