Good food

Another pointless post about food. And morality.

I bought a bag of impeccably “fair trade” chocolate-covered chunks of ginger from a charity stall. (A long-established and legit Fair Trade brand, sold at cost, on a voluntary basis.)

I’m less than completely convinced by many “fair trade” goods, but I’ll spare you the social analysis of international terms of trade and production relations in the developing world. For now…

People in work bring back communal sweets and biscuits (trans. candy and cookies) from wherever they’ve been on holiday (trans. vacation.) I never do this myself, although I tend to eat the lion’s share of any of these treats. It’s possible to go for days, in the main holiday season, without actually buying any food.

I have even been known to have subtly badgered one co-worker into making a 300 mile return journey to the place from which he’d brought comically expensive handmade real (70% cocoa solids) chocolates to get more. At a total chocolate cost of over £50 (trans, about $80 now, I think.) And not even Fair Trade. (Look, I didn’t know how bloody expensive they were. Nor how far away the shop was. OK?)

I even add insult to injury by using the packaging for an ironic “art installation” and by insulting any over-hyped but disappointing chocolates, like the French ones from the Ritz.

So, to appease my vague feelings of guilt about being just a taker of confectionery and never a confectionery provider, I bought some Fair Trade biscuits, as a baseline contribution to office goodwill, and chocolate gingers, as a purely indulgent treat.

And made a song and dance out of sharing them out, in the hope that anyone keeping a conceptual chocolate altruism ledger would notice that they finally had something to put on my credit side.

Hmm. Chunks of ginger, covered in chocolate. I assume that anyone would think that is great, by definition. The first person I offer them to says “What’s ginger?” Duh? “What’s ginger?” Is this a trick question? I am too confused to offer an answer that is either educational or sarcastic. I can only say “Well, it’s ginger. You know, ginger. Everyone knows what ginger is.”

Two people are now too embarrassed to admit they don’t know what ginger is and each takes an offered sweet. Dare I say it, gingerly.

They insert sweets into mouths. Omigod! Have they been poisoned?

Unbelievable facial contortions. They pretend to be eating, but their faces are betraying them. They are clearly trying to swallow – to get the taste away from their mouths – in the face of a natural reflex to gag. But the chunks are too big so they are forced to chew, fighting their jaws every inch of the way.

I stare in fascination for about three minutes until I remember to do the decent thing and say “Look, just spit it out if you don’t like it.” Explosively emitted ginger chocolate turns the waste paper bins into ad hoc spitoons.

An other worker just says “You have got to be joking,” when I try to offer him a chocolate.

I say :”I don’t believe this. Everybody likes ginger.” (I am clearly speaking in the face of the evidence.) “I will do a survey then.”

I approach every single person in the pretty sizable office, offering a handful of chocolates. One man says “I love ginger” but won’t accept more than one. And I don’t actually see him eating it, so it may have been a polite bluff.

Everybody else, without exception, refuses. And these are people who will polish off a packet of Dorritos or All-butter Shortbread almost before you can blink.

Three refusants produce variations of “I’m being good today”

I know it’s a polite way of saying “No, I don’t want to try those outlandish sweets” but it still really irritates me.

Firstly because of my own serious shortcomings in the “polite” department, I have grown a protective self-justifying moral coating – the view that “polite dishonesty is more insulting than impolite honesty” (Yes, I know it isn’t true. I did say self-justifying.)

Secondly, because I find something offensive in the idea that being “good” means “on a diet.”

The underlying assumption is straight from a life-denying religious worldview. “I enjoy food X (Not the case here, obviously) so not having it makes me morally superior.”

Are people doing some bizarre penance for their physical existence. The body is evil so letting it have what it wants is “bad”. Mastering one’s bodily desires for food is “good.”

Now, in this case, the Fair Trade sweets were probably “better” in genuinely moral terms than any other food on offer. You can argue the toss over the theory and practice of Fair Trade initiatives, but they do have a “moral” basis in aiming to improve the lives of the producers, to provide schools and medical treatments and a living wage. However, they were seen as “bad”, as food containing sugar and fat.

Our sense of “morality”, in food terms, isn’t reached through a rational process of thinking about where food is produced, how it’s distributed, and so on. It’s some sort of kneejerk response, a dilution of monotheistic moralities that see “goodness” in terms of appeasing some arbitrary set of external rules. Organised religion is really effective at instilling ideas of “good” and “bad” conceived of in terms of obedience to rules. This seems to survive even when people have no actual religious beliefs.

Except, in the case of food, it’s not just priests or gods that we are obeying. It’s the food police in our heads – the government health warnings; the anecdotal nutritionists; the claims on the sides of products; the magazine articles; the slimming magazines, and so on.

Of course, there is a religious element in food choices. Every culture or religion has food rules. What we eat is part of our identity. It’s hard to disentangle the “morality” that consists of “following rules set by some authority” from an autonomous “morality” that involves making endless contingent choices.

But then, it’s a waste of our puny human lives if we don’t even bother to try.

Religious candy

Sorry, we’re a bit slow here -the link is months old – but this could explain how god helped Manuel get to Guinness Book of Records size.