The third chapter of Crunchy Cons is on food. In it Dreher describes his move away from his old way of thinking, where food was simply “ballast, and nothing more” (p. 57). Even while he is describing how food became more and more important to him and his wife, he is able to disarm objections by acknowledging how easy it is for such interest (a fascination with butter is his example) to come across as “yuppie jackass talk” (p. 57). At the same time, he has clearly found something lacking in the ethos of his childhood, where “processed food was a status symbol” (p. 57). I agree with Dreher on this point; where we differ is in his apparent view that anything substantive has actually changed. Processed food used to be a status symbol, and now organic food is the status symbol, and this is possible because we have a lot more money lying around. We used to sell bread in the fifties by making sure “enriched” was on the wrapper. Now we make sure “natural” is on the label. And we pay more for the privilege of having that reassuring word there.
There are actually two important issues in this chapter. I agree with Dreher completely on the first, and differ on the second — but the agreement is fundamental, and the disagreement is (in my view) a matter of taste. The first concerns the way we eat. The second involves what we eat. And the matter of taste only becomes important if someone refuses to acknowledge it as a matter of lifestyle choice and personal taste, and tries to see it as part of the battle between light and darkness.
First, let emphasize our agreement — the way we eat.
“The point is, we learned in this way that food, properly undestood, is sacramental; it carries within it the care of the farmers who raised it and the merchant who sold it, the love and devotion of the hands that prepared it, and the happiness of the friends and family who share it” (p. 59).
When this sacramental understanding is gone, families fly apart. “Families these days don’t even eat dinner together” (p. 59). The modern family table has come to be thought of as a QwickServ Fueling Station — and that is when a table is even involved. But we need to remember the centrality of love and time together, and not fall for a reductionist approach to the ingestion of nutrients.
“There is no utilitarian reason to devote hours to preparing a delicious meal when you can saved tie by popping some tinfoil encased gob of processed junk into the oven” (p. 59).
The etymology of the word companion helps us understand what a true companion is, and how true companionship is nurtured. Panis is the Latin word for bread, and a companion is one who shares bread together with us. When I was a kid in the fifties, we ate a lot of fifties food, but we ate it together, seated around the dinner table every night. And when our kids were growing up, we had a sit-down meal around the dinner table every evening, with hours of discussion, story-telling, readings, and laughter. Now that the grandkids are here, we all break bread together at least weekly, and frequently more often than that. Eating together in love and fellowship is really important, and I think this is one of the most important points that Dreher has made in this book. But for this kind of thing to happen, it is not necessary to get the food for the event at the Food Coop. But it is more necessary to make a point of cultivating the how and why of fellowship around food, than it is to focus on the history and chemical composition of the food itself. A good cook will care about such things, but only as a means to love the people. The altar sanctifies the gold, not the other way around.
And this is where I start to part company with the argument that Dreher is making.
“Now, observant Jews and Muslims have strict laws governing their diets, but Christians generally do not. Yet here we were [Christians], discovering a hidden connection between fidelity to our religion’s demands and the kind of food we ate” (p. 61).
I don’t see this distinctive of the Christian faith as an unfortunate oversight on our part, but rather as one of the glories of our faith. A man is not defiled by what goes into his mouth, but rather by what comes out of his heart. Jesus declared all foods clean, and this did not just include bacon, but also Kraft mac-in-a-box.
There are deep religious issues here, and one of them is that apart from Christ man has a deep need to believe himself put right, or made superior, or cleansed by means of what he puts into his mouth. Dreher is a clear-headed Christian, and he does see the phenomenon.
“I am not fond of Puritanism, and that po-faced righteousness you so often find among employees of health-food stores that used to keep me from taking anything they had to say seriously” (p. 87).
What I would suggest though, is that such Food Pharisaism is no unrelated accident, unconnected to the broader context. We need to urge Christian families to sit down and eat together as way of showing their love for one another. The end result will be joy, gladness, simplicity of heart, and a great deal of laughter. But all forms of righteousness-on-a-plate will end in spiritual wasteland, with a White Witch condemning all the frivolity and self-indulgence.
