Friday, December 23, 2005

Don't consume that!

When I travel to countries like Mexico and India I take care to drink only bottled water. Experience has shown that by following this policy I hardly ever get diarrhea. Conversely, drinking tap water almost always leads to disaster.

Upon returning home to New York City, though, I immediately return to my regular practice of drinking water drawn from the tap, both in my own home and in restaurants. Increasingly, though, I meet New Yorkers who will only drink bottled water. Self-approvingly, they brandish their little plastic bottles as Tokens of Virtue. "See, I take care of myself! You don’t." Yet studies have repeatedly shown that New York City water is generally purer than most brands of bottled water. The devotees of the bottled water cult are unmoved by empirical evidence. They just know that tap water is "bad" for you. That is an article of faith.

There is some resemblance to the food taboos enjoined by major religions. For example, Jews and Muslims will not eat pork; Hindus will not consume beef. However, these long-observed practices which are part of a larger context that offers spiritual solace. It seems that the Avoid Tap Water Cult is not religious; it purports to be purely rational.

The bottled water preference is only one of a number of Avoidance Rituals. For a time, even apples were eschewed because of the Mylar scare. Depending on the individual, a variety of ingestibles are implicated. In fact, once the principle is adopted, it proliferates—a kind of meme that seeks ever-new items to add to the roster of things to avoid. The task is a kind of treasure hunt in reverse. A strange dividend is that the banal act of eating becomes a great drama in which a moment of carelessness, or negligence on the part of some server, can yield a serious infraction. Moreover, the aversion pattern is contagious, spreading from individual to individual. This may occur through a lecture from an avoidance devotee—“Don’t you know you shouldn’t have that?”—or via spontaneous adoption. Today tens of millions of people are in the grip of these food fads. What they must not consume consumes them.

Once when I was a boy I visited the home of a classmate. Innocently, I asked for a slice of bread with butter. "Bread!" she exploded. "Bread is the staff of death." More recently some guests came to my apartment for a meeting. One of them snooped in the kitchen and found sugar. He was upset that I did not want to throw it out immediately. The very presence of sugar in the home was polluting.

These faddish avoidance rituals are not to be confused with genuine health risks, as with hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Rather, they are essentially magical rituals without a rational basis.

Note also that this pattern is different from the normal prudence that asks us to maintain a balanced diet, reducing cholesterol and other elements that can be harmful in excess. By contrast, the water cult, and its many cousins in the realm of food avoidance rituals, is absolute. One must n e v e r consume tap water, or sugar, or salmon, or whatever. Moreover, the banned items are hardly ever the site of bacteria, which can in fact cause harm, but--horror of horrors--of "chemicals." As if everything that we encounter on earth was not made of chemicals. Notice the difference from beef that might contain the bacilli that lead to Mad Cow Disease. Avoiding such beef makes sense; skipping salmon does not.

The term food fad does not do justice to the phenomenon. In fact, some would say that such irrational taboos are a neurosis or phobia. Perhaps instead they should be analyzed as an anthropologist would examine the beliefs of some tribal group. Following this approach, one would need to identify the underlying ideology. Let me take a stab at this. The underlying concept seems to be that the body is a fortress, powerful if uninvaded, but very vulnerable if harmful elements are admitted. Some substance that is "bad for you" must never breach the perimeter of the bodily fortress. Such violations are terrible, leading at the very least to grave psychological crises. Conversely, if the megilla of taboos—typically the list is usually constantly expanding—is carefully adhered to, good health will be assured in perpetuity.

Food avoidance is not a formal religion, but it has elements of such. As with all faiths, there is a tendency to proselytize. This can occur in many ways, from casual remarks to detailed expositions of the taboo. For this reason, those who have escaped this net of delusions must make conscious efforts to resist it. Otherwise there is a danger of being coopted into the group neurosis.

In my youth, when society was generally poorer, most people did not have the luxury of observing these Avoidance Rituals. Such practices would appear to be a product of an overly wealthy, possibly decadent, but surely neurotic society.

PS Since writing this piece I acquired a volume that would seem to have some answers: Madeleine Ferrieres, Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fads (Columbia University Press, 2006). This poorly focused book reads more like notes for a historical monograph, than a real book. Typically French, the author regards other countries as mere footnotes to her own. She starts in the Middle Ages and peters out in the eighteenth century. This book is not the solution to the puzzle of our current wave of food faddism and phobias. For that, I believe, only an anthropological approach, concentrating on comparative instances of magical thinking, would serve.


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