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Pop Culture and Food Choices: You Are What You Eat

A panel entitled at the Food in Bloom conference analyzed some of the deeper meanings behind food and drink consumption.

This article is part of Earth Eats’ coverage of the 2010 Food in Bloom Conference held in Bloomington, Indiana from June 3-5, 2010.

The phrase “you are what you eat” takes on extra significance when you’re in a room full of culture studies and media scholars.

A panel entitled “Class, Crass, and Get off Your Ass: Pop Culture and Food Choices” at the Food in Bloom conference analyzed some of the deeper meanings behind food and drink consumption.

Unhealthy Super Bowl Snacks

Jennifer Dutch started her presentation, “Buffalo Wings and Brussel Sprouts: Food, Football and the Rhetoric of Healthy Super Bowl Snacks,” with some astounding numbers surrounding the Super Bowl : the 2010 event surpassed the 1983 M*A*S*H* finale for the highest television viewership ever (106 million people); and Americans bought more than 30 million pounds of snack foods for the game.

Dutch notes that most of these snacks are prepackaged, high in fat and loaded with calories. This hasn’t stopped public health practitioners from championing healthier fare.

The Centers for Disease Control even lists healthy Super Bowl options on its website, and morning news shows are littered with low-fat bean dips and baked chicken breasts. Nonetheless, Dutch believes the event’s emphasis on “Americaness” leads us to crave big, special, salty foods. “The Super Bowl becomes a text upon which Americans write the stories of themselves,” she says.

Dutch also says that we associate buffalo wings, chips and dip, pizza, beer and soda with our national identity. The event is also very masculine, which does not lend itself to “lite” foods, she adds. Dutch believes that if public health experts want to stop Super Bowl gorging, they will need more than recipes. They will need a cultural replay on the waste line of America.

Connoisseur And Food Snobs

S. Margot Finn of the University of Michigan gave a presentation called: “The Connoisseur and the Food Snob: How Mass Media Legitimates Culinary Capital.” In her presentation, she explored how the movie “Sideways” changed people’s perceptions of wine.

In the movie, one of the main characters repeatedly disparages the merlot variety of wine, while playing up his favorite self-embodying grape: the pinot noir. In the first three months after the release of “Sidways,” Finn says that sales of pinot noir in the U.S. rose by 16-22 percent, while sales of Merlot dropped 2 percent.

Finn refers to the cultural impact on Americans’ food choices as the “Ameritocracy of Taste.” She says people want to be good, pure food connoisseurs without coming across as food snobs.

This phenomenon is reflected in high-end restaurants selling hamburgers and pizza, which are traditionally cheap, All-American foods. Yet, the pizzas with goat cheese and pesto aren’t the same as the Little Caesar’s $5 Hot ‘n Ready, meaning the foodies still stay a step above on the class scale.

Eating Competitions

On the other end of the class scale, presenter Adrienne Johnson of Stanford University talked about eating competitions.

She studied MLE (Major League Eaters) contests, and noted that female competitors are the exception, but are extremely popular when they do compete.

Food athletes such as Juliet Lee and Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas epitomize many peoples’ fantasy: the ability to gorge on goodies yet remain skinny. Thomas has 37 world records for eating feats, including 41 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Yet, she weighs in at a lean 100 lbs on a 5’5” frame.

The Biggest Loser

On the other end of the weight scale, Sarah Murray from the University of Texas at Austin presented her study of how “The Biggest Loser” television show expresses American ideals about food and advice on how to be healthy.

Murray believes that because the trainers, Bob and Jillian, become friends with the contestants their advice is seen as more authoritative and trustworthy. “None of this would work if Bob and Jillian didn’t first establish themselves as experts,” she says. “Their bodies are on display as evidence of their expertise.”

The formula used by the show’s producers, according to Murray is that food, trust and friendship – plus some obvious product placement – equals high ratings.

“The ‘we’re in this together’ dialogue, the use of ‘us, them, together, we,’ makes it different than historical nutritional authority figures,” says Murray.

Given the show’s popularity, and many grassroots local Biggest Loser shows and clubs, perhaps the formula of friends as experts and ‘in this together’ dialogue will help health professionals in their battle against the American obesity crisis.

Jessica Gall Myrick

Originally from West Lafeytte, Ind., Jessica Gall Myrick moved to Bloomington in 2002 to run cross country and track for the IU Hoosiers and never left. She has a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a Master's in Journalism from Indiana University.

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