Among the blazing suburban summers and uniquely awful traffic, one aspect of my Bay Area upbringing sticks out from the rest — the food.
Our weekend excursions to Costco were much anticipated. While the designated captain (mom or dad) would steer, my siblings and I were swashbuckling pirates in the grocery cart, pillaging the sample stands and ransacking the aisles for delicious treasures.
Though we frequented American grocery stores, my siblings and I never indulged in traditional American food. We weren’t allowed to chow down on the pizza, hot dogs and other “junk” at barbecues or birthday parties. My mom, particularly committed, convinced me that potato chips were preservative-filled cancer vessels and candy would hollow out my teeth overnight.
Though now I’m only mildly traumatized and have come to terms with my parents’ arguably extreme tactics, at the time their attention made me feel awkwardly un-American. While all the other kids were gobbling Nilla Wafers and Fruit Roll-Ups, I was staring at my baby carrots, having a solitary existential crisis.
If I wasn’t stuffing my face with artery-clogging snacks, how American was I?
Overseas, the United States’ food-based reputation is infamous for rampant obesity and our love affair with anything edible. We’re food-obsessed: Every holiday, event, birthday, season, hangout and emotion has a staple dish associated with it. Life in the suburb I grew up in revolved around food and its consumption or creation. Watching a movie? Buy popcorn. Sad? Down a pint of ice cream. Class party? Bake cookies, stat. We’re hanging out? Let’s get boba.
With such a heavy cultural foundation, food transcends its material purpose of nourishment. It’s a symbolic apparatus, communicating connection, happiness and even status, power and control. Focused on its upfront deliciousness or use as a vehicle for hangouts, many Americans don’t look past the food on their plates.
I was lucky that my parents were health-oriented: As a child I had minimal control over what I ate, but my parents acted in my best interests. I had choices but always healthy ones, choosing between zesty pink radishes or a crisp cucumber after school.
But for communities in food deserts — areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, common in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas — our paternalistic food system infantilizes them. They are deprived of healthy choices, be it through lack of accessibility, high price points of healthy food or lack of health education.
Our country is not acting in everyone’s best interests (especially those of BIPOC). Control over consumption suggests these lives are unimportant, as though health is something to be earned by those who are able to pay for it.
In the United States, food is a display of power over physical bodies. Through unequal supply chains, the medium of food and its distribution becomes a locus of biopower, a hybrid of biological and social forces used to control populations.
Our food systems and supply chains are stained by the effects of systemic racism, constraining how and what marginalized groups eat. Unhealthy foods are disproportionately marketed to Black and Latinx consumers, and food deserts prevent people from having healthy diets.
But despite these restrictive realities, the United States simultaneously perpetuates a culture of grotesque and immoderate food consumption. It is excessively consumed, but also abundantly wasted. Eating competitions, viral mukbangs, unhealthy dieting fads and even the plethora of food-related disorders all stand testament to the sheer overabundance and overemphasis of food in the United States.
As kids, we made a game of identifying foods that were simply too much — like Mega Stuf Oreos or family-size chip bags. There’s a Russian word that denotes a nauseating excess of something: извращение. When plugged into Google Translate, it’s awkwardly defined as “perversion.” How oddly appropriate.
The United States’ relationship with food is perverse. Having leftovers to throw away — eating when we’re bored but not hungry, or until we’re sick — is how more privileged Americans subconsciously perpetuate inequality and exercise power.
This collective, seemingly insatiable appetite for power and control — be it over ourselves, food or others through food systems — is frightening. But these relationships are not mutually exclusive, so they must be addressed together. The United States relishing in fatty foods isn’t necessarily a culture that we should escape from but one we should reconsider.
Sometimes I exhibit this American food focus — I’m writing an essay, then I black out and suddenly I’m looking at a recipe for oven-roasted sweet potatoes. Though much of my childhood was spent wondering how much of the American pie I was allowed to devour, today I wonder how many have the privilege of questioning and choosing what they consume at all.
To approach the food issue is to approach the flawed educational system, racial inequality and the climate crisis. The right to a healthy life should not be a privilege, but in this country, it is. And unfortunately, there isn’t a quick-and-easy-minute-rice-type answer to addressing our monstrous biopolitical and social food fixation.
Distracted by alluring dishes and eager stomachs, we often forget that food is only a vessel for something larger. To stop looking past it is the first step. We must break the pervasive hold that food has on every sphere of life, instead creating new associations — putting down our forks between bites, if you will — by being conscious of how we nourish ourselves and staying aware of how our personal nourishment affects others.
Rather than having eyes only for our meals, we ought to broaden our perspective, reshaping our identity as Americans by extending health to all. It’s time we sit down and tuck into that conversation — there’s plenty of food for thought to go around.
Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]