Wednesday, May 23, 2007

the mushy banana test

I have a test to determine Americanness. You could almost call it a “global test,” but that phrase carries unfortunate associations for certain people living clustered in or near urban regions. The test is quite simple. It involves asking a given person whether they would eat a mushy or bruised banana. If the person refuses to eat the banana, then they are either American, or its global equivalent, Australian or British, or a member of an Americanized third world elite.

Before class one day at Columbia, I was eating my lunch while my classmates chatted. When I pulled out a banana, mushed at one end by the books in my backpack, I decided to test my little hypothesis. “Would you eat this?” I asked my 8 or 10 quizzical classmates. They looked at me funny but answered one by one, and when they were done I laughed. “Well, I guess I was right,” I said. The Americans had said No, they would not want to eat it. The foreigners had said Yes, and the ones who had equivocated with a Maybe were either foreign-born long resident in the country or children of mixed American-foreign parents.

OK, very clever, my reader may be thinking now. But what is your point. Why does this quibbling detail matter in a world of war, poverty, and fear?

My point is that the disgust revealed in Americans’ response to mushy bananas can help to understand some crucial facets of mainstream American culture. Understanding this culture can lead to a comprehension of America’s actions politically.

My point is that a number of things in American life converge to teach kids and teenagers that food of a certain texture, mainly, slimy and soft, is disgusting. Have you ever seen an American slurping down chicken skin, that is, the kind not fried crisp? Have you ever known an American who really liked to chew fat with gusto? Have you ever seen a schoolkid open a lunchbox and, coming across a brown spot on a banana, say something other than “eww!” and eat the spot, rather than carefully breaking it off? My bet is that all your answers are a resounding “No!” Well then.

If this is the norm, then what might it all mean? My guess is that it relates to a deep-rooted taboo on sexuality, intersecting with a hatred and fear of ambiguity, of in-between states. The positive value put on our much-used adjectival phrase, “cut and dried,” can give us clues about the set of characteristics opposite the slimy and ambiguous. At bottom the food textures we detest are related to a detestation of the body itself, in particular a hatred of the body’s products of shit, mucous, semen, and menstrual blood. Things on the surface of the body (skin, hair) and things adjoining the body (clothes) are suspect unless they are clean, dry, and clearly delineated. Such a body is “safe” from the viewpoint of America’s two main cultural traditions: Puritanism and Enlightenment rationality. Puritanism continues to instill in us a horror at sexuality, especially that which oozes into the public realm. The people who complained to the FCC about Janet Jackson’s breast no doubt surf for porn and hump around like the rest of us. Private space can allow carefully controlled outbreaks of freaky fluidity and slipperiness. What they objected to was the belligerent, direct way a breast barged onto the public stage without so much as a “by your leave.”

The other tradition, Enlightenment rationalism, is already a part of Puritanism, which grew up around the same time in England and Scotland. Rationality holds that the logical mind’s main job is to perceive immediate reality and control it by slotting every detail of life into general categories. Puritanism, certainly, is a rational religion, a belief system which places responsibility for discerning right and wrong with the believer.

So sex, as a scene of profound mixing and loss of control, is linked to politics in a hundred ways. If politics is in part a non-stop negotiation of proper boundaries and categories – what might be shown on TV? Who might fall into the category “disabled”? -- then sex plays a large part in this negotiation. One definition of public space in America is space where children are “protected” from direct displays of sexuality. One repercussion of this rule is that the public sphere now is deluged with thinly veiled sexuality in advertising, images far more erotic than Janet’s old breast. One need only visit other countries to see that their definitions of public sphere are different. In Mexico, a young woman I had just met reached up around my neck and began kissing me with some abandon. It was – well, it was wonderful, of course. But I had to make an effort to believe that the people passing by me were not judging me most harshly, as I stood there, eyes closed, lips and tongue thoroughly entwined with hers.

