Friday, July 08, 2005

Single servings

Often I think the Harper's Annotation is gimmicky, but this months installment is a great example of how a careful analysis of one of our culture's typical commodities can reveal so much about the underlying value system that sustain it. Jon Mooallem analyzes the assumptions built into the Campbell's Soup-at-Hand, which comes in such improbable and nauseating flavors as "Pizza." His main point is that processed, single-serving foods further the disintegration of the eating rituals that once held together communities while at the same time squeezing out more profit for the same amount of food by selling it in smaller units. Mealtime is one of the fundamental things that unite people; it is emblematic of how human beings have throughout the history of the species cooperated to provide sustenance for each other. It organizes all our rules of etiquette and sets the stage for passing down the very code of civilization, the ingratiating politenesses that have traditionally oriented humans toward pleasing each other rather than conducting a never-ending battle of all against all. More to the point of the article, communing over soup, traditionally prepared in large quanities and respected for its curative powers, resonates with a sense of family, of sharing. But food like Soup-at-Hand is meant to be comsumed in a car alone -- an apparent disadvantage turned to a benefit by repackaging the stressed-out haste such charmless feeding implies as liberating convenience. Convenience always implies stress, not its absence. And one convenience always leads to the insatiable need for further conveniences, since convenience always implies that you should be spending no time on the activity you've tried to streamline. Soup-to-go is the next step toward that science-fiction ideal of food pills you pop with no thought to the sensual pleasures of eating. Eating is truly one of the fundamental pleasures of being alive, the most basic connection we have to furthering our existence, our most intimate relation to the powers that sustain the universe. That we could want to reduce that experience to Pizza Soup slammed into our piehole while we sit in a traffic jam suggests we've completely lost our humanity.

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