I haven’t been as forthcoming about the theme of my latest cookbook as I have with previous ones – it’s not as easy to conceptualize as books about cookies or beans or Sunday suppers are. It’s called Dirty Food, I tell people when they ask what the book is called – like the opposite of “clean eating.” Usually they instantly get it, they laugh and nod in agreement, and I rarely have to unpack the idea further. (Though I don’t mind doing so.)
Earlier this year, wandering around the cookbook section of a large bookstore, I noticed, not for the first time, a recurring “clean” theme among the stacks of books on the display tables and tweeted a photo of Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest, Clean Plate, with the comment: “I want to start a dirty food movement.” A lot of people agreed. “SIGN ME UP” was the most common response. Perhaps it’s a general weariness of the constant expectation that we want to better ourselves, or of an industry worth more than Facebook and Google combined (the global annual weight-loss and weight-management market is projected to top US$278.95-billion by the end of 2023) that relies on our own perceived shortcomings. Perhaps we’re finally catching on to feigned perfection. Maybe we’re just hungry.
We believe we’re wise to it all, as diet culture evolves into the broader category of wellness. Old-school diets have become passé. “Diets don’t work!” we declare, congratulating ourselves for our progressive thinking. Yet, detoxes and cleanses abound, and then there’s keto, paleo, Whole30 and intermittent fasting. A third of Canadians – more than ever – follow a strict dietary regime, only now it’s all the time. Diets used to be temporary solutions to the problem of being a higher weight than is socially acceptable. It was, and still generally is, assumed that if you weren’t thin, you were constantly striving to be. These days, what we eat can become an all-encompassing belief system, a means of self-identity. It’s now less about calorie counting and more about eliminating certain foods or food groups, vilifying some and glorifying others, depending on the particular diet ideology. Good and evil is an easy concept to understand.
It’s part of our social lexicon to associate food with feelings of guilt. We think of it as cheating when we eat things we don’t think we should be eating and call them guilty pleasures. For all our progress toward body positivity, we still have plus sizes – literal labels for those of us with bodies that are larger than the world thinks they should be. People often helpfully suggest I buy clothes designed to hide a multitude of sins, a well-intentioned reminder that we’re all regarded as physical manifestations of our level of self-control and ability to do the right thing.
Last summer I was sharing dessert at a restaurant with a group of acquaintances when one remarked that, at the age of 40, no matter what she ate or how active she was (she admittedly mostly wasn’t), it never made a difference – she always weighed 110 pounds. Everyone nodded in semi-interested acceptance and that was it. But it made me wonder what the reaction would have been had I, at 250 pounds, said the same. To have a body that naturally skews toward heaviness is somehow less believable; society still attributes more pounds to laziness and gluttony. It is why I still default to being slightly self-conscious about eating desserts in public.
Flashback to the 1980s: one sunny afternoon, pre-teen me was waiting for my mom and sisters outside a corner store, eating a chocolate bar, a rare treat for us, when a woman walking down the sidewalk glared, pulled her child over by the arm and jabbed a finger toward me. “See that?” she said toward her daughter, looking me in the eye with an angry disgust I had not yet had directed my way, “That’s what will happen if you eat too much candy."
Identifying some food choices as “clean” makes other foods not so by default, which feels an awful lot like food shaming. Our eating habits are learned in part by example, as well as what we eat and how we talk about food day to day. Sure, most of us could stand to eat more leafy greens – but it needn’t become a moral high ground.
And so, to push back against this amorphous concept – the clean-eating catchphrase – that has no defining rules, and thus no opposite, I compiled a collection of the stickiest, messiest things I could think of, both literally and by name: sticky buns, sloppy joes, flaky biscuits and Eton mess – all perfectly suited to sharing. If we are what we eat, it should be reflective of a life well lived, of shared meals and celebrations, of the dishes family and friends have cooked for us, and to whom we’ve fed.
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