Copyright © 2010 ofthisandthat.org.
All rights reserved.
June 16, 2011
The Midas Touch
Stomachs Too Big to Fail?
By Lewis H. Lapham
Source: TomDispatch/Lapham Quarterly
Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on
every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
-- The Gospel According to Matthew
It is a hard matter, my fellow citizens, to argue with the belly, since it has no
-- Cato the Elder
In both the periodical and tabloid press these days, the discussion tends to
dwell on the bread alone -- its scarcity or abundance, its price, provenance,
authenticity, presentation, calorie count, social status, political agenda, and
carbon footprint. The celebrity guest on camera with Rachael Ray or an Iron
Chef, the missing ingredient in the recipes for five-star environmental
Either way, sous vide or sans tout, the preoccupation with food is front-
page news, but in preparing for the current food issue of Lapham’s
Quarterly, I’ve learned that my acquaintance with the backstory was well
behind the headlines. My ignorance I attribute to a coming of age in the
America of the late 1940s, its cows grazing on grass, the citizenry fed by
farmers growing unpatented crops.
Accustomed to the restrictions imposed on the country’s appetite by the
Second World War’s ration books, and raised in a Protestant household that
didn’t give much thought to fine dining (one ate to live, one didn’t live to
eat), I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that, I learn from Michael
Pollan, resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with
the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up
in or around its tree.
Similarly, the few primitive tastes met with before my 10th birthday -- peanut
butter and jelly, creamed chicken and rice, the Fig Newton -- have remained
securely in place for the last 66 years, faith-based and conservative, apt to
be viewed with suspicion at trendsetting New York restaurants, in one of
which last winter my asking about the chance of seeing a baked or mashed
potato prompted the waiter to remove the menu from my hand, gently but
firmly retrieving the pearl from a swine.
The judgment was served à la haute bourgeoisie, with a sprig of disdain
and a drizzle of disgust. Thirty years ago I would have been surprised, but 30
years ago trendsetting restaurants hadn’t yet become art galleries, obesity
wasn’t a crime, and at the airports there weren’t any Homeland Security
agents confiscating Coca-Cola.
Times change, and with them what, where, and how people eat. In fifteenth-
century London a man could be hanged for eating meat on Friday. An ancient
Roman was expected to wear a wreath to a banquet. The potato in sixteenth-
century Europe was believed to cause leprosy and syphilis. As of two years
ago, 19% of America’s meals were being eaten in cars.
The history of food reaches across a span of four thousand years, during
most of which time the global economy is agrarian. Prior to the twentieth
century, the changes were relatively slow in coming. Humankind is the
tenant of nature, food the measure of both humanity’s wealth and wellbeing.
The earliest metal currencies (the shekel, the talent, the mina) represent
weights and units of grain. Allowing for cultural difference and regional
availability, the human family sits down to meals made of what it finds in the
forest or grows in the field, the tables set from one generation to the next in
accordance with the changing of the seasons and the benevolence of
Ashnan or Ceres.
The contract between humankind and nature remains in force for as long as
it is understood which one is the tenant and which one the landlord. Over
the course of millennia human beings discover numerous ways of upgrading
their lot -- cooking with fire, domesticating animals and plants, bringing the
tomato from Mexico to Spain, pepper from Sumatra to Salem, constructing
the chopstick, the seine net, and the salad fork -- but the world’s population
stays more or less in balance with the world’s agriculture because the
landlord is careful about matching supply and demand.
The sum of the world’s economic enterprise is how much or how little
anybody gets to eat, the number of those present above and below the salt
accounting for the margin of difference between a bull and a bear market.
For thousands of years the four horsemen of the apocalypse, war and famine
prominent among them, attend to the culling of the human herd. Europe in
the fourteenth century doesn’t produce enough food to serve the
increasingly large crowd of expectant guests. The Black Death reduces by a
third the number of mouths to feed.
The contract between landlord and tenant doesn’t come up for review until
the seventeenth-century plantings of capitalist finance give rise to the
Industrial Revolution. Human beings come to imagine that they hold the deed
to nature, persuaded that if soundly managed as a commercial real-estate
venture, the property can be made to recruit larger armies, gather more
votes, yield more cash. Add to the mechanical staples (John Deere’s cast-
steel plow, Cyrus McCormick’s reaper) the twentieth century’s flavorings of
laboratory science (chemical pesticides, synthetic gene sequences), and
food becomes an industrial product subsumed into the body of a corporation.
