I thought that it was time I explained a little more about the inspiration behind my blog’s title — aside from the most literal interpretation (I write about food…using words). I was an English major in college and went to grad school for English, so why the sudden turn to food? What can my training in English possibly give me in this very different field?
As it turns out, I learn more and more that what my professors in undergrad told me was true: English does help with anything and everything, because anything and everything is ultimately, in one way or another, about language. Cooks, food policy-makers, and members of the food industry all use words to make food do what they want it to do, and be what they want it to be. The first time I began thinking about the cross-pollination between my degree in English and my interest in food was in reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In discussing the state of America’s food industry and the plight of the modern consumer (in both senses of the word), Pollan uses the word “legible” six times. While a completely commonplace word in some contexts, the meaning of “legible” seems a bit out of place when discussing food and agriculture: “Clear enough to be read or distinguished.” In Pollan’s usage, “ecological relationship[s],” landscapes, and food labels can all have varying degrees of legibility.
The English major in me perked up. So it’s all about reading, you say? For Pollan, legibility means clearly readable connections between what we grow or raise, what we see in supermarkets, and what we eat. That applies to both where the food is grown and where it ends up — behind food labels. How easy are food labels and ingredients lists to understand? This is a question asked in an increasing number of debates centering around the clarity of food labels.
Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, deconstructs the careful word choices of food policy makers.Take, for example, the crucial difference between “eat less” and “choose,” as in “eat less meat” vs. “choose leaner meats.” “Eat less,” industry officials maintain, will always have negative connotations of avoidance and “bad” foods, while “choose” has a more positive, proactive connotation. Such a little difference, yet the source of such heated debate.
In fact, there are so many times that I’m grateful for my English major that I’m surprised that a Google search for “English major + food” only results in sites offering advice on how to feed oneself on an English major’s budget. Our experience of food is always filtered through words, so it only makes sense that careful word choices affect what food we eat and why.