When I think about food, it’s usually in the context of “what am I going to make for dinner” or gnashing my teeth in irritation about coworkers evangelizing about their latest fad diets. Food is a huge part of our culture and our identity, (a fact that I was made well aware of when creating a faerie world in which people don’t eat.) But what is American food culture? Egan takes a stab at discussing it in this book.
Egan begins talking about a hypothetical American office worker’s typical eating day. In fact, a large chunk of the book talks about the relationship between food and work. Some of it was quite enlightening. If you snack (and who doesn’t?) you eat more than people who just eat meals, because the not-meal nature of a snack falls outside of what you consider your daily intake. She talks about how typical the snack-heavy day is for a “typical” worker, especially with the donuts that someone else brings in, the company-provided chocolates, the portable lunch eaten at a computer (aptly named “Sad Desk Lunch.”) This will seem eye-openingly familiar to anyone who works a white-collar corporate job, and baffling to people whose work doesn’t involve a monitor and a keyboard.
Considering her hypothetical worker is in his thirties and works at Google, I can’t say that there’s much typical about him except the snacking all day. But it did make me think about the times when I had a Kind bar instead of cooking myself breakfast, and about how much chocolate I consume now that I’m in a desk job, while the emergency chocolate at home can remain unconsumed for half a year or more.
Egan also focuses primarily on millennials, as she herself is one. (This really bothered me, because if millennials are doing research and writing books, that means millennials are adults, and if millennials are adults, that means I’m one too–when the heck did that happen?) She focuses on some millennial-driven change that is positive and some that is negative. On the positive side, she puts brunch, a “secular church” or way of lingering over a meal to savor pleasure and camaraderie with friends regardless of the time cost. She also includes fusion food (creating new and wonderful dishes, based on creativity over adherence to tradition), food trucks, and alternate packaging for wine. On the negative side, she puts over-proteined diets, energy bars and other packaged food (Soylent she finds particularly egregious), eating at your desk, stunt foods (such as oreo shakes or Doritos Locos tacos) and diets of any kind. This is the first place I’ve heard about a study that proved what I myself believed my whole life: dieting of any kind will make you fatter in the long run. Also, low-fat = high sugar. Preach it!
Egan also discusses briefly the history of certain aspects of American cuisine, such as our love of Italian food and the rise of Trader Joe’s and the democratization of wine. She touches on what the cover promises “How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” but that’s just a brief five categories which don’t seem obvious or inclusive, and also don’t really tell us anything about us personally, not even anything as obvious as “conservative housewives are more likely to use cheese in baked dishes” or “high-educated single women consume the most kale.” I’d give it 5 stars if it actually delivered what the cover promised, (and if she stopped using “like” when she meant “such as” which probably bothers no one but me.)
But even though the book doesn’t deliver on what the cover promises, it still contains a lot of fascinating information. Egan hasn’t done much of her own firsthand research, but she’s got access to quite a few excellent secondary sources, including the renowned author Brian Wansink, with whom she studied, and some food-industry giants whom she interviewed.
This is a fun and informative read if you’re interested in food and culture, though if you’re a die-hard dieter in the throes of your newest food cult, you’ll probably get indignant that the author isn’t a disciple of the one true word. The rest of us will get something out of it.