One of the glories of summer finally reached my plate: fresh corn on the cob. Steaming from the pot and gleaming gold, it was beautiful to watch the butter melt into the crevices between the kernels, and the salt crystals sparkle before they too disappeared into all that fresh tasty goodness. Of course it required a sheet of paper towels to eat, as no napkin could absorb all the grease and corn shrapnel from my hands and face. Joy!
Then I felt guilty. I was trying to have a simple, light, healthy supper; you know: fresh vegetables and all that. The corn had caught my eye while I was shopping and seemed to fit right in to the plan. But then all that butter! Salt even. What happened to healthy?
Perhaps you’ve had the same experience. Summer brings with its glories many pitfalls: cookouts with their mountains of meat; vacations when we let ourselves depart from our disciplines; ice cream because how could you not; and the best thing God ever inspired us to do with all this ripe summer fruit, pie. We wind up rubbing our bellies and scratching our heads, wondering how could we let ourselves DO that? In fact, I would not be surprised if the most recent time you felt guilty, it was because of something you ate.
Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Why is it so common for us to associate guilt with food? I cannot imagine that our forebears would have recognized the association we make so often and so readily. Eating always has been a necessity, and only very rarely and for very few did it involve any luxury. One ate what one could lay hold of, and thereby survived. But things have changed.
In our time and under some circumstances, overindulgence is nearly impossible to avoid, but excess is only one there is another dimension. “Forbidden fruit” has been supplanted by forbidden fat, or carbs, or gluten, or…whatever our dietary bugbear happens to be. All of these accrue to the general goal of health, and our responsibility to maintain it. There can also be a focus on our appearance; perhaps a goal less lofty, but not without credit.
New dimensions have accrued to the modern ‘food conscience” that go beyond avoiding gluttony and staying healthy. Fair trade, locally sourced, sustainable, organic, free range, hormone free, and other labels advocate that these food choices would be “better.” Moreover, some vegetarians, pescatarians, vegans, and other –tarians are not satisfied merely to constrain their own eating, but also expect others willingly to provide for them at the common table or festive occasions according to their constraints. I doubt there is anyone in the parish who has not yet at least once had to solve the logistical challenges this poses. Far from being abashed by this imposition, some even proselytize, with a conviction that such eating habits and restrictions obtain moral elevation, even obligation.
How far man has come from hunting, gathering, and subsisting! But is it all progress, and if so, in what? At one time it was simple to see that if one ate more, then another must settle for less; now the social implications of food are much more complex, and continue to be revealed. Similarly, discerning what is healthful is more complicated as food production and distribution become more developed. While the costs of food particularity are well disguised in our time and place, it is nevertheless clear that a healthy diet is a mark of affluence, and obesity a common mark of poverty.
Advertisers, celebrities, our own dinner guests, and even strangers in public places feel free to admonish us about what we should and should not eat, and why. There is clearly a moral dimension to food, beyond simple self-discipline in pursuit of health and avoidance of excess. But why has this one moral question become so prominent, and so public?
Could guilt over salty buttered corn possibly be a distraction from something more pressing?