Deciphering a Meal

Momentous news! Maybe. The USDA has graduated from geometry into (okay, still pretty symbolic) imagery today as they released the new food guide, which lays the 19-year-old food pyramid to rest.

But aside from the purported question of how to convey to Americans what to eat, this image actually does something more specific, and I think, more important. By depicting our choices on a dinner plate, the USDA has pulled our conversation explicitly to meals.  Everyone understands the structure of meals.  But meals are not the only way we eat.

When I saw that image, my nerdy brain went immediately to one of my favorite articles by classic British anthropologist Mary Douglas: “Deciphering a Meal.” A structuralist, her focus is on boundaries, comparisons, and the operation of ordered elements in social contexts. This results in the delightful dizzying table here, where she maps the grammar of meals (in a decidedly English way, from continental breakfast to high tea to nightcaps).

And (although she is actually depicting in weird ven diagrams what is fit to eat) these images in their resonance to her discussion of what actually appears on a plate in a meal had a profound influence on me when I was studying charity meals as a social phenomenon in school.

In “Deciphering a meal,” Douglas’ major foil for the unit of the meal is “drinks,” structurally and socially distinct from meals in a number of interesting ways.  But, for today’s issues and question the more pertinent contrast is meals and snacks. Much of the food industry thrives on snacking–what doesn’t fit into the unit Meal. I’ve actually heard as a research question in RFP’s “what are the new ‘eating occasions’ for X?” These things fit into the old food pyramids, however elliptically.  They are not eaten off of plates.  They are eaten out of wrappers, out of bags, out of cleverly designed dispensers to fit into all the nooks and crannies of modern live that are not sitting down at a table, with a dinner plate, and eating a meal.

I think it will have legs.  It uses patterns and logic that have solid cultural foundations, that I’ve heard echoed from women arranging their daily meal on a chipped plate at a soup kitchen to enthusiastic design students hoping to curb obesity.  And I agree with Marion Nestle when she notes that there’s more science behind this than any previous incarnation.  But I think it’s also important to remember that meals are only one element of our daily menus.

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