September 24th, 2015
It was Aristotle who fixed the notion of humanity as zōon politikon, that is, a political animal. His meaning was not that we have an intrinsic interest in endless election seasons, but rather that we only live up to our full potential when living as part of a polis, or community. It’s an interesting distinction that has withstood the test of time; chimpanzees are damnably smart, but you’ll never see two of them cooperating to, say, carry a heavy object. By contrast, humankind works together compulsively, all the way back to the very first collaborative project, dinner.
Now, if we can reach our full potential in community, we must admit that this includes a potential for bad as well as good. So it’s unsurprising to see how we take social cues from food, even as we also use food as a lever in the see-saw of competing notions of just what a polis ought to look like.
Consider how many of your significant memories of travel orbit around food? In one way, it’s obvious; eating the food of another culture is an inescapable and profound encounter with different ways of living. But the social context of how the food comes to you is also rich territory. London freelancer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Brit who spent time waitressing in France, and her bicultural waitstaff experience is eye-opening. Spoiler alert: it’s not because the French are haughty.
Far from the land of sidewalk cafes, another battle for dignity is being waged. I’m talking about the unlikely Pacific Northwest polis of SeaTac, a ten square mile community charmlessly named for the three square mile airport which it envelopes like a suburban amoeba. Twenty-seven thousand people live in SeaTac (the town) while forty thousand work at SeaTac (the airport) and the overlap between the two populations is substantial. That’s why, after having their wages ground ever lower by the airlines, the residents of SeaTac took a shot at getting decently paid in a totally different way. Their weapon was the ballot box, and the law they passed turned $15-per-hour into the SeaTac’s minimum wage.
Now, with the law declared legit by the state’s legal apparatus, Seattle has followed the lead of its tiny neighbor. Unsurprisingly, this trigged voluminous commentary from opponents of the concept, who declared that the new wage has already lead to devastation in Seattle’s restaurant industry. The only problem is, it’s not really a problem.
Neither, it turns out, was Pope Francis’s stance on coca leaves, which you can think of as either (a) a traditional part of indigenous Andean culture, a mild stimulant which relieves thirst, fatigue, hunger, discomfort and altitude sickness or (b) when blended with Western technology and predilections, a Schedule II Controlled Substance fueling incalculable folly, greed and violence. As you might have guessed if you’ve been paying attention, Francis is in the first camp. So when the one-and-a-half lunged pope traveled to the world’s highest city, El Alto, 13,000 feet up in the Bolivian mountains, he availed himself of coca leaf tea to mitigate the effects of altitude. He also wore a traditional coca leaf bag which was presented to him. Small things, to be sure, and symbolic. But symbols can go a long way to healing the soul of the zōon politikon.
The opposite of symbolic and healing is found in the Holy Land (a name which has exceeded the maximum allowable irony limit). This is where Israel has weaponized water in their effort to “sivilize” the Palestinians. Food and water have always been used as truncheons, but this is a particularly naked example, a sort of imposed drought. I suppose the notion is that people eventually leave drought-ravaged landscapes, much like the Oakies did during the Dust Bowl. Of course, it helps to have a non-drought-ravaged California to flee to, instead of…? Where exactly?
I sure most of you have heard how lobster was once considered borderline inedible, the kind of thing that indentured servants in colonial America were forced to endure. Chicken, too, was once beneath contempt, which is why it became a slave food. Last Thanksgiving, Andrew Lawler wrote an intriguing gloss on how the humble chicken is woven throughout the social fabric of the United States, from African foodways, to Chinese trade, Jewish religious strictures, wars, depression, you name it. What strikes me about the history is how the journey of the chicken itself more completely embodies the melting-pot-meritocracy American Dream than nearly any of the families sitting down to dine on it.