March 23, 2014
Norman Wirzba was on campus at MSU this week. He gave a rousing foodie talk to an audience of mostly undergraduates. He was encouraging them to think about where their food comes from, and since Norm is a theology professor at Duke University, he didn’t shrink from the God-talk in making his case. I picked up on a different point. Norm started his talk by encouraging everyone to pay attention to the words that we use in connection with food. He was railing against the tendency to speak as if food were a mere commodity. It’s a nice theme for the Thornapple blog, but neither of my regular readers will be surprised to learn that it’s not where I’m heading this morning.
I would tie Norm’s concern about the words that we use to the conversation we’ve been having here in the blog about food ontology. Well, I know, I know. How can you use the word “conversation” when you are pretty much just talking to yourself? AS IF someone was even listening! That, too, is an ontological question, but it’s one that would take this week’s blog further and further from the food theme, so I’ll bag it and just keep on with that skeptical (but attentive) conversation partner who exists in my imagination.
I’d like to take food ontology in almost the opposite direction Norm went. While Norm was focused on “mere commodities”, I’ll query those foods that purport to be homemade. I’d like to start with an observation on the robot that lives inside my computer and who monitors my spelling. This robot (don’t know if it’s he or she) is obsessed with correctness. He/she slips up now and then, as he/she did when I meant to write something about “lab courses” earlier this week and wrote “lab curses” instead. One of those quasi-Freudian slips (had it something to do with sex), I think. But my robot has absolutely no trouble with “homemade”. It’s not a mistaken contraction of “home” and “made”, as if we were trying to say that something was made at home. Nope. It’s a real word.
Homemade foods are supposed to be just the opposite of commodities, which are something you bought at the store or at a fancy restaurant. Or maybe not even a particularly fancy restaurant. Just one that cranks it out, assembly-line style. Homemade foods may have little imperfections, but they are delectable. They are what Mom used to make, or if you had a working mother, what Grandma used to make. They are not particularly efficient. They take time. They come out just a little different every time, but there is a certain consistency to them that tells everyone in the know that this was made in the kitchen of some special person. I should protect myself against the flood of angry comments by noting quickly that although if we look backwards it usually was an at-home woman (we used to call them homemakers) who did this, the adjective “homemade” could and not infrequently did apply to something made by a working woman (not necessarily a mother) or even a male. In the latter case, it was barbecued ribs, generally.
But being the acute observer of cultural trends that I am, I’ve noticed that “homemade” is in decline and “house made” is on the rise. Note that we don’t conjoin these words. My robot (who approved of lab curses) would want “housemaid”, instead. And note that they don’t really mean the same thing, anyway. “House made” is made by “the house” (as if buildings could cook), which means by the establishment at which one is either dining or otherwise procuring food. House made foods are intended for sale. I was down at the Soup Spoon on Michigan Avenue earlier in the week for a rare breakfast away from home, so I treated myself to some of their house made smoked salmon. Not bad, I might add.
House made is substituting for homemade on restaurant menus. And maybe this is just a turn toward truth in advertising. I mean if you are sitting there ordering off a menu, you would probably rather have something conjured up in the restaurant kitchen than something one of the server’s brought in from his or her grandmother’s. Food safety and all that. But rather than honest representation I suspect that it’s just a deflation in language of the same sort that’s already claimed the homemade. When proprietors go down to Sam’s Club to buy up the super-pack of generic or (hey, let’s splurge) Nature Valley™ granola bars, then go back to the restaurant and break them up into little bite-size pieces, I’m sorry. That does not qualify their granola as “house made.”
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University