If we are what we eat then what are we eating? A new THES series examines food issues

June 20, 1997

DESCARTES is to blame. For centuries his much quoted tag, "I think therefore I am", has dominated our notion of ourselves and the world. The mind is the most valued and vital aspect of anyone, seemed to be the message of Cartesianism; the body could fend for itself. What people thought or imagined was central to academic study; what they ate was considered marginal and insignificant. But the climate is changing. While we may not yet believe that "I eat therefore I am", there is growing academic interest in what we put into our bodies.

Conceptions of consumer identity have led to great anxiety. If we are what we eat, then just what are we eating? Is the food pure, or contaminated by corrupt or artificial substances? The various food scares of the past few years have fuelled this concern, intensifying suspicions that foods such as meat, previously taken for granted, cannot now be trusted. But the BSE or E.coli outbreaks are also symptoms of a wider popular obsession with health and nutrition and partly received the attention they did because fears about food were already current. In western culture, where famine is not a problem, the greatest threat to survival is not considered to be getting enough food but getting the right sort and it is in the consumer's task of selection that the anxiety lies. Where life is comparatively safe, the fatty knob of butter or the genetically-engineered tomato become worryingly dangerous.

But the late 20th century is also an age of food leisure as well as of food anxiety. The judicious concoction of menus has become a designer activity, capable of denoting status and education, even aesthetic judgement. Given the social and symbolic significance of food, people are keen to buy any form of cooking and eating guidance. So we see the celebrity status of chefs, the plethora of television cooking programmes, the column inches given to restaurant reviews. And, in the supermarkets, exotic ingredients testify to the consumer's demand to buy into a culture or lifestyle by eating the food. Food becomes sign and signified, desire and fulfilment.

This THES series will address serious issues as well as exploring the indulgence of food. Articles over the next few months willrange from Phillip James on Labour's food standards agency to Mary Douglas on food choices and social status; from Prue Leith on cooking education to Richard Lacey on the BSE crisis. They are united, however, in their call for food to be studied more and, as Hugh Pennington argues below, for those involved in the study of food no longer to be ignored.

JENNIFER WALLACE Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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