Sophie Egan’s “Devoured” looks beyond marketing and labeling to examine how what we eat shapes our identities in a hyperactive age. Egan will appear at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday, May 11.
We are a nation of 100-calorie snack packs and Doritos Locos Tacos, of Soylent meal-replacement drinks to improve our work efficiency, and lazy Sunday brunches to restore our souls.
Our complicated, contradictory meal choices are not news to most Americans. But author Sophie Egan delves deeper in “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies, How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” (William Morrow, 416 pp., $28.99), her exploration of “how our shared values as Americans” shape our eating habits.
Synthesizing academic and business research along with original interviews and observations, Egan, who will give a May 11 talk at Town Hall Seattle, has produced an engaging anthropological guide to our country’s obsession with Pumpkin Spice Lattes and affection for Two Buck Chuck.
The author of “Devoured” will appear in conversation with Timothy Egan at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
Her biggest service is highlighting the unseen coding behind the programmed food trends: While it’s fun to learn, say, that chicken wings have surpassed pizza as Super Bowl fixings, it’s more intriguing to hear Egan question how Super Bowl Sunday even became so food-centered, an American feasting opportunity second only to Thanksgiving.
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It’s more instructive still to see Egan’s more in-depth examination of the American workplace, which squeezes us for time to the point where we “purchase a four-minute microwaveable entree over a five-minute microwaveable entree.”
It’s provocative food for thought to hear her suggest that the Digital Revolution has plenty in common with the Industrial Revolution, with food “the fuel to be shoveled, like coal into a steam engine, as quickly as possible into the worker’s mouth so the worker can continue to produce.”
These sound like heavy observations, but Egan, program manager at the Culinary Institute of America (and a millennial Seattle native), keeps up a conversational style. Peppered with asides and digressions, the book reads more like a bonbon-studded TED talk than an eat-your-spinach slog.
Even seasoned food fanatics may find new tidbits here (who knew that food manufacturers had created “Cherkees,” chips merged with beef jerky, or “Chollives,” with green olives?)
Egan’s chosen lenses for the all-encompassing topic include the workplace, the trend of “selling absence” in the form of gluten-free or fat-free snacks, the “secular church” attracting young urbanites to brunch on Sundays rather than religious services, our susceptibility to fad diets, and the powerful business interests behind the flavorings in our foods.
A behind-the-scenes look at the development of that Doritos Locos Taco, a prime “stunt food,” leads into a discussion of the American way of craving both indulgences and health — and our love for ingenuity.
“Science and innovation are America’s bread and butter (if you’ll excuse the phrase), our prized global exports. So we’re apt to embrace those traits in everything from the Mars Rover and Facebook right on down to our pizza crusts and taco shells.”
We learn some surface information about Egan’s personal food leanings, but I would have read more after hearing her description of a grade-school year spent in a tiny Italian village (with father Timothy Egan, a Seattle author and journalist, and mother Joni Balter, a journalist and former Seattle Times columnist.)
One Easter Sunday, she woke to a whacking sound and the sight of “a dripping filleted rabbit” hanging on a clothesline. “I would never think of the Easter bunny in the same way again,” she wrote. In a less bloody fashion, she might change the way we think about food as well.