Thoughts on a Post-Modern Meritocratic Lifestyle

Reading Schlosser always brings into question the perceptions Americans have of food and eating food. For about five years, I used this book in my composition classes. College students love food, so a couple of times, the topic became a framework for a whole semester’s worth of writing. During class discussions about food inspired by Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spulock’s Supersize Me, I have learned some interesting information about the students at the Community College of Baltimore County. First, the definition of cooking varies from person to person. Many students consider warming frozen food in the microwave cooking, while others consider turning on a stove or oven the standard for cooking (as opposed to pressing a button), and still others believe someone is only cooking if every part of the meal is made from scratch. What is scratch? Scratch means opening a box of mix into which ingredients are added, and to others, scratch means shopping for plant products and uncooked, unfrozen meats that turn into food—and a variety of actions in between! These perceptions are influenced by the multitude of cultures, economics, and family units community college students represent. Other interesting pieces of information that have come out of class discussions are eating habits. Some students have never eaten food prepared from raw materials; these students grocery shop in the frozen food aisles. Still others have never eaten a meal prepared in a kitchen, not even a micro waved meal. These students have only eaten at fast food places or convenience stores. Every single day, these students go to a fast food restaurant for their main meal of the day. Most of these students eat a meal once a day and eat snacks and candy throughout the day. Most of those students do not remember eating food outside the lunchroom in their elementary school. Incidentally, these students are not from parentless households nor were they homeless, but most did not have parents home until late in the evening, or had parents who worked odd hours. In short, the fast food, frozen food, and processed food industry has defined what constitutes food, how food is prepared, and the nutritional understanding of several generations.

Ironically, the gateway through which fast food influenced these generations opened through some positive changes in social circumstances that redefined women’s roles, which then redefined families, which resulted in the necessary after school programs leading to academic enrichment opportunities through which more children saw the benefit of becoming more educated which attracted fast food companies to locate in the sprawling suburbs of prosperity providing cheap, convenient, and speedy food for families short on time; or…

Ironically, the gateway through which fast food influenced these generations opened as the GI Bill made education more accessible after World War II but highlighted unequal opportunities available to minority groups leading to a Civil Rights movement which led to members of minority groups taking advantage of opportunities to establish themselves within America’s middle class which led to white flight and the impoverishment of urban areas which attracted fast food companies looking for cheap land, cheap labor, and willing customers who had nowhere else to buy food…

On another note regarding food perceptions…

I recently escorted a young man of fourteen to an airport to catch a flight home to Chicago. This young man, a classmate of my son, attends and is about to graduate from St. Thomas Choir School in New York City, a small boarding school for boys in grades three to eight who sing in the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. Essentially, it is a choir with a school because the only way the choir can train and develop the voices of these young boys to the international standard demanded by St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue is to provide the boys an education around their choral responsibilities. We were discussing the last four years he has been at the school and how different the routines for choir boys are from the boys who attend regular schools. This young man, like every boy at the school, can sight read and sing, in either English, Latin, French, German, or Italian, depending on the composition, more than four hundred pieces of sacred choral music; he has performed in a multitude of concerts both abroad and domestically in addition to receiving four years of training in piano, music theory, choral singing, and voice. He has also studied French for four years, and Latin for three in addition to the standard middle school curriculum of English, History, Math, and Science. As he catalogued the plusses and minuses of his last four years, he paused and said, “I am most thankful for the food.” As he put it, “I used to be fat, obese, and by coming to school here, I was able to grow tall, get strong, and be thin.” Curious about my own son’s perception, especially since he arrived at the choir school with a love of cheese, yogurt, chocolate milk, and chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, I asked him what part of the school he liked best, and he responded, “The food.”

Popular media has reported extensively on children reaching puberty at younger ages, and several doctors have gone on record linking earlier onset of puberty to weight gains in children and the hormones commonly injected in meats. Since illness and an early puberty can precipitate a premature voice change and end a boy’s ability to contribute to the choir, a choir boy’s health is paramount to his role in the choir. At St. Thomas, the theories correlating illness and diet are taken seriously, so the school employs a professional chef who passionately believes in real food, unprocessed, organic, and locally sourced, even the croissants and donuts served on Saturday morning when the chef is off duty. Parents love this part of the school.

However, some unapologetic food service customs of St. Thomas frequently offend new parents, (at least the American parents; parents from other countries are unconcerned). Only water is served with meals, though hot tea is available (applies to faculty and staff as well as the boys). Dairy products are limited because they clog the throat, and food is served in appropriate portion sizes. Seconds are rarely available since food preparation minimizes wastefulness, and overeating is an indulgence. Boys who are overweight when they arrive are discouraged from seconds, if any are available. Incidentally, they are never overweight when they graduate. Salt is not placed on the table. Boys must try every food group served, if only a bite-sized quantity, and salads and vegetables are more than half of every meal. Mondays are meatless. Lunch is usually the biggest meal, and dinner is often simple: soup and accompanying breads and greens, or a sandwich with accompanying sides. My son’s favorite side: kale chips with sea salt. The Sunday afternoon midday meal is the week’s elaborate meal. Desserts are served daily but considered a privilege the boys can lose for inappropriate behavior. The kitchen is not open beyond meal time, but snacks of popcorn or granola bars are served every morning during the week and in the evenings after evensong services three nights a week. As a business venture, the boys operate a small tuck shop opened for about fifteen minutes on Friday and Sunday evenings from which the boys can purchase the usual varieties of candy, chocolate bars, and soda.

Americans born prior to WWII, who were not an obese generation, would not have perceived any of those rules a problem. How did American parents come to view proper portion sizes meager, regulated eating as controlling and punitive, and withholding nutritionally void sweets abusive? Perhaps the answer hides behind the need filled by the chemically induced flavors and processed textures of modern food. If we do not have time to cook, nor manage our homes and families because we work too late, participate in too many activities, or we are just plain tired, we cannot criminalize the neatly packaged products sold in frozen form or through a window we drive by that enable us to enjoy being free from cooking, from being slaves to the kitchen, the home, the family, or that allow us to pursue careers and allow our children to participate in the after school activities we perceive provide precious access to educational opportunities that validate the meritocracy we created while becoming free from…and so the cycle goes.

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