The Stomach and the Purse
So at least is my understanding from what I’m told by the news media and
learn from the labels at the supermarket, which isn’t much because the
message wrapped in cellophane holds with the Pentagon’s policy of don’t
ask, don’t tell. I rely instead on Aristotle, who draws the distinction between
wealth as food and wealth as money by pointing out that the stomach,
although earless, is open to instruction and subject to restraint.
A person can only eat so much (1,500 pounds of food per year, according to
current estimates), but the craving for money is boundless -- the purse, not
the belly, is the void that is never filled. Paul Roberts fits Aristotle’s
observation to the modern circumstance: “Food production may follow
general economic principles of supply and demand; it may indeed create
employment, earn trade revenues, and generate profits, sometimes
considerable profits; but the underlying product -- the thing we eat -- has
never quite conformed to the rigors of the modern industrial model.”
What is profitable is not necessarily edible; food apparently doesn’t get
along well with assembly lines, farm-chemical runoff, antibiotics, and
petroleum additives. Its quality deteriorates, as do the soils from which it
springs and the health of the people to whom it is dished out.
Roberts defines the problem as the imbalance between “what is demanded
and what is actually supplied,” and the analogy that comes to mind is the
story about the good King Midas, who wishes that everything he touches
might turn to gold. Dionysus grants the request, and Midas discovers that he
is unable to digest 24-karat cheese or 12-troy-ounce turbot.
Again, if I’m to believe what I read in the papers and infer from the taste of
Taco Bell, the shift from an organic to an industrial food chain takes place in
the second half of the twentieth century. The use of ammonium nitrate for
fertilizer makes possible the production of immense quantities of hybrid corn
processed into as many synthetic products (cranberry juice, whole-grain
bread, toothpaste, aspirin) as a corporate marketing manager cares to
germinate and name.
Family farms give way to factory farms drawing their energies from fossil
fuels in place of sunlight (the metamorphosis of two pounds of corn into four
ounces of hamburger at the rate of one gallon of diesel fuel per acre); the
chemical wastes that flow south with the Mississippi River from Iowa’s
cornfields form a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico equal in size to the state of
New Jersey. The environmental damage is the cost of doing business, which
is so abundantly successful that it allows for the presence of maybe as many
as two billion people everywhere in the world who might not otherwise have
The changes move into position within the frame of my own lifetime, but I
didn’t take much notice of their coming or going. In the vicinity of my
childhood I have no recollection of such a thing as a supermarket; the
greengrocer sold the fruit and the vegetables, the butcher supplied the pot
roast and sometimes the steak. As a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper
in the 1950s, I was often in the San Joaquin Valley to admire the apricots or
praise the walnuts, but I don’t remember meeting any farmers who believed
themselves resident in paradise.
Food as Succulent Strings of Heirloom Adjectives and Vintage Nouns
On moving east to New York City in 1960, I formed the habit of eating in
restaurants and with it the supposition that the pleasures of the table were
those to be found in the company and the conversation rather than in
whatever was the sun-dried specialty on the plate. My belated introduction
to the notion of a higher food consciousness I owe to Julia Child.
In the early 1960s, having served her apprenticeship at Le Cordon Bleu,
she was conducting a cooking class on American public television, her
program, The French Chef, so popular that the editors of The Saturday
Evening Post sent me to take note of its being whipped up in a kitchen in
Boston. The two days in her company -- on set, at home, watching a taped
sequence of her prior performances -- were both a joy and a wonder to
A hearty and steadfast woman unburdened with affectation, Mrs. Child didn’
t preach sermons -- gastronomic, moral, or conceptual. So carefree was her
approach to the materials in hand that, when making a mess of a potato
pancake, she didn’t lose her composure. “If this happens,” she said, “just
scoop it back into the pan. Remember that you are alone in the kitchen, and
nobody can see you.”
She took a simple and innocent delight in anything and everything she
found pleasing (puff pastry or fish heads), her sense of enthusiastic
discovery like that of Duke Ellington’s finding “the best barbecued ribs west
of Cleveland and the best shrimp Creole outside New Orleans.” One of her
French Chef episodes opened on an artichoke boiling in a pot under a
shroud of cheesecloth, Mrs. Child looming suddenly into the shot to lift the
cheesecloth with heavy tweezers and an expression of cheerful surprise.
“What’s cooking under this gossamer veil?” she said. “Why, here’s a great
big bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it.”
She had a way of misplacing things, often the butter, sometimes the
seasoning or the chopped carrots -- on one memorable occasion, the turkey.
Undismayed by random accident and secure in her belief that all’s well that
ends well, she could point to chicken frying in a pan and say, reassuringly,
“We just leave it there, letting it make simple little cooking noises.”
