Monday, October 13, 2014

All Food is "Real" Food

"Real food." This is a phrase I see a lot in my Internettin': on Facebook and blog posts, on Twitter, on professional ("professional") articles.

I can't stand it. First of all, unless you're having a pretend tea party with a child, all the food you're eating is real. It exists. It can be eaten. It has calories, (some) nutrients, and if you eat it you will at least keep from starving to death. (I also have a serious bone to pick with the market's decision to use "organic" to refer to a specific subset of food, but that's a rant for another day.) Some food may not be up to your standards of what is nutritious, or healthy, or whatever, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Second of all, there is a serious level of inherent snobbery in describing some foods as "real" and implying that others are fake or fraudulent. Usually the snobbery is intended to be self-directed, like, "Oh, I lost some weight after I decided to eat more real food"—implying that you think your eating habits of the past are subpar. But language like this cannot ever be only self-directed. There are always going to be people who now eat like you did. Language like this damages other people.

Third, it ignores the economic reality for many families: prepackaged foods and meals (the implied Other to the raw, unprepared, straight-from-the-plant-or-animal goods that are "real foods") are an essential staple of their survival, both in terms of sustenance as well as mental health. Preparing food is a ceaseless and often thankless task, especially when you're talking for an entire family, and assuming that low-income parents who may be working physically demanding jobs (and maybe even two or three of them!) should somehow find it in their psychic reserve to spend the rare moment of free time they have doing more work is grossly insensitive. Yes, cooking from scratch is cheaper—if you only consider the money. Cooking costs time and energy, too (that's part of the price you pay for ready-made food: the convenience) and unless you happen to enjoy cooking as a hobby, that is not time or energy well spent.

"But I'm not saying they should!" you insist. But every time you talk about how you and your family usually only eat "real food," you are inviting the comparison of someone worse off, someone whose Tuesday night savior is a can of Dinty Moore (this was the case in my house growing up) because there is no time or energy to make something "real." Judgmental language naturally invites comparison and it makes it clear on which side of the comparison your sympathy lies.

This is especially potent in parenting. There is, no doubt, an entire book to be written about the role of authenticity when it comes to raising children. A whole chapter could be spent on "real" food, and how advertising, the media, and society constantly reaffirm love is paired with authenticity and what society deems to be the best, healthiest foods, while neglect or, at best, parental inability, is paired with the inauthentic, and the lower-class "fake" foods deemed to be unhealthy or at least not sufficiently "healthy."

People have an overwhelming need for labels for everything in life, and the food they eat falls under that category: vegan, vegetarian, real food, organic food, paleo, low-carb, no-carb, and on and on. But more than any of those other labels, "real" food brings with it a nasty Other, an implied Less-Than. Don't be that asshole. Stop calling your specially-designated dietary selections "real food." It's all real food.

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