ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE
By Arun Gupta
The New Press (English in North America, Fall 2024)
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Taste is something we create, not just physically experience
Food writer, French-trained chef, and Doritos lover Arun Gupta’s first book, Bacon as Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste—a book that aims to put taste, pleasure, and sensuality back into the politics, economics, and science of food; challenges the myth that junk food is addictive; and figures out why bitter-tasting kale turned into a rock-star vegetable and Korean tacos are the quintessential America dish and how the hamburger craze is connected to September 11.
Why do we eat what we eat? This question is at the root of our relationship to food. We live in an era of bounty that few humans could imagine a century ago. Most of us have ready access to supermarkets, health-food stores, specialty food shops, restaurants, delis, and fast-food outlets. Thanks to waves of immigration and the rise of “foodie” culture, food and cuisines from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Middle East, and Europe are now commonplace.
Over millennia, humans have discovered some 50,000 different species of plants that are edible. Applying our ingenuity we’ve bred single species of tomato, apple, and wheat into hundreds of varietals. Whereas hunter-gatherer societies usually ate a hundred or more different types of plants to compensate for scarcity, humans have never had it as good as today. We can pop into a run-of-the-mill supermarket and forage from 38,000 food and beverage items.
Yet our diets are more limited than ever. A dozen or so plant species account for more than 90 percent of our energy intake from plants which are most of what we eat. When we go food shopping our baskets are stuffed with products derived from corn, wheat, soy, beet sugar, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, onions, apples, lettuce, bananas, oranges, and carrots, in addition to meat, dairy, and seafood. The human diet was once based on diversity of plant and animal life. Now we have diversity of branded products.
Pleasure and taste are political. Through the market, food companies shape our notions of desire, pleasure, and taste. Big food not only impoverishes our health, work, and the environment, it robs us of much greater pleasures and tastes that already exist, but mostly on the margins of our food culture. When writers tell us junk food is addictive, it reinforces the idea that it’s tastier and more pleasurable than any other food. It also means we end up believing that food can be healthy or it can be tasty-but not both. The way the market has monopolized our pleasure and taste is a significant but unacknowledged reason why we eat so much industrial food despite the drawbacks. Changing it is not the matter of individual solutions. It’s like expecting that with the right type of training and encouragement a penguin can learn how to fly. If we truly want to have new ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food, we need to evolve new social systems.
The food industry’s sophisticated techniques have thwarted nearly all attempts at reform. Creating a new food culture is no mean feat. We need to alter the food environment to alter food habits. Food policies and regulations are just the first step, however. If we want to create a healthy, sustainable, and worker-friendly food culture, then we need to address how we organize work, education, and transportation, and how we conceive of community, public space, and the commons. Most important, we need food systems where tasty food is pleasurable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Arun Gupta has more than twenty years of publishing, editing, and reporting experience. He served as international news editor of the New York-based Guardian Newsweekly from 1990 to 1992 and then worked in the New York advertising industry before attending the French Culinary Institute and cooking professionally in the city, including at the renowned Savoy restaurant in Soho. Gupta co-founded the Indypendent in September 2000 and built it into an award-winning newspaper. In 2011, he co-founded the Occupied Wall Street Journal and was the only journalist to cover the Occupy movement across the United States for outlets including the Guardian, the Nation, and Salon. During that time, he helped found other Occupy newspapers across the country. Gupta is a Lannan Foundation writing fellow and a recipient of a Wallace Global Fund grant for his reporting. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Progressive, In These Times, and Al Jazeera America, and his work has also appeared in Salon, Vice, The Nation, Truthout, AlterNet, and numerous other outlets.
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