We Are What We Eat (An Introduction to Six Essays!)
by Chunyan Song
“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarian, The Physiology of Taste (1825)
America has opened my eyes to a variety of diets that I had never even known before my immigration from China to the United States seventeen years ago. It seems that most Americans I have encountered are either on one type of diet or another due to weight concerns or allergy issues. It is almost impossible to invite a group of Americans to dinner without having to cook three or four different main courses. There are the gluten free people, dairy free people, nut free people, Paleo people, raw food people, the vegetarians, the meat eaters who eat everything, and the meat eaters who avoid red meat. While I find the meat eaters who eat everything the easiest people in the world, the vegetarians are the most complicated human beings to cook for. Among vegetarians, there are the Buddhism followers, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, and heath devotees. I had never heard of such a thing as nonreligious vegetarians before my arrival to America. In my home country China, only monks and nuns do not eat meat.
When my American guests claim they are vegetarians, I cannot take their word for it. Within the vegetarian category, it turns out there are several subgroups. Vegans are people who do not eat any animal products including eggs and honey. Then there is another group of vegetarians who only eat unfertilized eggs. The third group of vegetarians does eat fish only if it is salmon and wild caught. I think eating fish disqualified them as real vegetarians, which explains why this group has a name of its own, “pesco-vegetarians” or “pescetarians”.
I used to laugh at the peculiarity and pickiness of Americans’ diet obsessions. But, seventeen years of living in America have converted me into one of them. Nowadays, in my household of four in America, we have four different diets. I am one of those gluten free health nuts. My husband is a vegetarian who eats cheese and eggs. My 12-year-old daughter is a vegetarian who eats turkey and duck, but no fish. My 9-year-old son is a strict vegan but not on Wednesdays when his school hot lunch serves orange chicken. The only family member that joyful eats everything is our family dog, a 2-year-old Javanese.
During the hectic morning hours, between getting two different breakfasts ready and packing two different food items for lunch boxes, I often wonder how I got myself into this big mess. On the surface, the choice of diets seems to be completely an individual matter due to our different modes we each have for nutrients, taste preferences, and refueling. However, eating is more than just merely consuming nutrients and satisfying our taste buds. There is much more than that. Over the years, I have learned that what and how we eat are largely socially constructed events. The natural, sociocultural, and political environment all play a significant role in shaping our food choices. As the most industrialized nation in the world, America is blessed with abundant material wealth, food excess, advanced technology and machinery for its food production and distribution. However, the mass food production process, the constant drive for efficiency and profit in the capitalist economy, and the individualism cultural norm, all work against a healthy diet for individual Americans.