Friday, March 27, 2009

The TV Dinner as Turning Point

In the first chapter of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's [Really] Making America Fat, Hank Cardello identifies the invention of the TV dinner as a key turning point on the road to the current state of the U.S. diet and the health problems that flow from it:

There are many people who trace the beginning of our national obesity epidemic to the start of the fast-food chain, to a man named Kroc and the Golden Arches that he started in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955. While I'm the first to admit that fast food and all of its offshoots played a big role in our current situation, for my money, the story of the Swanson TV dinner holds the real key to understanding why we're so fat. The TV dinner marked a lot of firsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a preprepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home.
     But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment. After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost a company's struggling bottom line and cut its losses. On the surface, from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefit to the consumer. The taste was awful, the food unappealing, and the choices limited. I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozen Thanksgiving turkey in February?
     And yet, it turned out that was exactly what a lot of people wanted, and they wanted to do it because of how it had been sold to them. They had been sold on the idea that the convenience of this product was their ticket to a happier life. It had nothing to do with the actual food, and everything to do with the image of the food that had been projected.

As you may have gathered from this passage, Cardello, a former food industry executive, sets his sights squarely (though not exclusively) on the food industry in apportioning blame for the alarming rates of obesity in the U.S. today. Having developed a longer view from Harvey Levenstein's histories of food and eating, I don't think Cardello is right about the TV dinner marking the first time a food industry marketing gimmick had such an effect. Nevertheless, after only a couple of chapters, I'm finding Stuffed to be an eye-opening read. No doubt I'll have more to say about it here when I work my way through to the end.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Marion Nestle on Food Marketing, Nutrition, and Personal Choice

Marion Nestle reports on an encounter with a room full of food company executives and, in response, sums up her philosophy on marketing, nutrition and personal choice:

They said: "If you object to the way we market foods, you must be against business." As it happens, I am not against business. But I do have problems with unchecked greed, the use of misleading health claims to sell junk food, and the marketing of foods directly to children—especially when marketing to children undermines parental authority and, therefore, the personal choice of parents. I most definitely do believe in personal choice—when it is informed. To make informed decisions about food choice, you need truth in advertising, the whole truth and nothing but.

From Marion Nestle, What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (2006).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

George Orwell on Losing His Love of Books

In "Bookshop Memories," George Orwell writes of losing his love of books in a concluding paragraph which, it seems to me, fairly brims with a love of books:

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl's Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can't borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

From George Orwell, Books v. cigarettes (2008; essay first published in 1936).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Books v. cigarettes

George Orwell's Books v. cigarettes is a recent volume in Penguin's "Great Ideas" series. I'm a fan of Orwell's essays and, between the eye-catching title and the old-style Penguin cover design, I couldn't resist this slim volume of them. It contains a couple of my favourites, including "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," which I've quoted from here in past posts, and some I'd never read before, such as the title essay, "Books v. cigarettes." In the latter, Orwell sets out to prove that the buying and reading of books is not "an expensive hobby" that is "beyond the reach of the average person." I don't think it will ruin the suspense to tell you that he succeeds, and that he makes many entertaining observations along the way. Here's a snippet:

It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them. 'Books' includes novels, poetry, textbooks, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else, and length and price do not correspond to one another, especially if one habitually buys books second-hand. You may spend ten shillings on a poem of 500 lines, and you may spend sixpence on a dictionary which you consult at odd moments over a period of twenty years. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost in terms of money, may be the same in each case.

That final bit would make a fine meme don't you think? List: 1. A book you read over and over again; 2. A book that has become part of the furniture of your mind and has altered your whole attitude to life; 3. A book that you dip into but never read through; and, 4. A book that you read at a single sitting and forgot a week later. I'll have to think a bit on which book or books I'd list under each category. In the meantime though, I recommend Orwell's Books v. cigarettes as a book for dipping into and reading all the way through (and I note that at $9.99 Canadian, it doesn't cost much more than a pack of cigarettes!).

Sunday, March 08, 2009

" crime, after all, the backdrop is always one of the lead characters."

Tobias Jones on the pleasures (and the limitations) of crime fiction set in exotic locales:

The appeal of such books is that, as well as a good yarn, they offer the traveller the longed-for "feel" of a country. They serve up digestible slices of culture and history at the same time as giving you the pleasure of an old-fashioned page-turner. The marriage works well because in crime, after all, the backdrop is always one of the lead characters. Ross Macdonald told his readers far more about the underbelly of California than he ever did about Lew Archer. We read Scandinavian crime fiction largely because we're fascinated by countries simultaneously so similar yet different to ours. And people turn to Alexander McCall Smith or Ian Rankin in part for the same reason others sit on an open-top bus: they want to see the sights and sounds of Botswana or Edinburgh. Add to that the fact that we live in an era of cheap air travel and quick continental breaks, and it's hardly surprising that there's a demand for crime set in exotic locations.

For the rest of the article click here.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

More Library Loot

It's been another good week for me at the library. Here's a list of the books that I've picked up so far:

Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman, Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories From a Life in Food: I bought this one for my dad for Christmas and I confess that I had a good flip though his copy over the holidays. Now it's time to try a few of the recipes for myself and, if they're a hit, I'll buy myself a copy too.

The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards: This is the first in a mystery series set in the Lake District featuring Daniel Kind (an Oxford historian attempting to escape to a quieter life in the country) and DCI Hannah Scarlett. From the jacket copy description it sounds like just my sort of mystery, and I note that it got an enthusiastic blurb from Peter Robinson, one of my all-time favourite mystery authors.

The Trick of It by Michael Frayn: Nick Hornby's discussion of this one in Housekeeping v. The Dirt piqued my interest. It's about a professor who meets and marries the novelist whose work has been the central focus of his career as a literary critic. How could I resist a novel premised on a marriage between novelist and critic?

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky: This one appeared on Eva's list last week, and I immediately ordered a copy from my library. It struck me as an excellent complement to some of the other reading on poetry that I've been doing lately.

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo: I put a hold on this many months ago after seeing an interview with the author somewhere, and this week my name finally reached the top of the list. It's a memoir of Rotolo's years with Bob Dylan when he was in his early twenties making the transition from obscurity to fame, and she was a teenager finding herself in the cultural and political hotbed of Greenwich Village. She seems to have a very engaging voice and I'm sufficiently interested in the time and the place that I don't need the Bob Dylan hook to draw me in. But that aspect of it did bring to mind another New York memoir that I loved, Joyce Johnson's Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir.

Yes, I am having trouble keeping up with my reading.