From Sanka to Sushi

February 15, 2015

“From Hank to Hendrix, I’ve always been with you,” Neil Young once sang. This would have been some time ago, and by “some time” I mean about the same amount of time from today as the “Hank to Hendrix” interval Neil was singing about back then. I wonder, can we use food to mark time in the same way?

I was watching some movie or TV show set in the late 50s or early 60s recently (and by “recently” I mean the last week) where Sanka was on offer. It wasn’t a crucial plot point but one of those little period details that screenwriters use to create a sense of time and place. I’m not sure of the resonance for this particular little detail. I can imagine asking a roomful of my undergraduates, “How many of you have ever heard of Sanka?” and getting only two or three hands in the air. But I can remember a time when household guests or even restaurant patrons would have been offered Sanka instead of decaf. I suppose it was a marvel of the advertising age that some ad campaign had been so successful in fixing this particular brand name equation into people’s heads that it became part of the common vernacular for a time. I’m sure there are a few households where it’s still the term of art for decaffeinated coffee here in 2015.

If we take the “Hank to Hendrix” time span it would put us back into the mid 90s. That would have been about the time that I had my first sushi, though I’m sure that I was a relative latecomer to this particular food experience in comparison to many others. I moved from College Station, TX, where there was no sushi in the mid 90s, to West Lafayette, IN. The house across the street from me in West Lafayette was owned by Subaru and occupied by a succession of Japanese executives detailed to Northwest Indiana to serve as liaison to the home office for the assembly plant over on the East Side. The legend was that the company had also underwritten the operation of a very high quality Japanese restaurant in West Lafayette so that their executives would not refuse this posting altogether. Whether true or not, there were not one but two very good Japanese restaurants in town when I moved there in 1997. I don’t really recall when I first ate sushi, but it couldn’t have been long after that move.

We have more sushi places than I could possibly count here in the Lansing-East Lansing-Okemos metroplex. I’m sure there are more than several in College Station by now. So how was it that Americans gave up drinking Sanka and started eating sushi? What does that mean?

One thing it points to is the thrust for novelty in our diets. From what I read in the history books, a diverse diet was a privilege of the rich until well into the 20th century. The taste for novelty was, I think, rather slow in developing, and it was almost certainly hurried along by the food industry’s need for profits. We were trained to look for brand names during the early decades of the 20th century, and once habituated the competitive spirit led food processers to search for any possible edge they might get over their competition. Anything different would have been a natural thing to try, but not too different (a subject we’ve blogged about at least once before).

As the parade of new foods lengthens, we gain the ability to mark time by our food fads. We see both exploring new foods and then their mass consumption as a form of fashion. Changes in fashion would not be fashionable if there wasn’t something trivial about the whole shtick. But I’m down with the people who think that we should take fashion somewhat more seriously when it comes to thinking about culture and the day to day practices from which our lives are actually made.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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