A popular imaginary exchange between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, based on their literary legacies, goes like this:
“The rich people are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald says.
“Yes, they have more money,”Hemingway replies.
I disagree. Rich and poor may all be homo sapiens and have two legs, two arms, walk erect and all the rest of it, but having less or more of things is a key variable, setting their perspective on things very wide apart indeed. So it’s not the rich people’s simply having more money that’s different, it’s their entire understanding of the world that is.
I may be neither rich nor poor, but I do belong to the genus of homo sapiens, and I do have an understanding of things (I hope!), so I believe I have the required credentials, Montaigne-style, to have my say on things concerning the rich, the poor, and those in-between alike. In doing this, I’ll summon high-profile support from a person, who I believe would also have much to say on the repartee above. It’s English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic George Orwell (1903-1950).
In his 1930s book The Road to Wigan Pier, describing the bleak living conditions among the working class in the industrial north of England before WWII, Orwell dwells on the diet of the revolting poor, offering insight into a question that seems to surface in all ages: Why do people spend what little money they have on canned, processed, tasteless, or too tasty, the artificial way, but surely poor quality food, instead of buying fresh produce and enjoying its natural and unadulterated, but allegedly bland taste? (How come we think of this as bland and what is taste anyway are great food for thought.)
Let me offer you Orwell’s quite lengthy answer, part of Chapter 6:
The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet.
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […]
When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pen north of chips Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.
…Surely, I must be quite abnormal, out of the ordinary, or a millionaire, as I would most definitely live, and in fact quite often do, on raw fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts, and actually enjoy them. I guess that’s the mid-21st century equivalent of Orwell’s orange juice and wholemeal biscuits, as both items have in the meantime entered mass production, thereby strengthening the ranks of junk food.
Be that as it may, the excerpt above was written in the late 1930s. Nearly a century has passed since then, and it is a shame that all the political and economic talk that has flown under the bridge in the meantime, has not helped eradicate such a state of abject poverty as Orwell describes. It seems that it has so much failed to do so, that Orwell’s words are used to fight, and even ridicule, a laudable present-day initiative of cook Jamie Oliver, aimed at teaching people how to economically prepare tasty food from scratch. Relating to both parts of the previous sentence – how, for God’s sake, have we come to this?
Please consider the quote below. Its closing lines are remarkable, a fully-saturated solution of things I disagree with:
No wonder the poor crave sensation – salt, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, drugs – in any form they can get it. Perhaps they would be better off if they had a better diet and I don’t doubt Oliver’s sincerity in trying to help people cook better – but still cheap – food but, often, people don’t eat poorly because they’re stupid or lazy but because that’s the food available to them and, actually, because they want something a little more “tasty” than stale bread.
I know another group in today’s society – its building block in fact – that craves sensation, novelty, and achievement, benefits, or privilege without knowledge or effort. It’s consumers, the heir to the revolting poor of Orwell’s times. Pray, no ordinary human being would live on brown bread and raw carrots? Very true, as to be good citizens, ensure y/y growth of the food and related businesses and keep their jobs, the ordinary human beings of today surely require for their health and proper nourishment suitably priced, man-engineered, beautifully packaged, bliss-point perfect, dehydrated, hydrogenated, hydrolised, recomposed, decomposed and whatnot substances shaped into 1,001 breakfast cereal varieties, chocolate and protein bars, super soft bread, pizzas, hot-dogs, burgers, candy, or ready meals fortified by the entire Mendeleev table?
We, the consumers of today, who drive decent cars, shop at overpriced malls and swipe our fingers across the screen of the latest iPhone model, do have the resources to choose, and more often than not we choose sensation, craving stimulation the way Orwell’s poor allegedly do.
While we’re at it, we give up bit by bit the accomplishments of hard work and reason that helped distinguish the human genus homo sapiens, or the wise man, from the chimpanzee. Instead, we become homo consumens, a quasi invertebrate species stimulated by things glitzy and tasty. How undignified.
I’m very interested in what, why and how got people’s diets the way they are today. Thinking it over, I’ve stumbled upon a simple idea living by which, the way it usually is with most things simple, is not easy:
Food is raw or is something you cook. Eating stuff coming out of a box is an affront to evolution,
PS. Hedonism for you. Just because it tastes good, it doesn’t make it right. (Great song, but I apologise for the very silly video.)
PPS. I giggled when I remembered this song, it’s slightly paranoid, but so very in line with our subject at hand and the approaching Lent. Mike Vescera is surely a great singer. And Yngwie, with his Bach-inspired intros and masterful solos…! I feel 16 again, listening to this.
PPPS. An earlier post in favour of animal slaughter. Growing meat in a jar to safeguard the rights of farm animals would surely make Lucifer so proud, wouldn’t it? (check out Yngwie’s lyrics for clarification on this.)