If someone had told me twenty years ago that some day I would yearn for the simplicity of socialist consumption, I would have laughed. In 1988, I was seven, the country’s economy was crumbling down, electricity was rationed (a scheme known as 3:1 or later 2:1, e.g. 3 or 2 hours with electricity, 1 without), the supermarket shelves were empty, and I was sent out at 7 am each morning to queue for a litre of milk and two half-litre jars of yoghurt, because the shop opened at 7.30, and by 8 am, there was no milk left to buy. When I was a child, there was enough food, but very little variety: one type of rice, one type of butter, two types of bread (white wheat and brown rye), a couple of brands of chocolate, one brand of chewing gum… The socialist world’s attitude to food was pragmatic: food was a necessity, not a luxury product.
Yet, as I find myself in England in 2010, I realise that I have forgotten what food shortage was like. Instead, there is a deficit of substance, clothed in an overgrowth of branding symbolism. The childish fascination with the bright coloured wraps of foreign sweets – a rare treat, accessible only to kids whose fathers travelled abroad for work – has vanished. I wonder if today’s kids are ever fascinated by this carnal carnival of colours – most likely, they just take it for granted. I find myself thinking how nice it would be to walk into a shop and come out with a loaf of white bread, half a kilo of pork sausages, a half-litre glass jar of cows’ milk yoghurt, a kilo of cheese, and two kilos of ripe tomatoes – no colours, and no adjectives added.
Instead, I drive into a supermarket attached to a petrol station and purchase ‘Unsweetened Greek style probiotic yoghurt’ in a multicolour plastic can. The yoghurt is organic, suitable for vegetarians (but not for vegans), needs to be refrigerated and, once opened, must be consumed within 3 days. It tells me to See Lid for Use By Date, warns me against trying to freeze it (as if anyone would want to freeze yoghurt!), and restricts my culinary experiments by directing me to “Splash the yoghurt over fresh fruit or meringues, or curries, or stews”. I begin to doubt whether I ever really knew what yoghurt is, what it is for, and how it is eaten.
Admittedly, for a foreigner, reading all the information printed on a typical can of yoghurt is very educational. But this takes away the bread of ESL teachers – and locals don’t even appreciate it. Why bother? I take out my plastic spoon, dig in, swallow the offence, and sublimate my indignation at being treated like a child, by performing an exercise in deconstruction.
The information which comes as an integral part of the food we buy serves multiple roles: it tries to advertise, advise, direct, guide, educate, prescribe, safeguard (both consumer and producer), seduce, suggest, and warn, all at once. It expects consumers to be also readers, and members of one epistemic community who all understand the complex language used to convey the information. The abundance makes sense, if we see the bits of data as answers to questions. Asking those unvoiced questions allows us to “read” the meta-text of the yoghurt wrapping and understand the public “debate” which is taking place on yoghurt cans all over the European Single Market.
The first revelation is that this can of yoghurt has been produced under organic standards. I know what “organic” means now, yet, the adjective “organic” retains for me some of the first impression I had, when I first heard it used in relation to food. The unknown word sounded synonymous with plastic, rubber, polystyrene, petroleum, and paint. It had to mean something unhealthy, tasteless, and artificial, something that came in a test-tube. In the best case, it was redundant: what can a vegetable possibly be, if not organic? Could it be made up of non-organic matter, devoid of living tissue molecules, such as amino acids and carbohydrates? Of course, the adjective “organic” is not used in the obscure personalised sense which I have just evoked. It is part of a publicly accepted system of symbolic meanings. It is a key word whose use allows the the producer to make several points at once: endorse the cutting-edge scientific discoveries, subscribe to the “benevolent” group of producers who are concerned with their consumers’ health, distinguish his product from the “dark” side of careless producers who insist on producing unhealthy food, and legitimise charging a higher price.
Yet another example is the note on the potential ability of probiotic bacteria contained in the yoghurt to “support digestive health” as “part” of their “daily diet”. The presumption of being ill until proven healthy pathologises an unsuspecting and perhaps healthy consumer. This discourse also enfranchises microbes as social actors by endowing them with the power to control the health of humans (remember Latour’s fascinating analysis of the “Pasteurisation of France” – in French called Les Microbes: guerre et paix, 1984).
Some of the information seems to state a truism: apparently, the yoghurt contains cow’s milk. What else could yoghurt possibly contain? Cow’s hoofs? The way health-related information is presented also serves to invent and “launch” new social groups, e.g. “nut allergy sufferers” (for whom this particular yoghurt is allegedly unsuitable, as I find out from a pretty sign made of a blue square and circle).
All these carefully worded phrases reveal a recent shift in the world of food. Food is no longer unquestionably good for you. The abundance of food calls into question its value. Health — and digestive health, in particular — is no longer an entitlement that can be taken for granted: it is a success which no longer depends on nature. It must be strived for and achieved. It has been de-naturalised. However, the responsibility is too heavy, to be placed solely in the hands of the consumer. The yoghurt producer — forced by the relevant government or non-governmental agency — takes over (or accepts, in exchange of money) some of that responsibility.
(To be contd. After I have my yoghurt and negotiate division of power with its friendly bacteria. )
*Thanks to David Kyuranov for his comments
See also Too much choice kills the choice?
Categories: The Idle Ethnographer