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.

De Kas. Or, a long post for a longer meal. (updated)

To eat a meal like this is to live like it’s worth never dying.

*quotation corrected, found the napkin on which I scribbled it.

And how.  Diana recalled her father describing such exquisite meals thus, as we chomped our way through five courses over four and a half hours at Restaurant De Kas. They tried to give us a sixth, another round of delightful perenappelstroop-filled muffins, I think because my incessant picture-taking and absurdly detailed question-asking had given them the impression that I was some kind of Canadian food critic.  Ha! No, kids, all of 20 people read my blog (and I love every one of you).  But seriously, if you’re in Amsterdam and in the neighborhood of Frankendael Park and have a couple hundred euros to drop on the best meal you’ll have all year, go to Restaurant De Kas.

We arrived just at sunset, to discover that the storks on that huge chimney-thing in the park were in fact read, huge birds.  We were still buzzing with appreciation of color, composition and emotion that are the requisite take-aways of the Van Gogh Museum.

We were also still giddy with freedom, leftover from our epic escape from Corporate Netherlands, ironically located in the bucolic Dutch countryside. But basically these culminated into bliss:  sitting in a gigantic greenhouse lit by Chihuli-like jellyfish lamps and fireplaces was exactly where the cosmos meant us to be at that place and time.  There’s a profound contentment that comes with that knowledge.  It’s a taste that permeated the olives and crusty, not-to-be-triffled-with bread and the first few glasses of wine.

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