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Some time ago, speaking of matters of fat with someone very dear to me, she said something that gave me pause. We were discussing, in general, the Keys starvation experiment in Minnesota during World War II. You can find information on it here. I noted the absolutely princely number of calories allowed to the subjects compared to what dieters (particularly women) are permitted today. She was unaware of the studies (I sent her links later), but then she brought up that perhaps food was more pure and less processed then (with the implication that it was less fattening).

I get where she was going with that. High-Fructose Corn Syrup wasn’t around then (although corn syrup as well as sorghum syrup were widely used in cooking), and neither was Aspartame; and yet, it is never that simple. In that moment I felt like was like contemplating an onion, with its many layers, or the bulb of a tulip, planted for Spring. I wish we had been able to continue the conversation. That statement contains within it a very modern fantasy which contains some grains of truth. This fantasy, in the hands of the fat-hating intelligentsia and food cognoscenti (as usual) can become yet another stick with which to beat fat people just for existing.

I have kept thinking about the phrase since then and, as I keep reading fat-hating food and health articles and comments in My Hometown Paper (the New York Times) I have found the name for that tulip bulb of my contemplation: The Beloved Fantasy of a Blissful Past… a fantasy of a time when no one was fat… A time when all food was local and pure and unspoiled… A time when people ate their ethnic foods and the evils of the Western Diet were yet to claim their victims...

That time has never existed. It has no more existed than some alternate world in which elves and humans coexisted in perfectly magic harmony. It is a beloved fantasy which feeds the delusion that all ills can be cured if only we could go back to some never-specified time when these ills did not exist. In this fantasy, if only our food were more pure, more local, all cooked at home, and to paraphrase the words of Edina Monsoon (in Absolutely Fabulous) so fresh and organic it still has composted horse manure on it, we would stop being fat and all of our problems would go away (1). Our food would not be as fattening.

We cannot go back to a time that never was. Fatties would not cease to exist if one could only stop grocery stores from selling sugared cereal, or if a given fast food joint refrained from using soda with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There is no silver bullet. The quest to eliminate fatness by returning to that imaginary blissful past is a quest that is born to fail, taking with it the health of fat people, because we could never be nutritionally correct enough to bring it to fruition (2) . It is another baseball bat with which to smite the fatties, another way to be “concerned” about fat people’s health. Our image, our very being, is used and will be used to illustrate what happens if we eat “processed” food and we ignore the call to return to the blissful past.

The problem is these messages are powerful. They are delivered by those who have been anointed by the press as the cognoscenti. They are delivered by those whose skill at food preparation is exceeded by their ego and fat hate. They are delivered by those who place themselves upon a pedestal of “common sense” (eschewing facts) and whose opinion about fatties is sought by the media regardless of their actual qualifications. We are demonized as symbols of all that is wrong with food – but we know it never is really about health anyway.

In a series of posts I’ll be talking about food in the U.S. and occasionally from others countries for context. I am doing this because I’m tired of getting beaten by the stick of food correctness. I believe we need to look at the facts about our food culture(s) to dispel myths and to stave off the messages that come from the fantasy of a blissful past. In the same way that we look at pictures of fat people to see that, yes, there WERE fat people back then, we need to look at facts about food in historical context to counteract the moral opprobrium that a can of mushroom soup will garner from the cognoscenti.

I will draw from what I’ve learned from the impressive record left behind by American and English homekeeping authors of the 19th and 20th centuries (who were often learned in home economics and nutrition) who documented in a way that no statistic could the challenges that people had getting food on the table and how the fortification of foods along with new processing technologies and growing techniques helped our civilization to do that. I will also draw from my own experience as a person existing essentially within two food cultures, and what that has meant for me. What I aim to do with this framework is to offer into our evolving conversation a historical and cultural point of view about the American food culture as it evolved that can help dispel the myths about processed foods, while leaving room for exploring what some of the more modern developments in food processing may have reasonably have meant for human digestion and nutrition. I’ll also talk about the grain of truth that gives the fantasy its power.

In the meantime – what is your food culture and what might the term “processed food” mean within its context?

How would YOU define processed food within the American food culture?

Have you encountered the Fantasy of a Blissful Past and, if so, how?

See you in the comments!

--Andy Jo--


(1) See Kate Harding’s very seminal essay on the ”The Fantasy of Being Thin” . She describes precisely the fantasy that if we could only lose weight, all the problems in our life would magically go away.

(2) A number of posts and comments on BFB, as well as a number of blogs in the Fatosphere have brought up the fact that you can be a perfect vegan and still be fat.

The Edmonton Staging System: Post 1, Basics. | The Paradigm Shift

DeeLeigh's picture
November 11th, 2011 | Link | This is a great topic for a

This is a great topic for a series of posts! It's one of those things that probably a lot of people have noticed but that really needed to be called out, discussed and analyzed. Comparing it to the "fantasy of being thin" is really apt. It is kind of a mass delusion, isn't it? And it's puritanical and snotty.

It's a shame, because fresh local food is high quality, delicious, sustainable and cheap. Shopping at farmers markets and buying more of what's in season locally and less of what's shipped in is a fine idea. But, sorry. It has no more than a small effect on health and probably none at all on weight. It all goes back to the crazy pseudo-ethical system that some people subscribe to that depends on diet, weight and health being related in ways that in reality, they just aren't.

DeeLeigh's picture
November 11th, 2011 | Link | Aubrey says...

