American Food: More Than a Commodity?

NEIL W.

What do Lean Cuisine, Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, and a Builder Bar have in common? They’re all edible. They’re also rather unique to America. It raises the question “what is American food?” American food goes hand in hand with many American values. In fact, I think American food represents freedom, pragmatism, and hybridization. Freedom powers a food environment where individuals and corporations alike make pragmatic meal decisions given hybridized cultural elements.

Free-market capitalism and ideas of liberty abound in political and economical discourses but also extend to food. Individual liberties and relative corporate freedom, together, create an open environment for American food. Corporations can use a whole range of different methods to produce a multitude of food items possessing various characteristics. Options range from avocado toast to turmeric lattes to southern barbecue. Therein, Americans have the opportunity to choose among numerous food options. Given the vast array of choices, how do corporations and individuals exercise their freedom to produce and consume?

With thousands of food options, Americans and corporations, alike, lean on pragmatism in exercising their freedom to choose. Time is money, and money is power. Given these two American truths, utility-maximizing individuals rationally allocate their time and money. This rational allocation extends to choosing foods for consumption, an activity that involves time and financial expenditures. Given these two costs, one has to be pragmatic in how they allocate their time and money to foods they choose to consume. Often times, there can be pressure to conserve time and capital. If only there were cheap, quick ways to eat food. Quite serendipitously, profit-maximizing corporations are pressured to meet and reinforce these individual needs. In fact, some of the aforementioned market-provided items, such as Lean Cuisine and the Builder Bar, derive their core appeal from convenience and low-cost afforded to the individual. While the phenomenon is neither exclusively demand-driven nor exclusively supply-driven, the two probably build off of and complement each other. Americans are pressured to make pragmatic, rational,food decisions while corporations are pressured to make pragmatic, rational production decisions. But are decisions made under such pressures always “good” decisions?

Since Americans rely on more than just time and financial factors in making their food decisions, at-liberty corporations leverage hybridized cultural elements to better cater to and influence consumers’ demands. This means catering to adventurous palettes using foods from different cultures.[1] For example, the pizza and bagel are each great items in their own rights linked to Italian and Jewish cultures; eventually, they were fused into the convenience commodity known as Bagel Bites completely divorced from both cultural roots. Leveraging hybridized cultural elements also means catering to (and reinforcing) health and body anxieties with markers such as “20 g Protein” on the Builder Bar commodity.[2] This also means corporations appeal to individuals’ moral imperatives historically with foods like Spam and even contemporarily with markers like “fair-trade”. And in the context of relative corporate freedom, individual consumption decisions become the mechanism for effecting change in the food environment.[3] Corporations can choose to respond to these signals that consumers send with their consumption decisions. In the absence of institutional or structural changes, the burden for improving food options (and their relevant hybridized cultural elements) seems to fall primarily on individual consumers, who are pressured to make more time-saving, cost-saving pragmatic decisions with their money.

Freedom seems to enable plentiful food options. The diversity of options draw upon hybridized cultural elements. Pragmatic pressures determine how entities decide among and engage with these food options and their respective cultural elements. Freedom, pragmatism, and hybridization characterize American food.

 

 

[1] Remanthan Levanya. “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,’” The Washington Post, July 21, 2015. Accessed April 28, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/why-everyone-should-stop-calling-immigrant-food-ethnic/2015/07/20/07927100-266f-11e5-b77f-eb13a215f593story.html.

 

[2] Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health. Duke University Press, 2013. Kindle edition, 624 / 4899.

 

[3] Heidi Zimmerman. “Caring for the Middle Class Soul” Food, Culture & Society. 18 (2015): 34-35. Accessed April 28, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175174415X14101814953729.