Much of what is today called “social criticism” consists of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians.
What should we make of the horse meat scandal that has seen beef burgers and lasagnes stripped from supermarket shelves and much frantic finger-pointing from government, food producers and retailers? Some wondered what all the fuss was about, as they saw little difference, if any, between eating a cow and eating a horse. They saw the outrage as a product of the relatively elevated position we in Britain accord our equine companions. It is cultural sentimentalism to categorise cows as beasts for milk and slaughter, and horses as too noble to nibble, they would argue. Just look at the French! While they are probably right that there is, morally speaking, little difference between eating a cow and eating a horse, that false distinction misses what lies at the root of this – and indeed many other – scares involving the things we ingest, such as the recent outrage surrounding the discovery of pork in prison food labelled ‘halal’.
We like to think we have some say over the food and drink that enters our bodies; that we are exercising clear choices about what to accept and what to reject as foodstuffs. That is what taste is all about. As few in the modern world harvest or slaughter their food directly, that means in practise leaving large amounts of the food chain to others, which can only be done effectively if we implicitly trust the providers of our food. Food safety legislation acts as a third-party guarantor of that trust. It is the king’s taster.
Mislabelled food breaks that contract between provider and consumer. It isn’t the thought of horse in burgers that upset people: it is the thought that they didn’t know they were getting horse. They ordered one thing, and got another, without their consent. Such a finding violates several taboos deeply ingrained in our psychology. Those taboos have little to do with favouring one species over another and everything to do with the mismatch between our evolved minds and the way we manufacture and consume food in the modern world.
The emotion of disgust is a powerful and largely involuntary human universal. It evolved to keep us away from carriers of parasites and vectors of disease, such as faeces and rotting meat. Yet so powerful is disgust, and so intimately bound up with many different areas of our cognition, that it often fails to distinguish between genuine danger and the appearance of danger. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker have shown how disgust is central not just to taste but to our moral intuitions as well. “Disgust is easily moralized,” writes Pinker, “defining a continuum in which one pole is identified with spirituality, purity, chastity, and cleansing and the other with animality, defilement, carnality, and contamination.”
Given food’s centrality to our existence and wellbeing, it is not surprising that all cultures develop a complex and evolving moral relationship to the food they eat, based around rules and taboos. Cooking, in the wrong hands, can kill. Given those stakes the imperative for laying down strict codes within a cultural grouping is paramount. The sacralisation of food is thus part of a mental and cultural process designed to guard against the potential dangers of eating. This connection between what we eat and intuitive notions of bodily sanctity and purity is made particularly self-evident when manifest in such codified forms as the culinary prescriptions of our holy books. We must, they command us in the most painstakingly laid out detail, ingest the only the pure and violently reject the impure.
We needn’t think we have left such impulses behind in the ancient world. The secular are just as capable of being sanctimonious about their food as the pious, because the underlying psychological mechanisms are the same. What connects the horse meat scare with the halal scandal is the thought that alien elements have polluted the constantly vulnerable sense of sanctity that surrounds our bodies and what we put in them, however irrational the basis of that sense might be. Though neither horse nor pork are poisonous, they become, in effect, contaminants. It would be hard to engineer a crisis more deliberately designed to push those collective disgust buttons. Horse may well be tasty (as far as I know I’ve never eaten it), but horse surprise is disgusting.
The perception, often only dimly articulated, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do food in the modern world is wide-spread and provides a useful context for thinking about this latest scandal. The mass production techniques that drive our food supply give rise, in many, to a generalised state of unease. Occasionally that unease blossoms into outright hysteria, such as the salmonella egg scandal of the late eighties. More often it can be seen in a shifting clash of cultural attitudes.
The increasing variety of food stuffs bought to our shores by globalisation has meant the British diet changing faster in my lifetime than it had done at any time during the previous century. When I was born ‘pizza’ and ‘curry’ were still impossibly glamorous concepts to the vast majority. Change, of course, is destabilising, and as the choices facing us multiply, the desire for gurus grows ever larger. One effect of that has been the rise of a new class of celebrity chefs whose mission it has been to guide us adroitly through these bewildering lands of milk and honey.
