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May 7, 2010 / CC BY-ND 2.0

Food has power over us—more than sex, in a way. Both are subject to strong appetites, but sex plays a more central role in human relationships. Sexual arousal essentially involves desire for another person. Food does not. This gives it a sort of naked, intrinsic power that sex lacks. In the end, it’s just you and the food in front of you. Many people give up eating meat precisely because it puts them alone–completely, intimately alone–with a dead animal. Explanations of vegetarianism miss something when they appeal solely to the consequences of eating meat, and not to the act itself.

Eating is not, but sex is, transactional. Is this part of why we sometimes feel that our sexual desires are not entirely our own? Misogynists hate the whore because they hold her responsible for their desires. If extreme, this nevertheless aligns with a general tendency to locate sexual desires outside oneself. Therapists treat sexual dysfunction as the result of trauma, of some interaction gone wrong. And we all habitually worry about what messages the media is sending about sex.

With food, it’s the reverse. Food is seen as a matter of sovereign individual choice. More precisely, eating is an ever more high stakes game and this brings out the fundamentally individual nature of the act of eating. Your food should be healthy, organic, local, sustainable, antibiotic-free. When this option is not easily within reach, you need to “vote with your fork” to make so. And when it is, you have only yourself to blame if you choose otherwise.

It is sometimes said that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are less about staying thin than about maintaining control. If that’s true, it’s an odd, ascetic kind of control: the control of no control. The pressure to choose what to eat leads people to surrender to a regimen, which removes the possibility of choice completely. (Is this sort of like the surrender involved in addiction? People also talk about eating disorders as being like addictions.)

The food-conscious of all stripes talk not about what they choose to eat but about what they can and cannot eat. No one really talks in a similar way about the kinds of sex they can and cannot have.

Could there be a school of psychology that attached as much importance to gustatory pleasures and drives as Freud gave to sexual ones? True, Freud had us start off life in an oral stage, when our newborn lives revolved around the pleasure of suckling. But this is a stage of the libido, in which the mouth is a sort of sexual organ. Why not instead take the drive for food and flavor as the paradigm? Why not speak of the libido as quite literally hungry, as a displacement of the appetite?

Perhaps food was once more essentially social. Some people claim that we can fix what is broken with American food culture, with its emphasis on speed and convenience, by making meals back into the social rituals they once were. Partly, this is just the sentimental, community-worshipping view that says that the only real problem in society is our alienation from one another. There are certain aspects of eating that cannot be socialized. We die alone, and we eat alone too.

Why do religions so often impose restrictions on diet? According to pop anthropology, it’s for team-building: they give concrete form to the essentially abstract distinction between the faithful and everyone else. But why not say the same about religion itself, that it is just a way of separating us from them? Or why not think the reverse, that religion is to a large degree simply the abstract form of diet?

photo courtesy of Jonathunder under a Creative Commons license

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