Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Survivor Shoney's

I propose the all-you-can-eat buffet line is an excellent military training ground, and no place for the doves among us. What can you expect but trouble, when strangers armed with forks square off for the dearest of prizes known in all of evolution? Food. There sits the mother lode — a bottomless treasure chest spilling forth golden macaroni and cheese, winking seductively in the perfect light. Mothers with small children must take them up into protective arms, grandmothers get knocked down for the last piece of apple strudel, and entire trays of fried chicken get carted off by the most aggressive of our species.

I’ve been thinking lately about all the times I’ve witnessed selfish or angry or sensitive behavior around food. It’s not limited to the buffet line. I once had a date take my head off because I playfully took one of his French fries, as though come the dawn all fries would experience the Rapture. A friend seemed to writhe in pain if I looked across the table as she was eating — “Don’t watch me!” (“Okayyy. We’ll talk after lunch … ’’) And I’ve been glared at for casually saying someone’s meal in a restaurant looked good, as though I was going to ask the diner to give it up.

Some fraction of people seem extraordinarily touchy-touchy about food. I’ve begun to wonder about the evolutionary reasons, or the cultural, ancient tribal norms that unconsciously made their way through some family lines. Anyone who’s watched a PBS series on any of the great apes has probably seen murderous squabbles for food. That date of mine with the fries sure looked like an ape, throwing an arm around his plate and sulking over the rest of his dinner. As for tribal “norms,” Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People will make even hawks cower, at just how depraved about food we humans can be. It is a shocking antithesis of hisThe Forest People, about a peaceful, loving, hunter-gatherer group, which many likely have read in college.

 Some of the jacket quotes:

“A beautiful and terrifying book of a people who have become monstrous almost beyond belief …. As Turnbull’s writing weaves in and out between outrageous acts and his own outrage, he emphasizes again and again how fragile the structure of a society is.” — Margaret Mead

“An important book, for it represents an anthropological field study of a unique people — a people who are dying because they have abandoned their humanity. The parallel with our own society is deadly.” — Ashley Montagu

Indeed. We’ve been known to kill and be killed in the paradigm of the scarcity model. But that’s not all we’ve been known for. As oil dwindles and the impossibility of limitless growth becomes apparent, we will have to cooperate. My family’s dabbling in a homestead makes that abundantly clear. A dairy and lots of other similar endeavors are full-time operations far beyond our humble capabilities. Veterinarians, mechanics, construction workers, and so many others have skills we could never hope to collect up in one family, in their entirety. We can’t save seed for everything we grow, because so many plants hybridize, creating something uncertain and probably inedible in their next generation. Small farmers will have to work together, to put some distance between certain food plants so that they don’t cross …

On and on the examples could go. We’re in for a bumpy ride, and I expect, some heightened “Mountain People”-like behavior — depraved, monstrous — on macro- and micro-levels. But let’s not forget:  in our whole human existence, egalitarianism didn’t completely suck, as a survival strategy. Often, it undoubtedly saved us.


  1. We'll really need some heavy-duty "trail magik" to survive.......

  2. * I should add that Colin Turnbull is also held up as an example of ethnocentricity, the Great White anthropologist none of us wants to be. But these are STILL great books; his ethnocentricity is interesting in and of itself.

  3. As with any other species now extant, we survived due to a multiude of behaviors and... dumb luck. Many behaviors exist despite any utility to the species, locally or universally. Conversely, some behaviors become manifest at a young age and are never 'civilized away.'

    One of my brothers-in-law literally guards his plate of food and eats as hastily as possible--a sight to be avoided.

    One of his brothers is far less guarded, though he piles his plate high, eats rapidly and seeks more, much more, it would seem, than his five foot five inch frame should reasonably accommodate.

    They are members of a sibling group of eight, who grew up in a middle class environment.

    I have always felt vulnerable while eating and would tend to eat alone and with my back to a wall, any wall. It may be due to my eating small amounts very slowly.

    Although that changed after I married, eating away from home still has its challenges.

    Regardless of the dynamics of food acquisition, preparation and consumption, various survivability traits exist.

    Some traits are tribally conferred, or mandated, while others may be randomly influenced and become traits which enhance species survival.

    So it is with shared communal skills. Those traits which best ensure group survival will enhance species survival. Ethnocentricity will die out in favor of skill diversity.

    It is the way of things, and will be the way of the future.

  4. Very interesting to have someone chime in, with experience of these behaviors. I meant to add the one about eating alone -- I've known those people, too, who prefer not to join the family table. It has always struck me, because eating is so universally considered a social activity. Well, not for everyone!

  5. I like sharing food. It's one of my favourite things.

    And yes, some people are quite bizarre around food. I tend not to eat with people who mantle like birds of prey over their dinner. One of the joys of having dinner is nicking bits.

    Lawrence and I ofter dip in and out of each other's dinner when we eat out.

    I think it's because I live to the Abundance Model of Life. Pleasure is no fun if you don't share.

  6. Hear hear! Seems to me whether one lives with the "Abundance Model" or the "Scarcity Model" has little to do with actual material circumstances. Maybe tracks from our childhoods ... A twist on the old saying: "I've lived with abundance, and I've lived with scarcity. Abundance is better."

  7. In my experience, the most generous of people have been those who really understood about scarcity.

  8. So true -- material scarcity, anyway. A lack of love can go any direction, though, I think.