Cleaner, greener, and leaner-than-thou: the politics of ethical eating


The first time I bought tahini a few weeks ago, I plucked the then unfamiliar product from the shelf and turned it over in my hands, examining the purple label. “Tahini is a thick paste made from ground sesame seeds. It is most commonly used as a flavouring ingredient in Middle Eastern dishes such as houmous, dips and salad dressings.” Next to this description was a small opaque saddled white camel, stamping the appropriated culinary product with an ethnographic symbol of its origin.

A study put out last year by the Pew Research Center gives statistical evidence for the already apparent correlation between assuming more left-wing ideologies and attending university. Not to mention  that in the past decade, this shift toward liberal socio-political thinking is becoming even more commonplace within student bodies, creating more heavily concentrated liberal atmospheres on campuses. I personally, having come from quite a conservative background, can attest to this university effect on my own changing socio-political belief system. Using more colloquial terms, higher levels of academic engagement do seem to have a positive correlation to being ‘awoken.’ Read up a little on feminist theories, queer readings, Orientalism – any alternative analytic approach promoted within academia – and inevitably a few, if not all, of these approaches will have an effect on everyday thinking as well, teaching us to become more critical, more inquisitive, more skeptical. Ultimately, critical thinking is empowering, enabling us to reject widespread fallacies, and pinpoint harmful or oppressive aspects within systems. (Warning: this empowerment comes with a hefty price-tag of cynicism and the moral responsibility of calling people out.)

‘Problematic’ will be a favourite go-to buzzword. (Warning: Be aware that critical thinking formulas can be easily misdirected, resulting in the victimization of privileged parties and misdirecting better used attention to marginalized groups, see: White Feminism). (Warning: In a university culture of questioning established norms and institutions within the establishment, it will be easy for one to grow tired of finding something Problematic in every nook and cranny. This exhaustion will necessitate a level of complacency, leading to the next buzz-phrase, “Problematic Fave.” Always remember, though, you can never be “too politically correct.” Persevere.)

I only digress as I do above to illustrate how aware I am that being in university can lead to such seemingly hyperbolic levels of liberalism and (note here, that I am openly conflating being “liberal” with being politically correct and pluralistic, open minded to the non-normative) that it begins to feel like parody, everyday dialogues pulled straight from that lesbian bookshop skit in Portlandia. Now imagine that university-woke parody, and replace all of your friends with people who actually fall under those categories of “marginalized” (queer, working class, non-white etc). You’ll find that the parody gets even wilder and, arguably, more tiring.

Now picture this scenario: You’re in Aikmans with varying levels of marginalized friends (read: qualified by the fact that we all attend St. Andrews), a pint of Weihenstephan per pal. The typical conversation topics roll through: the queer death drive, the horrors of the unknowingly privileged, the underground internet memes. You casually mention that you’ve been trying out different hummus recipes. “I don’t even want to begin to think about food-appropriation,” your gal pal to the left chuckles. The clock strikes twelve. Your eyes widen. Your heart beats harder, faster. She has a point.

Now picture a slightly different one: It’s you and the gang, at it once again. This time you’ve taken it upon yourselves to escape the bubble in a get-away car to the Anstruther Fish Bar. You’re sat around a smallish sized table, plastic cups full of Diet Coke, water and Irn-Bru all around. You unwrap a golden packet to reveal the soft oily butter you’re about to spread on a triangle of white bread. You’re transported back home, suddenly, to your family’s favourite dives.

Everyone is raised with a different definition of what is “normal” regarding food. Whether your parents order a takeaway every other night or raise you in the produce section of Wholefoods, throw burgers on the grill every Sunday or feed you a roast dinner, get you McDonald’s as a treat on your way home for school or a Smoothie-king protein shake. You are handed down a certain standard of culinary excellence before you enter young adulthood.

I have always been the biggest food snob in my family, and recently I have never been more ashamed of this fact. I was raised on cheese covered broccoli, fishsticks and pizza. My standards grew apart from my familly’s when, in middle-school, I joined my science teacher’s Hipocrates Club (“let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”) and learned Milk Is A Lie, Scary Cotton, The History of Quinoa, Stop Substituting Meat With Nutbutters and Eat Beans Instead. I carried these lessons with me into high-school, but my green eating ambitions were always tempered by my family’s quiet reservations and the higher monetary cost of eating organically.

The independence of university living finally enabled me to budget my own weekly groceries as I wanted. Move over ramen noodles, make way for avocado toast. With each passing semester, I would return home for the holidays more and more hostile towards my parent’s kitchen. “Mum, I’ve been home for a week and my skin’s already breaking out.” “That’s it, from here on out I’m only eating salad at dinner. I can’t believe I’ve gained this much weight!” “Mum, organic peanut butter has been on the list for so long now.” “No, dad, I don’t really feel like having pancakes this morning.” *puts single avocado into grocery cart* “What’s that for?” “Toast!” “That sounds disgusting.”

A combination of being sheltered by my Mum, selectively hearing the wisdom of my dad and the natural naivety of childhood led to my not really grasping the conflicts imbedded in eating until the past few months. A trip to Aikmans and a podcast later ( and I have never been so ashamed of the way I’ve acted about food around my family. Yes, objectively, I still think that eating local organic produce, avoiding processed goods churned out by food factories, and vegetarianism are all the most ethical options. Just because something is better, though, does not give one a free pass to be on a hoity-toity ethical eating horse. Will I revert back to eating Baltimore style fried chicken and give up my green smoothies for sake of preserving cultural heritage? Honestly, probably not. But will I gratefully bite into my dad’s buttered corn on the cob that glorious week home over the summer? You bet. I did not inherit my parents’ previous poverty, but I did inherit the strength gained throughout their upbringing, and thankfully I’ve finally begun to fall into the proper gratitude for their hard work and what they can lovingly put on my plate.


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