Children in this country are well aware of this prohibition, and so become very adept at protecting parents from their own sexuality. Acts of sexual rebellion tend to be conducted in secret, and so they in fact shore up the terms of the sexual taboo, which is not so much a prohibition of sexuality as it is a prohibition of sexuality outside the private. The young woman who pleasantly surprised me so in Puebla surprised me even further by asking if I wanted her Mom to give me a ride back to my hotel. Just as sure as you will never see an American eat a mushy banana, nor will you every see a young American woman blithely introduce a much older man to her mother – much less a man who only minutes before was making out with her in the plaza. I had not quite believed her mom was really picking her up, until she said “There she is!” and pulled me toward the VW bug at the curb. I climbed into the back seat guiltily, saying “mucho gusto” to an unfazed, pleasant mother. “Where is your hotel?” she asked.

But back to mushy bananas. Where did I notice this point of American uniqueness? My first notice was in a Madurese village, in Indonesia, where I sat among village men at a wedding party on woven mats. Trays of food were distributed, and we all gulped down the rich, oily chicken stew. I of course daintily left aside the pieces of fat and slimy skin. But I noticed that the lean, work-pared men around me gobbled those bits most greedily of all. Suddenly this taken-for-granted habit of mine was shown up as something not at all universal, something related to America’s own history. In Indonesia, too, I ate my share of bananas, and came to find that the most delicious were often of a rather custard-like, almost slimy texture. And the people around me thought nothing of brown spots on bananas, and indeed, I realized that if I had not seen the discoloring or noticed the slimy texture, the taste differed not at all. Five years later, in China, I was confronted at a banquet with the need to politely partake of a well known dish of pork fat, well marinated. To my surprise, it tasted remarkably good. If I tried, I was able to put a bite in my mouth without cringing, and to savor the taste.

Now, even more years later, it is crystal clear to me that fat is the flavor jewel of most cooking. But in this country, the slippery and slimy in foods has somehow become an unconscionable metaphor for all that is unacceptable. Our disgust is a bodily response, but bodies are trained in culture. As a result, our meat is trimmed lean and skin and rind is stripped away. And our need for fat is routed stealthily through unseen fats (in processed foods), with the aid of the food industry, or into visible fats (cheese) of an acceptable texture. Just as our desire for sex is routed through the false visual titillation of TV and the cartoonish unreality of porn, our desire for fat is simultaneously repressed and indulged – but indulged in ways far less healthy than the a direct satisfaction of those needs.

Of course, there is an added element of conscious moral disgust (as opposed to the veiled moral disgust of a visceral, bodily reaction), a disgust that accrued gradually over the 20th century. I believe that this moral disgust is genetic kin and offspring of Puritan preoccupations with work and sloth and the body. In short, we now thoroughly hate and fear fat on human bodies. It is not a big step to distrust of fat in food, especially visible (in my terms, “honest fat”). So fat, unlike mushy bananas and okra and other creepy foods, has an added layer of approbrium. Not only is it disgusting in its profound, slimy, slippery way, with its intimations of things taboo for children (shit, for instance), but it is also suspect in a conscious way, as an edible material linked to the corrupting vice of laziness and lack of productivity. “Cottage cheese thighs” is the most vivid metaphor for this disgust. It is no accident that this most intensely hated feature is located in women’s bodies, even though men too are fat. Fat in women’s thighs is compared to a slimy food that is just barely acceptable to the mainstream. Puritan horror at idleness and indulgence and bodies is joined to ever more powerful corporate neuroses regarding “inefficiency” and “lack of flexibility.” Fat people are living, breathing embodiments of all that is suspect to both Cotton Mather and Jack Welsh. Fat people are unfortunate metaphors who never asked to be metaphors.