If from Mrs. Child I learned what little I know about gourmandizing, I was
never troubled by the wish to live on a farm, there in the morning mist down
by the Wabash to milk a cow, butcher a pig, or strangle a chicken. Journalist
Brent Cunningham takes to task the notion of rural utopia dispensed from
the pulpits of the food-reform movements and finds it suffused with a
reduction of “bourgeois nostalgia,” an artisanal memory of sweet-water
streams overflowing with trout, the countryside teeming with “poor but
noble” people, “tough and hard-working… living healthier and fundamentally
better lives than the rest of us.”
The souvenir postcard is a misreading of American history. The story being
told and retold in the old diaries and letters is not the one about a happy
return to the well and the barn; it is the one about a desperate escape from
the mud. Agriculture was never anything other than a hard row to hoe, and
on reading the record I recognize myself as having been born into a uniquely
privileged generation in an exceptionally fortunate country, never
threatened, unlike most other people in most every other society that ever
squatted on a riverbank or tented on the plains, by the fear, much less the
fact, of starvation.
Together with every American housewife during the century denominated
as America’s own, I welcomed the glut of packaged foods, was glad of the
escape from having to cook, grateful for the kitchen conveniences, for the
year-round strawberries, and the prompt home deliveries of saturated fat. In
the company of travelers recently arrived from the Soviet Union and never
before having seen a Stop & Shop, I shared their astonishment at the sight
of what they perceived as a miracle.
I don’t bring the same sentiment into the restaurants that, by the early
1990s, had begun to come equipped not only with brushed and burnished
steel but also with the atmosphere of devout observance that consecrate
the exhibits of modern art. I never doubt the presence of grade-A epicures
astonished by the revelation of A-list cuisine, the pleasure being taken in a
well-dressed salad presumably akin to my own enjoyment of a well-turned
phrase, but I suspect that as often as not it is the price of the thing that is
precious, not the thing itself, and I notice that even when the food is
mediocre, the sales pitch is invariably exquisite -- succulent strings of
heirloom adjectives and vintage nouns, wonderfully gratifying numbers ($465
for the tasting menu, $1,450 for the Napa Valley wine), literary ornament of a
match with Tobias Smollett’s “five-year-old mutton, fed on the fragrant
herbage of the mountains,” his “rabbits panting from the warren.”
Let the partaking of a truly expensive meal run to a five-course ritual of
conspicuous consumption, and it becomes the proving of one’s salvation
among the company of the elect. Who else but the rich can afford to pay so
much for so small a shred of Kobe beef, can finance a holiday excursion to
Le Cirque? The ancient agrarian societies dedicated the sacrificial bull or
goat to Zeus or Jehovah; the modern capitalist society places the rhubarb
gelée with gold leaf on the altar of Mammon.
It was my failing to remember that I live in a consumer society, one more
interested in the fine furnishing of its stomach than in the interior decoration
of its mind, that encouraged the waiter in New York last winter to repossess
the menu. Here I was being offered the chance to eat money -- equivalent in
the American scheme of things to the body and blood of Christ -- and I was
refusing the sacraments.
Fortunately for the self-esteem of America’s moneyed noblesse, the signs
of Mammon’s good grace are certain to become increasingly conspicuous.
Between March 2010 and March 2011, the average cost of food in U.S. cities
rose to a 40-year high -- iceberg lettuce up 48%, coffee 30%, bacon 24%, beef
21%, potatoes 14%.
The worldwide cost of food meanwhile rose 37%, the cost of crude oil 23%.
All the available data indicates a steadily upward trend, the global market for
food subject not only to crop failure and the loss of arable land but also to its
uses as engine fuel.
The best-selling prophets of forthcoming dystopia name numerous
probable causes, among them climate change, political upheaval, epidemic
disease, and nuclear accident, but as the leading indicator of bad news, they
seldom fail to mention the projected imbalance between the world’s food
supply and a world population breeding at a rate that would have done credit
to Squire Smollett’s rabbits -- 2.5 billion in 1950, 6 billion in 2000, 9.5 billion by
Despite the twentieth century’s resort to mass murder and global war, the
four horsemen of the apocalypse no longer can be counted upon to cull the
herd, and the question that apparently needs to be addressed is whether the
problem is animal, vegetable, or mineral. Does it lend itself to a solution in
accord with the moral and metaphysical definitions of wealth as food, or in
line with the capitalist understanding of food as money? Which is the void
that stands the better chance of being filled, the belly or the purse?
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s
Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in
America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to
Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has
suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has
compared him to Montaigne. This essay introduces "Food," the Summer 2011
issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.