While in many ways the rise of foodie culture in the UK was a blessing – who wants to go back to bread and dripping? – it also opened up a clear class divide. While the middle-classes took to their Delias and their Jamies as eagerly as their Victorian forebears took to Mrs Beaton, parts of the working classes, in continuing to guiltlessly enjoy the convenience foods also made possible by the globalisation of the food supply, seem unable or unwilling to follow. On one side of the divide sit those who obsess over their diet in an anxious search for foods deemed ‘fresh’, ‘wholesome’, ‘natural’, ‘pure’ and ‘organic’, on the other sit those who criteria is convenience and price. It is perhaps no accident that this latest scare has emerged from food that is seen to properly belong on the second side.
The temptation for one side to moralise at the other is, at its worst, shot through with a romantic nostalgia for pre-industrial methods of agriculture. With their tendency to see modernity as somehow out-of-kilter with the supposedly natural rhythms of agrarian societies, the Prince Charles and Hugh Fearnley–Whittingstals of this world are the inheritors of a persistent intellectual trend in western thought that goes back to at least Rousseau. They view the mass production of food as an alienating dystopia that has divorced us from a blissful state of nature, with the factory farm and the supermarket chain taking the place of Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills”. The reality of the earth having 7 billion mouths to feed (the majority now living in densely populated cities) and the impossibility of returning to the farmstead are not allowed to cloud the essentially religious force of this pastoral vision.
Their moralising mission has only been given added momentum by the emergence of a public health hazard – the so-called obesity epidemic. The types of fatty processed foods associated with obesity are indelibly linked with unflattering images of the lower classes. Jamie Oliver has made a career out of lecturing the proles about their bad habits, and has been transformed from mockney cook to national moral crusader for his efforts. Reality TV fills our screens with fat people and their fat children and invites us to collectively scorn their pig ignorance. The obese couch potato’s unfamiliarity with vegetables and fresh fruit is a class stereotype that is sure to draw easy laughs. Alarming media coverage and patronising government initiatives combine to reinforce the impression that the rotten eating habits of the poor represent a dangerous and costly blight on society.
Although one can reasonably argue a genuinely worrying empirical trend underpins all this – we are, as the food police never cease to remind us, the fat man of Europe – it isn’t hard to detect class-based paternalism at play. In much of the criticism directed at the culinary inept food ceases to be about taste and nutrition and becomes a moral category used to condemn the choices of others. ‘Good food’, on this account, is food middle-class tastemakers approve of: ‘bad food’ that yucky stuff poor people eat. Disgust, remember, is easily moralised: what we find disgusting we have also a tendency to think immoral, and vice versa. Middle-class revulsion at the thought of turkey twizzlers and horse burgers is thus given the moral dimension of a health crusade designed to cure the poor of their nasty eating habits whether they want cured or not.
It is instructive to note that such attitudes flow only in one direction: downwards. As the loudest condemnation comes from the very same culinary cognoscenti who agonise most about the origin and content of their food – the very types who are apt to engage in such modern purification rituals as the ‘detox’ – I remain unconvinced that the roots of their puritanism lie in a selfless concern for public health. I wonder, rather, whether there isn’t a genuine grievance held towards those who are seen to be entirely guilt-free about their consumption. Resentment, that is, of people who lack the common decency to be appropriately anxious about the purity of the food on their plates.
Of course, alarm at the dietary habits of the lower classes is not new. Only once that alarm was in response to starvation and malnutrition, and it elicited compassionate drives to end such abominations. Now that such hunger is largely unknown to us (though the growth of people reliant on food banks is a disturbing echo of the bad old days) compassion has given way to demonization. It’s a remarkable transition. Once we fretted about the poor, because they were too thin. Now we hate them, because they’re fat.