From my long-ago academic days of studying cultural linguistics, I learned to marvel at the complex relationship between language and behavior. Which influences which? Is language largely a reflection of our cultural behavior, or can language itself influence behavior? And many years later, after an intense crash course in political strategizing and media training, I learned how “framing” makes all the difference, and came to respect the power words have to influence a vote.
In this vein, I’d like to address our current national language of food. Since when do basic words such as “food,” “cheese,” “meat” and “produce” need to be modified with words such as “good,” “natural,” “healthy,” “organic” and “whole,” in order to assure us that they are the “real” deal? Without these modifiers, we’re left to wonder if our food is fractured, unhealthy or unnatural. And I don’t believe that I’m alone in noticing the exhaustive use of the words “sustainable” and “responsible” when describing farming and other lifestyle practices that aren’t threatening the health of our people and the planet. Why can’t we start modifying the reverse? Perhaps if we were shopping in the “fake food” aisles or buying food from “irresponsible farms” we’d pause and wonder exactly what we’re ingesting and where we’re investing our food dollars.
Austinite Joaquin Avellán of Dos Lunas Artisan Cheese makes his cheeses at a dairy farm near Schulenburg using unpasteurized milk from Jersey cows. Like other cheese artisans in this country, he must call his product “raw cheese” in order to sell it at the farmers markets or retail stores. This same product, when produced and sold at his parents’ dairy farm—Finca el Susurro de San Benito in Baranitas, Venezuela—is simply called “queso.” Avellán points out that in Europe, cheeses are primarily made from raw milk and are also just called “cheese”—no need for the scary “raw” modifier that gives some of his customers pause. With all of the ingredients—including unpasteurized milk—listed on the label, why can’t Avellán market his cheese as just “cheese”?
Patrick Van Haren, owner of Microbial Earth—which specializes in soil restoration—recently attended a meeting of the Sustainable Food Policy Board of Austin and Travis County. At the meeting, Van Haren offered a proposal to create an annual county fair that would celebrate small, sustainable farms, responsible farming practices and artisan foods—an event much like those he experienced growing up in Canada that recognized the integrity of his father’s farm and influenced his understanding of good land stewardship. What to call it? Let’s just call it a “county fair” and let the event itself define exactly what that means.
A step in this direction is a national initiative called “Food Day” that will take place on October 24. Draped with the snappy slogan “It’s Time to Eat Real, America!,” the initiative’s purpose is to improve national health through the promotion of safe, healthful foods, to protect the environment and animals by supporting sustainable farms and to expand access to healthful food for all. What we do to participate in Food Day will, in essence, be taking back how we define “food.”
So does language influence behavior, or does behavior define our words? Assuming that both are true, we have an opportunity to make our food words meaningful again. Author and food activist Michael Pollan nailed it when he answered the question of what we should eat to be maximally healthy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” “Food” should always mean “real food” and “farming” should always be “responsible.” If it isn’t, call it something else.