I have no quarrel with Dreher’s initial reasons for getting into an organic food approach. It is a big country, it takes all kinds, and so long as he is putting his food into his mouth, where the taste will be appreciated, I think it is just great. I really do. At first they got into it because “the vegetables tasted so much better” (p. 61), and they also felt good about supporting the little guy farmer and “not big, impersonal agribusiness” (p. 61). This is great, and do so more and more. Our house sits on three acres, and I have had a go at growing corn there because I agree with this point precisely. There is nothing like fresh corn that was on the stalk fifteen minutes ago and is boiling merrily in the pot now. And if you have real butter from your own cow, even better. But there is organic and there is organic. The only corn I have been able to grow is what I affectionately call my “Third World corn.” It is as organic as all get out, and no pesticides anywhere. There is also very little corn.
And so it is when Dreher’s appreciation of finer things morphs into contempt for those who can’t afford to do it the yuppie way that I take issue.
“To be frank, becoming an amateur home cook is what taught me, as a conservative, to mistrust and at times to loathe American industrial farming. What you do when you go to a farmer’s market, if you are at all observant, is pick up on the direct connection between what you eat, where it came from, and how it got to you . . . Look, I don’t want to get mystical over a bunch of carrots, but it is worthwhile to meditate on these things” (p. 62).
Okay, let’s meditate on it a bit. I have a friend here on the Palouse who farms many hundreds of acres. First, however easy it would be to dismiss him as an “impersonal” industrial farmer, he is no more impersonal than any of my other friends. A lot of times, people dismiss others as impersonal simply because they have not met them yet. Secondly, this friend of mine is doing a wonderful job feeding a lot of people on the other side of the world who used to (back in the good old organic days) routinely starve to death.
Whenever we turn up our nose at something, we have to ask ourselves what we are comparing it to. Fresh corn is far superior to corn flown in from Nebraska in a big freezer. Corn flown in from Nebraska is superior to no corn at all. Inferior food is superior to no food.
It is nice to be rich. When I say this, I am not being snide. I really do think it is a blessing from God. But one of the perennial temptations of rich people, one that the Bible commands us to avoid, is the pressure to show contempt for poor people and their limited choices. Poor Marie probably never said, “Let them eat cake,” but that statement does summarize the problematic attitude the wealthy frequently have. When you have the wherewithal, it is easy to exhort others to impossibilities.
“We can also work to incorporate more organic produce and clean meat into our diets. To be sure, this costs more money. I wince when I have to pay almost twice the price for a roasting hen from Texas Supernatural Meats as I do for the same chicken from the supermarket. But that price difference is about the cost of a single venti latte from Starbucks . . .” (p. 89).
This is a great example of yuppie belt tightening. Don’t go to Starbucks so much, you waster, and I can just imagine a subsistence family on the other side of the world, kept alive by my friend’s big farm wheat, just staring at us.
“What I get from most of my ‘conservative’ friends is an emphasis on utility” (p. 93).
“I understand the free-market reasons why Americans do this. But I don’t understand why it is called conservative” (p. 63).
Well, let’s just call it compassionate conservatism then. What good is a traditional lifestyle when everybody you know in it dies?
This is not to say that no criticisms of agri-business are sound. But we have to identify the right problem. As Dreher points out, perhaps inadvertantly, the problems here are frequently government problems. Capitalism is quite a different system than mercantilism, and mercantilism (our current system) does cause many unnecessary problems. But mercantilism grows precisely because of our tendency to discover a problem and start yelling for a law. And when the law is passed, it turns out that the big boys in business have the resources to manipulate the system, and the little guy never does. Dreher acknowledges this, but the acknowledgement is in tension with some of the remedies he proposes elsewhere in the book. Dreher quotes one woman “who says she went all the way from the left wing to the right wing without ever once trusting the government” (p. 75). Good for her. And as Dreher points out elsewhere in this chapter, there are good reasons for mistrusting the government, even when they are interfering in the food business to make everything all better.
“Big companies willingly absorb the cost of extra regulation because those rules ‘have the effect of killing off the competition'” (p. 66).
Exactly. And so how are we going to fix any genuine problems we might have by giving the government more authority over our food? And, in the meantime, let us remember that the enjoyment of different kinds of foods — even the kind that comes out of a can — is not a problem that we need to solve.