I wanted to share a Tumblr that I thought related to this post, in case you hadn't already seen it:

It's nothing but old pictures from the past with fat people in them. The point is pretty much what you covered in your post -- there is no mythical past where everybody ate organic lettuce and was thin. Back in the old days, folk still got their fat on.

(comment e-mailed in)

vidyapriya November 11th, 2011 | Link | Great post! This is one of

Great post!

This is one of the things I love about the Venus of Willendorf -- a very realistic representation of a fat female body, made by someone who was obviously familiar with fat bodies. The image stands as a testament to the fact that *we have always existed*.

vesta44's picture
November 11th, 2011 | Link | Yeah, my grandmother (my

Yeah, my grandmother (my dad's mother) was fat. She lived on a farm for the first part of her married life, grew a garden, canned the produce from it herself, they had chickens from which they got their eggs and meat, and they butchered their own cows and pigs. She baked her own bread, pies, cakes, cookies, etc. You can't get any less processed than that - and that was back before my dad was born in 1933, and before his brother was born in 1930. She used a wringer washer to do laundry and hung the clothes out on a clothes line to dry, fed the chickens, gathered their eggs, slopped the hogs, and helped my grandfather with whatever else needed to be done on the farm. In spite of all that, she was still fat - and I'm not talking in-betweenie fat, my grandmother was 5' 7" (tall for a woman back then) and weighed around 275 lbs for most of her life (she passed away at the age of 86). My grandmother's sister was also fat, and died in her 80s, lived the same life my grandmother lived.
So anyone who says that we need to go back to some "golden age" before processed food and modern conveniences doesn't know what they're talking about. Fat people have been around since the beginning of time, we're survivors in the best sense of the word.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

moxie3's picture
November 11th, 2011 | Link | Great post and I'm enjoying

Great post and I'm enjoying reading or rereading Kate Harding's blog and everyone's responses, thanks, Moxie Smiling

Viola's picture
November 11th, 2011 | Link | My first thought is that you

My first thought is that you can't really have it both ways. You can't say that it's calories in, calories out, eat less, move more and then also say that when you are eating fewer calories, well, it's because they are those BAD calories that are more fattening. I do hear that frequently these days, sometimes as a way of trying not to blame fat people, but I don't think it's accurate. I had a friend who was a raw food vegan for awhile, and she gained 10 lbs after the early weeks. trying to get established with her new system of eating. I think she ate something like 10 avocados in one day, and when I commented that it was a lot of fat to eat in one day, our other friend who had been a raw food vegan for awhile said that it was all good fat, it didn't count, it didn't stay on the body, or something like that.

DeeLeigh's picture
November 12th, 2011 | Link | Me too, Emerald. A couple

Me too, Emerald. A couple of my family pictures...

BigLiberty's picture
November 12th, 2011 | Link | My great-grandparents

My great-grandparents (Italians from Vittorito, Abruzzo). My grandfather is the little chap in front. Note that I looked a lot like the center girl up top when I was a kid, and these days I look like my great-grandmother.

EDIT: This photo is from the 1920s. I should also put photos from the other side of my family, similarly chubby and outright 'huge fat' ladies as described by my grandmother.

moxie3's picture
November 12th, 2011 | Link | I don''t know why I don't

I don''t know why I don't have such wonderful photos of my family but am jealous! I remember both grandmothers being large sized women but never saw my paternal grandfather who was supposedly of Mexican decent.. Anyway the pictures are beautiful and thanks for sharing, Moxie!

BigLiberty's picture
November 13th, 2011 | Link | Thanks, Moxie! Here's

Thanks, Moxie!

Here's another one, my great-grandmother on my mom's side, born Lila Blanche Pilsbury. She's descended from Mary Eastey, one of the nine women executed at the Salem Witch Trials.

She looks like she's in her 20s here, so I'd guess this was in the 1900s or 1910s. Also, her style of dress is indicative of that period.

Keechypeachy November 17th, 2011 | Link | The family pics are so

The family pics are so gorgeous! I have seen a picture of my hubbie's great grandmother when she was perhaps in her forties. She has her sleeves rolled up and is serving at a soup kitchen that is set up along a brick wall, set up beside a picket line for striking miners in Scotland. It impressed me enormously. She looked so wonderful and powerful, both of build and character. She was fat, and looked strong as an ox, just like my darling. Smiling His family has an odd mixture of very thin people and strong, fat people. His grannie was tiny, his mum is tiny, but his aunty was fat and strong, and so are he and his sister. It is not about what they ate because they all ate the same foods. The only exercise his tiny mum ever did was lift her book up a bit higher to catch the light better. Smiling

My great grandmother on my mum's side was fat all her life. She worked very hard, ate simple wholesome foods like lovely country butter, jam and cream and her own delicious homemade goods with white flour in them, and probably lots of fatty mutton because that is what most Aussies ate a lot of in those early days. She recently died... at the grand old age of 108!

SuzyBear's picture
November 17th, 2011 | Link | I have a photo taken in the

I have a photo taken in the 1940's of my grandfather, his 5 sisters, and their mother. The first time my son saw it he asked who were those people I was standing with (My grand-father died when he was an infant so he didn't know him). They're all the typical Irish farm family build - short and round. That's my mom's side.

On my dad's side, his mom and her sisters were also as round as they were tall, which was about 5 feet each, also European farm stock but from the Russian/Hungarian/Ukraine area (Boundaries changed a lot due to the wars), and also, as my grand father described them all, "strong like bull!"

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