The World According to Junk Food Culture

Things have been pretty festive lately on RRG, what with all the cookie recipes and holiday advice I’m dispensing these days.  Yes, I’m in a pretty good mood, and despite work stresses and an overloaded calendar — and a holiday to-do list that just will NOT get shorter, no matter how hard I try — I’m already feeling a bit sad that Christmas is just a couple of weeks away.  There’s precious little time left to enjoy the magic of the season.  *Sniffle.*

We now interrupt this moment of holiday nostalgia to bring you a teensy little rant.

Yup, it just wouldn’t be Red, Round, or Green without the occasional social commentary, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t walk around noticing these things and WANTING to comment on them from time to time.  I hereby make the following pronouncement, which is neither new nor shocking, but bears repeating: The World is Set Up for Junk Food.

Oh yes.  Yes, it is.  Everywhere, all around us, the expectation — festive season or not — is that we should be filling our grocery carts, our online shopping bags, our plates, ourselves, and our kids with quasi-food.  And although I could certainly start by puzzling over the fact that, even at Whole Foods, the bakery aisle seems to have expanded suddenly with an overflow of decadent treats and baskets of boutique, handmade candy canes and marshmallows, I’m not going to.  I’m not even going to talk about the holidays and all the junk food overload they bring.

I’m going to talk about assumptions, instead.  The assumptions that we make, as people, and the assumptions that others make for us.  The assumptions that businesses and restaurants and marketers make when they approach consumers.  All of which, to one degree or another, default to the same proverbial landing page: Junk Food is a Universally Enjoyed and Desirable Item.

It’s totally innocent, I think, more often than not.  I’m not planning to enter into the fray of deciding whether or not McDonald’s marketing campaigns deliberately target kids, and what we should do about that (for the record: yes, they do, and there’s a LOT we should be doing about it).  For the most part, I think that on the personal level, the perpetuation of Junk Food Mania is done through very small and generally well-intentioned acts, which most of us wouldn’t even notice.

For example: last night, at the rehearsals for my choral group, we had a little party (which was, yes, deliberately junk-foodish; desserts were the order of the evening).  It’s the kind of thing we do every so often, and I won’t go into the details here.  But as I was helping with the clean-up afterward, there were odds and ends of assorted sweets leftover, which we had to either throw away or send home with the handful of people who were left.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Oh, B., you take that…you’ve got kids at home!”

Hm.  Once, twice, three times, and I started to wonder.  What is it, in our culture, that says that the person with kids must want to collect as much sugar as possible and take it home to the little ones?  Oh, of course it was well-intentioned.  Everyone there wanted my kids to enjoy some sweets.  They’re lovely people, most of them have raised children of their own, and truth be told, they probably didn’t want to take any sweets home themselves due to the very adult concern of weight management.  But the fact remains that there was a very large assumption being made, and it’s one so ingrained that it took a while for it to register with me.  Kids = dessert.

I didn’t take anything, obviously, and finally I did point out — nicely, I hope — that I wouldn’t really let my kids have the items that were left; everything on the table at the end of the evening was pretty much artificially colored, overly sweetened, preservative-laden pablum.  (Not surprising, considering that there had also been a nice assortment of various homemade treats on the buffet; who’d want a commercially produced gingersnap if they could eat a slice of warm apple cake with whipped cream?)  I did feel obligated to do a little defensive parent softshoe bit, though, with the whole “They get plenty of sugar, trust me” and “We’ve been baking nonstop” routine.  (Both of those statements are fully true; I just surprise myself every time I feel the need to pull them out as a defense mechanism.  It’s perfectly likely that everyone there fully understood the position I was taking, without me adding any song and dance onto it.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about the way we perceive food and the people who eat it, and the ways in which we free-associate when it comes to all matters of food and eating.  If Sugar=Kids, then Brussels Sprouts=Adults; Salad=Health Fanatics; and Burgers=Fast Food Junkies.  Even though I know plenty of adults who love sugary desserts (myself included), kids who do eat brussels sprouts (I’m still working on that with mine, but it’ll come!), salad-eaters for whom the McRib is a coveted lunch item, and as far as burgers go…well…I wouldn’t touch a fast-food burger with a ten foot pole, but there are some really well-made burgers at reputable places that really do it for me, on occasion.