And yet Americans, largely due to the “conveniences” of suburban life, are fat. How cruel is this result? For it is, I believe, a puritanical desire for social purity around the nuclear family that intensified America’s rush to the suburbs after the war. And yet this impulse to social cleansing results, in the long term, in an overwhelming emptiness of existence, and emotional oversensitivity, (not to mention lack of walking) that combine to find solace in food. And this indulgence in food is enjoyed but not enjoyed, always nagged by (especially for women) guilt and self-hatred. Just consult any women’s magazine around the holiday season. What began as an endeavor of social purity a la self-removal from corrupt cities ended up with a fragile, lonely, and morally weak self – a fat self, a self guilty of indulgence but too lonely to stop, a self substituting internet fantasies and Ben and Jerry’s for a social life and bodily pleasure in sex, dancing, or eating. I am not arguing that other sectors of American society are physically healthier. One can walk through any Navajo reservation or Jewish or Black neighborhood and see fat people and smokers. What I see in the Anglo-Saxon suburbs is a level of denial and angst and self-hatred over such physical and moral weakness not present in urban or rural society, especially of non-Protestant cultures.

The suburbs remain the location in American life where these self-destructive taboos have reached a cruel triumph. For what is the convenience so reputed to adhere to liife in the suburbs but the ease of separation over the work of negotiation, which is itself the hear of culture? The chief convenience, of course, is emotional convenience. With one’s own house separated from the neighbor’s by a good distance, one can dwell absolutely within one’s own nuclear family without having to deal with anyone else but one’s coworkers. Doors are far enough apart that one can generally walk out the door and get in the car without needing to pretend friendliness to one’s neighbor. One can credibly claim “not to have seen” the other person. Self check out in supermarkets allows one to evade the awful burden of uttering the words “thank you” to the lower class person working the cash register.

Sharing a wall with someone is a mental burden suburbanites feel is not worth bearing. Sharing a wall or a hallway or a floor with someone carries with it a need for negotiation, whether friendly or hostile: asking them to turn down the music, or being asked to keep one’s dog from yelping at night. The internet takes this separation even further. Video rental eviscerated the movie theatre experience by allowing people to retreat into the living room and so avoid the presence of others while watching a movie. But the growth of DVD services like Netflix threaten to do away even with this modest foray into public. Now one does not even need to leave the house to receive entertainment. As usual, the latest technological assault on public space is applauded as an “advance” in the media. The internet threatens to turn the already reclusive suburban lifestyle into a positively hermit-like and hermetic existence – except, of course, for going to work.

In the suburbs, separation and demarcation are seen as the solution for any and every friction in social life. Space separates people from each other. Ultimately, the suburbs serve as an extreme escape from any and all sociability, and hence, from democratic life. Without society and social space and social interaction, there is no democratic life. Democracy retreats further to the arena of “experts,” elite donors, and media figures. The suburbs are a fatal retreat into oceans of private fantasy and nuclear family pressure. If there were not so many suburbs in this country, there would not be so many churches, nor so many internet porn sites nor so many brands of ice cream. All these things are sought out by desperate suburbanites drowning in the ocean of the sinful, lonely self.

American suburbanites not only wish to avoid the frictions of social life. They see no pleasure in social life either. One need only get to know a person from a society not yet dissected by technology and wealth into solitary individuals. Such people grew up in neighborhoods and social circles that were pulsing with vitality, conflicts, loves, and competitions. My classmate from Iran, Shahla, is incredibly tough. Her emotional skin is tough. She does not tire from human contact as do I and my American classmates.

Americans would decidedly prefer not to bite into a mushy banana. Americans would rather starve emotionally than enter into the messiness and ambiguity of neighborhood relationships. What people eat and don’t eat is partly idiosyncratic. I can’t stand cilantro, for example. But there are general culinary taboos in each society’s cultural subconscious. These taboos are nearly unanimous, and if investigated and questioned, these taboos will tell tales. What is going on in America’s hatred of mushy, slimy foods? My belief is that the inability of Americans to stomach such foods is emblematic, indirectly, of suburban life in this country. The suburbs typify our craving – part Puritan, part Enlightenment, part corporate – for the cut-and-dried, whether in social relations, in our relation with nature (hence the taboo on fish served with heads on), whether in sex, whether in food. The mushy banana just won’t cut it. The mushy banana offends all the taboos of our infancy and youth. The mushy banana offends our collective moral taboos.

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