Relational Value

March 8, 2015

It may seem trite and it may be overworked but it doesn’t hurt to notice how comforting food can be to people from time to time. I’m not talking about so-called “comfort food”. That’s become a restaurant industry term for foods that hark back to the middle-class menus that were pretty standard across Middle America during the middle of the 20th century. The standard comfort foods are meatloaf, mashed potatoes and mac & cheese. There are probably a few other m foods in there. They may be largely responsible for the expanding middle of many middle-aged men. Today they are typically of middling quality, too.

A bit more seriously (if not particularly somberly), I’m taking a moment out here to celebrate a kind of food ethics that is focused on relational values. I have to pause and take a deep breath now because discoursing on ‘relational values’ could get rather ponderous, if not somber—and that could lead right on to pomposity. Not meaning to be pompous, I do mean indeed to speak on the pompitous of love (as Steve Miller had it), because when I say ‘relational value,’ I mean a value that is expressive or constitutive of a relationship. And no relationship throws off more pompitous heat than love.

We might be talking about family love. That would probably be the typical occasion for food-centered relational values (at least in Mid-Century Middle America). Mom’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes or mac & cheese could spark tender feelings, even when the mac & cheese came right out of the famous blue box. Whether or not these foods really were prepared out of a deep sense of caring (and I’m not saying they weren’t) they become emblematic of family relationships that tug on the heartstrings for many people. Not everybody, to be sure, and notice that I’m putting more than a little bit of distance between myself and the maudlin celebration of an idealized American Family that was more evident on ‘50s era sit-coms than it was in ‘50s era subdivisions. Lots of those moms were often distracted and busy, while others were dismissive and drunk. I’m coming off a chat with some friends who recount an episode where a mom dropped off her 7 year old at the bowling alley for a two hour birthday party beginning at noon then “forgot” to pick him up until around 8 o’clock that night.

But deflationary accounts of various mom’s cooking and caring aside, it doesn’t undercut the larger point of food as a conduit for relational values. In fact, a different kind of love relationship might actually be a better example. And no I’m NOT talking about Valentine’s Day chocolates. That’s maudlin, jejune, and more about selling stuff, too. I’m actually talking about a love we share with friends. Sometimes this takes the form of a ritual occasion—a shrimp boil or barbecue—where having something rather specific on the menu becomes one of key bricks in the construction and reconstruction of the event that also involves reconnection, reminiscence and relaxation. But it can also be sitting there across the table from a single individual while you are waiting for the pasta water to boil, the cookies to bake or even for your order of cheese fries to come. It may not require any particular kind of food, either. Last time it may have been sushi, and this time its green curry or pancakes. Nonetheless, the fact that it’s a food occasion may be pretty pivotal to that relational moment where simple caring and pleasure in on another’s company gets kindled.

Food can do that, and that’s something that no one who works in food ethics should ever be allowed to forget.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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