Food stereotypes are not any better than any other kind of stereotype, though they may be somewhat less hurtful to most of us.  However, we’d all do well to consider the absurdity of the above equations the next time we’re tempted to slap our own judgments down on the habits of others.  Yes, we live in a world that is set up for junk food, but it’s not a black-and-white, divided world.  We’ve created a myth of the “junk food” camp and the “anti-junk food” camp, but there are all manner of degrees of acceptance and rebellion when it comes to our less-than-healthy status quo.  If you need proof, just witness the fact that J. and I went to a local sub shop for lunch today and ate something very closely related to fast food (it may be a small, local, relatively unprocessed sub shop, but it’s still a quickie sandwich place); we even got ginger ale and shared a bag of chips, two things that wouldn’t ordinarily pass our lips.  Why?  Because we felt like it.  Because even though somebody who doesn’t know us would probably read this blog and assume that we’re total health nuts, that’s not the complete picture of who we are as people or as eaters.  And sometimes I just like a chicken cheesesteak with hot peppers, and I won’t feel bad about that.

At the sub shop, there was a comment card on the table, and it included a brief survey.  One of the questions was “How often do you eat here?”  The options were Daily, Weekly, Monthly, and Less Than Monthly.  Obviously J. and I, had we filled it out, would have chosen the “less than monthly” box; that’s our limit, loosely defined though it may be, on how often we feel we can eat that type of food and feel OK about it.  But it’s funny how that survey sort of encapsulates, for me, the way we all tend to look at eating habits and food personalities.  We want to put people into categories so we can check off the little boxes.  If people are vegetarians, we want to know whether they’re vegan, lacto-ovo, or pescetarian.  We like to know what grocery stores people shop at frequently, because Trader Joe’s says something different to us than Save-a-Lot or ShopRite or Shaw’s or Wegman’s, and Whole Foods says something even more definitive.  If our first impression of a new coworker is that we saw them eating a takeout pizza for lunch on their first day in the office, we forever position them in the little boxes in our heads as takeout people; we don’t immediately wonder whether or not they forgot their lunch at home, or whether they tagged along with some people who were headed to the pizza shop just because they wanted to be part of the group and get to know some people better.

We use food as a measurement of status in a sneaky, insidious way, and it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making a generalization about somebody based on their dietary preferences.  Yes, you can get a lot of information about some people when you really examine how they eat; but how often do you get the kind of in-depth, open book food information about an individual that you might find on…oh, say, a food blog like this one?  We tend to make snap judgments, because that’s part of human nature.  And especially at this time of the year, when there are parties and food excesses all around us, it’s easier than ever to jump to the wrong conclusions.  So before you shove your Cousin Gina into a damning stereotype like “Lazy Food Parent” because you saw her letting her kids load up on soda at the family open house, remind yourself that it might be the one time all year that she lightens up and lets them indulge.  Before you look at the grocery cart in front of yours at the checkout line and think, “Junk Food Addict,” consider the fact that your own holiday parties might include some items that you wouldn’t ordinarily serve, and maybe the cart full of snacks and sweets is not a typical haul for that person.  Before you roll your eyes at the family next to you in the restaurant who let their kids eat mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, washed down with chocolate milk, stop and ask yourself whether this might be a very rare night out for that family, and maybe Mom and Dad would rather save food battles for the home front to keep the peace in public.

No, these might not be choices you’d make, but that doesn’t mean any of us can truly sit in judgment, either.  Not on others, and not on ourselves.  So while you strive, this holiday season, to keep yourself from putting other people into neat little boxes, consider whether your own box might need to be opened up a bit, too.  Taste the eggnog.  Have some cookies.  Eat the cheesy casserole your aunt serves, even though you know it’s full of processed canned soup and Velveeta.  Let your kids have some of all those things, too, and don’t give any of it a second thought if you can help it.  Even if you live a Red, Round, or Green kind of life, fighting against the World According to Junk Food Culture, it’s nice to remember that sometimes we can all enjoy the shades of gray.

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