“Politics at the Dinner Table” by Garrett Broad

<<As part of the Feasts project, and the “Make an Everyday Meal Utopian” strand of it, we’ve asked people with a wide variety of expertise to contribute some pieces which might be of interest to anyone setting out to add a salting of utopia to their daily bread. The pieces won’t be anything as standard or straightforward as a set of recipes to be followed mechanically; but rather, a series of fresh ingredients to be stirred into the mix, as anyone wishes, and if they see fit.>>

No politics at the dinner table.

It’s an old adage that has helped many families avoid blowups and throwdowns at holiday time, allowing them to carve out what feels like utopian peace and quiet from within a wider world that is loud and divided.

It’s also a lie. Eating is always political, in one way or another, but recognizing that fact doesn’t need to turn every feast into a fight. In fact, it can actually help us eat better food and be better eaters, if we go about it the right way.

We generally don’t think of eating as a political act until someone at the table violates the unquestioned norms. The vegetarian or vegan serves as an operative example. While there are those who choose to actively disrupt the carnist mealtime ritual – perhaps making note of their disgust or refusing to sit where animals are served – most sit quietly, enjoying their alternative option as best as they can.

“Can I ask you, why did you stop eating meat?” a curious cousin or an instigating uncle might inquire while cutting into a serving of steak.

“Are you sure you want to do this over dinner?” the abstainer may reply. “I’m happy to discuss my ethical objections – why I think it is wrong to raise and kill sentient creatures in objectionable conditions just for our own enjoyment, and why I believe our animal agricultural practices are nightmarish for climate and the environment, are a public health risk, and represent an embarrassing waste of limited global resources. Maybe, though, it’s a conversation better had after our meal is complete?”

In this scenario, one actor is considered political – the veg*n outlining their ideology and backing it up with anecdotes or empirical examples. The others are seen as simply asking a benign question, otherwise going about their apolitical business of eating animals.

It’s easy for such an interaction to turn into a nasty bit of name-calling, with “meat is murder” being shouted on one side and “we have canine teeth for a reason” on the other. But if we’re honest about the values that guide us, and humble about the limits to the evidence we use to back up our eating decisions, a different kind of conversation is possible. It might not be perfect for a dinner table debate, but perhaps over coffee and dessert, the veg*n can share more about the political attachments that are at the foundation of their lifestyle, while the meat eater can talk through the social and cultural principles that have shaped the way they eat as well. Importantly, the goal of this discussion need not be purely centered on persuasion, as tends to be the focus when we talk politics. Instead, it can represent an invitation – to better understand, to reflect, and to discern whether the politics of one’s plate match the politics of their head and their heart, and if not, what they might do differently in the meals ahead.

Whether and how we eat animals are far from the only political questions we face as eaters. Labor offers another case in point, with a host of political questions across the entire food chain workforce. Were the farmworkers who picked these crops treated with dignity, or did they find themselves subject to abuse, assault, and exposure to harmful pesticides, as is far too often the case? Are those workers going hungry themselves, even as they harvest the bounty that fills our markets? The same goes for restaurant workers and grocery store employees – do they get paid a living wage or are they themselves forced to go to food banks after a late-night shift of feeding others?

And what of the farmers and farm operators, do they find themselves crushed by the debt that comes with the so-called treadmill of production, in which they need to continue to bulk up their industrial capacity in order to keep up with the demands of the multinational corporations who set the agenda for the agricultural enterprise? Questions of farming practices, of course, overlap with questions of environmental stewardship. What is the environmental footprint of the food we eat, and can the many labels we have seen proliferate on our produce and packaged goods – local, organic, sustainable, free range and more – tell us much about their value, or are they overblown marketing ploys?

These topics are sometimes the hardest to consider, because there are aspects that, from the vantage point of our dining rooms, are basically unknowable. Inspecting every field and every kitchen is a logistical impossibility, so we depend on the institutions that surround us to hold up some measure of quality and accountability to ensure that people, animals, and the environment are treated with respect. But we never know for sure, and thinking too much about these issues can lead to a kind of paralysis by critique, in which we feel overwhelmed by guilt anytime we take a bite. Most utopian visions would assume that all questions would be answered, and all uncertainty would be resolved, but a society without uncertainty is one that breeds complacency, and that’s no utopia in my book. Here, again, throwing up our hands in despair is a political act in and of itself, and an unproductive one at that. Direct engagement with what we know and what we don’t know, as well as why we know what we know and what we don’t know, is the kind of dinner table conversation that can get us somewhere interesting.

All of this talk of ethics and values is not for everybody. “I just eat what I like – what tastes good,” represents a common response. But of course the personal is political, and taste is one of the greatest examples of the social construction of reality that we can find. Sure, the human body tends to be attracted to certain tastes more than others – evolution notoriously gave us a big sweet tooth, which provided valuable energy density to our ancestors, while our receptors for bitterness kept us from ingesting poisonous plants. These are evolutionary cues, however, not laws, and they have proven themselves remarkably resilient to the food environment that surrounds us, especially from the time we are children (and even, some science suggests, before we are born). Questions of “what we like,” therefore, are also questions about the places we are from, the families we were born into, and the experiences we have been either privileged to enjoy or unable or unwilling to take part in. Taste is historical, cultural, and economic as much as it is biological – it’s definitely not as simple as “just what you like.”

My vision for a utopian feast, then, is clearly attainable in the current moment. It’s not one without any negative impacts on our personal health or ecology, nor one without any debate or division – that type of tranquil state of affairs will always be elusive. Instead, it is a space in which we consistently strive to do our best, for the land and for those who tend it, and for ourselves and our families. Food is obviously good for eating, but it’s also good for thinking and talking – about who we are, what we believe, what matters to us now, and what we want the future to be.

 

Garrett M. Broad is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City, and the author of More than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. His research investigates the role of storytelling and communication technology in promoting networked movements for social justice. Much of his work focuses on local and global food systems, as he explores how food can best contribute to improved neighborhood health, environmental sustainability, and the rights and welfare of animals. An engaged scholar, Professor Broad produces theoretical and empirical work for academic audiences, develops collaborative research projects with community-based organizations, and strives for teaching excellence in the classroom and across digital spaces.

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