Top | The Culinate Interview

Barry Glassner

(article, Angela Allen)

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p(blue). A sociology professor at the University of Southern California, Glassner has followed up his bestselling The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things with The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong.
 
p(blue). Glassner questions Americans’ drive to create a religion of food that leads us to deify chefs, demonize fast food, oversimplify obesity causes, and allow big-name scientists to dictate what’s best to eat one day and not so good the next day. 

What inspired you to write The Gospel of Food?
I’m a sociologist. I look at the food world as sociology. How are social groups operating among themselves and what are the larger forces that come into play?

[[block(sidebar).
h1. About the book

The Gospel of Food was reviewed and the first chapter excerpted in The New York Times this past Sunday (March 11).

In January, Salon featured an interview with Glassner as well.

]]

When I finished my last book (The Culture of Fear), I realized that I’d written about all kinds of worries that Americans have, but left out food. 

Many Americans are afraid of everything edible. They panic over menus and supermarkets. 

What put me over the top? It was eating a child’s birthday cake that spackled to the roof of my mouth; the cake had no eggs, butter, wheat or sugar. The people who served the cake aren’t particularly hung up over food, but they protect their child from every possible danger.
 
Why did you call your new book The Gospel of Food?
There are many beliefs that Americans have about food. They’re quasi-religious about food. Every society has food beliefs that come from religion. Judaism and Islam prohibit pork, for example. 

In the U.S., we have a secular version of that, and a range of gospels from veganism to the Atkins diet. Another gospel aspect is that we worship celebrity chefs and see restaurants as holy places.

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Please explain the cover design, which features a fresh apple inscribed with a lock.
The cover says that foods have secret elements that can do wondrous things or can kill you. Many Americans are trying to figure out which it is. Does an apple a day keep the doctor away, or will it contain Alar?
    
Why do you think Americans “demonize or deify” food?
There are several sources. First, our Puritan and Calvinist roots contribute. We believe that anything pleasurable is dangerous, yet we’re attracted to pleasurable things. If you work really hard at something like a diet, you’ll prosper well. 

And for at least 100 years, the power of marketing has had an effect. It’s a much more powerful force here in the U.S. than in any part of the world. Marketers are good at playing off each other. They help create and display this black-and-white view of food. Some foods are good and righteous when we eat them. Another sector sells us food as treats when we allow ourselves to earn them.

What are journalists missing in covering food?
Much food journalism has become bipolar. Health journalists’ goal is to report on the latest study about some particular food or nutrient and if it’s harmful. Journalists whose beat is food, as in the food pages of the newspaper, write about new preparations, recipes, restaurants, chefs. There’s no one whose beat it is to look at both of these at once, or to be skeptical about either.

You say you're a card-carrying Slow Foodie. How do you eat, shop, dine?
I like all sorts of good food. Every Sunday morning I wake up and go to the farmers' market and buy fresh fruits and vegetables. If I had to miss that or couldn’t go to some of the Slow Food events, I’d be unhappy. 

At the same time, I thoroughly enjoy a good burger and fries at a low-end restaurant. My frustration whenever I publish a book is because of the scope of what I’m discussing. Someone who wants to dismiss me can pull out one item from a chapter. My position is more flexed and nuanced if you read the entire book.  

You find a lot of things to like about McDonald’s — it provides a fairly nutritious, low-cost meal for low-income people, there’s a place for kids to play, it’s clean, etc. — and yet most foodies condemn it. Are you surprised that you find yourself defending it?
I neither defend nor condemn McDonald’s. I’m trying to suggest the notion that one gets from fast-food critics that McDonald’s is responsible for many of the world’s problems. It’s overboard.

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Can you explain the complexity of the obesity story and the parts that most journalists are leaving out?
We don’t know what caused the obesity epidemic. People who blame fast food are grossly oversimplifying. In 1966, signs went up saying how many millions of burgers McDonald’s sold. But America’s weight gain was in the 1980s and 1990s, and fast food was selling many more products before that. 

The more interesting story is the complex of many factors ranging from the importance of anti-smoking campaigns to sleep deprivation. Research is solid suggesting that anti-smoking campaigns showed an average weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds when people quit. Sleeping less and how stress adds to the issue are at least as intriguing. It’s a complex issue that scientists reduce to a few things.

What do you think about Michael Pollan’s advice: Fresh is best, buy from farmers' markets, have a garden, eat real food (don’t eat stuff you can’t pronounce), eat less, eat like the French, cook, eat like an omnivore?
Pollan is a brilliant writer and researcher. His advice is excellent for the wealthy and the upper-middle class, and it applies mostly to them. 

My own orientation? Eat and let eat. Why should we implicitly criticize those folks who enjoy a prepared entrée they buy at a supermarket or a meal at a fast-food restaurant? It isn’t clear to me. There always is a class issue around food, and to pretend it's not there is to put on blinders. 

Do we have a national cuisine, and is it the cheeseburger?
We have many foods that many Americans love and that Americans have loved for a long time. The cheeseburger epitomizes that. Do we have a cuisine? Probably not. We’ve taken elements from other cultures and put them together.   

What should we do to eat healthfully?
I think there's no secret to healthy eating for people who do not have special medical conditions that require special diets. Enjoy what you eat, eat moderately, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

p(bio). Angela Allen writes about food, wine, fashion, and opera, among other things.


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