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Shameful snacks

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Saturday, Feb 11, 2006

I guess I am increasingly in the minority on this, but I like food. I like thinking about what I am eating, and about what I am going to eat. I like preparing meals for myself and the people I care about. I like that food tastes like stuff. I like that sometimes it surprises you by tasting slightly different than you expected. It even isn’t the worst thing that it sometimes downright sucks, because that serves as a sort of karmic guarantee that sometimes it would be much better than you expected (as with my souvlaki from Ditmars Gyro Place yesterday.) But if the “food scientists” in pursuit of “snackability” and “mindless munching have their way” all eating will become as thoughtless and perfunctory as breathing, and that whole eating thing will be one more nuisance mastered by technology and obliterated.


That’s the view of eating—the most vital and basic kind of consumption there is—on display in this New York Times Magazine article about presliced apples. The problem with unsliced apples is that you know when you’ve finished one, and you don’t keep right on eating. And apples have the unfortunate tendency to taste different, which invites people to use their judgment when considering them—always a bad thing, people thinking and judging and evaluating. That means they are thinking and not buying automatically. That means they are developing a tatse for exercising a critical faculty, which our culture goes to great lengths to prevent—it’s more convenient for people that way and is really what they want, not to think.


Apples don’t always have the same consistency or sweetness; they reek of the spontaneity of life itself, and therefore don’t suit the soul-sucking consumer economy too well. The genius of snacking from a food manufacturer’s point of view is that you eat regardless of whether you are hungry with a hypnotic shoveling motion—that is unfortunately disrupted by things like biting and chewing or thinking. Processed foods, which boost the profit margins astronomically for agribusiness, thrive on the basis of capitalizing on a populace’s desire for convenience. As is generally true, what purports to be a consumer benefit is really a boon to a producer. Convenience is how companies make money, taking advantage of a lazy consumer’s dream of a universe that exists only for them, where everything is already done for them, down to the slicing of apples off the core. Convenience is what crack cocaine would be if it were an abstract concept.


Sometimes on-the-go snack food is pitched as the answer for a time-squeezed society who needs food to be less of a hassle. But convenience food is part of the problem it purports to solve; it’s a self-reinforcing process that sets one on a treadmill of always pursuing more and more timesaving stratagems. According to Jon Mooallem, who wrote the article, “once the minor hassles of a given food are eliminated, its original version can feel positively insufferable.” Once you stop scheduling time to eat, once you stop treating eating as a kind of daily sacrament, you can never do it fast enough. And (to trot out a metaphor I’ve probably abused by this point) adding convenience to one’s life is like when cities add roads to a congested traffic system. The result is more congestion. By adding convenience, we adapt to a new, faster pace, and then need even more convenience. Soon it will be too much trouble for Americans to shove liquified goop into our pieholes from a tube, and we’ll need something we can snort, or recieve intravenously through a food patch. Maybe we can take in food through our fat asses on specially designed couches and car seats that have transdermal nutrition built into them.


The people behind the pre-sliced apple think they are giving people what they want, “a guilt-free snack food.” But anyone who eats one should be ashamed of himself. Until people start feeling guilty about convenience, a sense of shame about accelerating their lives with no other reason than to accelerate it further, nothing about the direction consumer society is moving will change. It may be inherhent to capitalism to produce exactly this kind of compliant consumer, who values his time as money and seeks to hoard it and waste it via convenience, which makes us always aware of time and how it is always slipping away from us.

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