Unsettling the table

In a society that is always asking us to be more absorbed in our professional lives, our reliance on others for food has become increasingly pronounced. In varying degrees, the work of planning, shopping for, cooking and cleaning up after meals makes up a highly industrialized food culture.

Within consumerist narratives, fast, pre-packaged lunches are associated with the corporate elite, while home cooking is made out to be unnecessary, the mark of a special occasion or a hobby.

Food producers have made explicit their intention to engineer how society eats. Standardized and technological food products like Soylent, a meal-replacement drink, usher us into the future of nutrition with advertisements that denounce at-home cooking as an archaic chore. More insidiously, they suggest that cooking is a practice of the misinformed poor and that the purchase of these products is a means of self-betterment.

However, the opposing narrative, which celebrates the craftsmanship and heritage of fine-food production, also positions food labour as an industrial affair, albeit on a smaller scale.

So-called Slow Food culture, a countermovement against the mass production and standardization of food, is equally explicit in its aims. This movement celebrates the complexity of and value in food made on a small scale. Generally, Slow Food culture values commitments to local sourcing, season-conscious menus, and social and communal meals (rather than meals eaten merely for sustenance).

Many Slow Food culture principles respond to the social and ecological damage inflicted by the various industries involved in food production. Although its efforts to avoid everything from unjust labour practices to overfishing are valuable, Slow Food nevertheless embodies a sense of elitism. However socially and environmentally responsible the operations of small-scale artisans may be, Slow Food discourse still normalizes a culture in which participation is profitable for some but too costly for most.

While fine craftsmanship, fair worker pay and robust quality standards are all virtuous, Slow Food is ultimately fashionable compared to the laypeople’s fare. Part of what makes Slow Food artisanal products so alluring is the very fact that only a small minority can actually afford them. Small-scale production forms an industry of its own, even though its participants are not monoliths like McDonald’s or Aramark.

Though the gap between the small- and large-scale food production seems only to be growing, both production types foster cultural elitism and rely on domestic labour that is almost entirely organized by the economy. Whether artisanal or mechanized, the future of food these cultures promote is one where food quality is determined by the diner’s buying power.

In short, domestic labour is no longer domestic. The important cultural traditions that are transmitted and maintained through food practices are valued only to the extent that they are associated with a marketable product, for sale to others. An equitable future in which the right to eat well is shared equally is one where domestic labour is valued on its own terms, not on those of industry or commerce.

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