Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

INA re­cent tele­vi­sion pro­gramme, the an­chor asked the young au­di­ence in the stu­dio if they loved junk food. All yelled, “Yes.” Then he asked if they ate junk food be­cause they were guided by celebri­ties who en­dorsed it. All yelled, “No.” This only tells me how sub­tle—in­deed sub­lim­i­nal—is the mar­ket­ing drive that is chang­ing our food habits and we do not even know it. These foods are rich in sugar, salt and fats, in­gre­di­ents that are ad­dic­tive. It is no sur­prise then that this food is re­spon­si­ble for ill­health across the world. Af­ter all, in­dus­try is about profit, not health. We have al­lowed our takeover.

This is not ac­ci­den­tal or in­ci­den­tal. The food in­dus­try has a game plan, of which we are un­wit­ting par­tic­i­pants. Read the ex­cel­lent ac­count of the food tran­si­tion in the US, cap­tured in the book, Salt, Sugar and Fat, by New York-based writer Michael Moss. The plot is re­vealed. As Moss ex­plains, it was in the mid to late fifties when food gi­ants de­cided that the key word for them to change peo­ple’s eat­ing habits was “con­ve­nience”. Their ob­sta­cle to the “so­cial trans­mu­ta­tion was the army of school teach­ers and fed­eral out­reach work­ers who in­sisted on pro­mot­ing home-cooked meals”. This was a time in the US when the state agri­cul­ture depart­ments had ex­ten­sion ser­vices to teach homemak­ers the ins and outs of gar­den­ing, can­ning and meal plan­ning with nutri­tion in mind. Home eco­nom­ics was taught in col­leges.

This was also a time when the fem­i­nist move­ments were on the rise. Much like to­bacco com­pa­nies, food com­pa­nies also found this a great plat­form—women who re­turned home af­ter a gru­elling day at work only to find that they had to cook and care for hus­bands and chil­dren. Both in­dus­tries cap­i­talised on this by pro­mot­ing “lib­er­a­tion” of smok­ing and not cook­ing. This was also the time when tele­vi­sion was mak­ing in­roads into homes. Evenings were too pre­cious to “waste” on cook­ing and clean­ing.

The food in­dus­try, ex­plains Moss, made two cun­ning ma­noeu­vres to draw women into their fold. One, they cre­ated their own army of home eco­nom­ics teach­ers. Bright and fash­ion­able, these women would set up their own cook­ing con­tests. By 1957, US multi­na­tional Gen­eral Foods had 60 of these home econ­o­mists on its pay­roll. These women worked with the com­pany and pro­moted its prod­ucts, push­ing the idea of con­ve­nience. Two, to com­pete with home-cook­ing pro­moted at that time by a woman called Betty Dickson, who worked with the Amer­i­can Home Eco­nom­ics As­so­ci­a­tion, the in­dus­try brought in its own sub­sti­tute, Betty Crocker. This friendly but so­phis­ti­cated food icon was cre­ated by the ad­ver­tis­ing depart­ment of Wash­burn Crosby, which later be­came Gen­eral Mills, another US food gi­ant.

Betty Crocker never slept, says Moss. She be­came the face of the food mix, which were sold as grand time savers. The age of pro­cessed and con­ve­nience food had been ush­ered in, and it took over the Amer­i­can fam­ily life.

This was not all. Ac­cord­ing to Moss’s re­search, food in­dus­try had another in­sid­i­ous plan. They needed to take over and de­stroy the home eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion. To do this, they fun­nelled funds— Moss says that in 1957 alone Gen­eral Foods gave US $288,250 for grants and fel­low­ships to the as­so­ci­a­tion of home eco­nom­ics. This part­ner­ship led to the grad­ual re­shap­ing of the or­gan­i­sa­tion so that it be­came pro-in­dus­try. Soon the pro­fes­sion died. In 1959, Time mag­a­zine did a long ar­ti­cle on con­ve­nience foods and sold them as “mod­ern liv­ing”, which was all about “just heat and serve”. Food had been rev­o­lu­tionised. It was now pro­cessed and pre-cooked. In­dus­try had changed our habits with­out our know­ing it.

This “change” in our food habits has con­tin­ued. Since the sev­en­ties, the food in­dus­try has in­tro­duced new habits. Again, by de­sign. First came sugar, and lots of it, then came salt and then snacks. All these habits have been cre­ated. We are the prod­ucts of the mak­ers of de­signer food. Our takeover is so com­plete that we do not even know it hap­pened.

Now we need to fight back to re­claim our food and our habits. The only way to do so is to re­dis­cover food as plea­sure and be thrilled, not just by its smells and tastes, but also by the knowl­edge it em­bod­ies. This is what our First Food se­ries of books is all about.

Betty Crocker, who cap­tured stores with con­ve­nience foods, needs to be rein­vented. This time, as some­one who cap­tures kitchens with our grand­mother’s or mother’s recipes. We need to look for the seeds, stems, leaves and flow­ers that would make up our daily food. Watch this space for in­for­ma­tion about our new book, First Food: Cul­ture of Taste, which will bring this culi­nary world to you.

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