It’s like butter

Finding oneself stranded in South Florida in late July with little diversion, and less air conditioning, can lead to extreme measures. So it was out of true desperation that I found myself idly cruising the Winn-Dixie where the aisle temperature rivals the freezer case.

To the urbanite accustomed to wheedling their Charmin off the deli’s top shelf with long handled tongs, there are few places as luxurious – and visually stimulating — as the suburban supermarket. Piloting carts that approximate in cubic capacity most New York studio apartments, dazed shoppers meander fluorescent boulevards bordered by endless hedges of comestibles.

Waiting for my body heat to fall below medium-rare, I had the opportunity to catch up on my reading – package reading that is. Of all the things that could be packaged, marketed, advertised and retailed, perhaps only cigarettes and pharmaceuticals are as culturally loaded as food. Note the slew of cultural critics that have taken on new histories of everything the patent medicines (Raymond Williams) to sugar (Sidney Mintz.)

Food is especially political as it is irrevocably tied to notions of husbandry, providence, domesticity, maternal duty and the capitalist economy of surplus. Packaged foodstuffs lend themselves to overwriting, i.e. grafting meaning onto inherently meaningless objects. Food packaging assures us that “Soup is good food,” or “There’s a whole lotta’ goodness in every bite,” or my personal favorite “Nothing says LOVE like real butter.”

The packaging of individual value is especially pronounced in ready-made foods that are promoted almost exclusively from a platform of surplus significance. The supermarket shelves are a riot of Heartiness and Zestiness and Tanginess and Crunchiness and Creaminess. Ethnic foods with their mysterious combinations of flavors and spices — salt and pepper, for instance — are almost always Zesty! Or Tangy! Beef flavored morsels must be Hearty (the polite way of saying Fatty.) Creaminess, however, is still the most desirable attribute turning up across the store, garnishing everything from aerosol cheese and frozen treats to hand cremes and furniture polish.

While Creaminess approaches near universal appeal, Goodness persists as the most heartfelt of qualities. Goodness – an attribute available in canned soups, milk flavoring powders, salad dressings, and a multitude of other products that may or may not be creamy – evokes hearth and home, fresh baked bread, batter covered spatulas waiting to be licked, hand knit sweaters. For the harried housewife (or house-husband for that matter) anxious to do right by their mildly neglected children, what could be more reassuring than to spoon a little Goodness into their kids’ grime-rimmed maws as they sit transfixed before their violent television programs?

Over the past few years, however, Goodness, has been overshadowed by a quality previously unheard of, namely Wellness. Riding a wave of health consciousness, popular lore and growing interest in nontraditional and homeopathic cures – this decade’s patent medicines perhaps – Wellness and Well-being, Wholesomeness, Holism, have provoked a food language revolution. Products can no longer rest on their laurels — beef stew cannot simply be Hearty, spicy salsa not merely Tangy! — they must claim to be healthy as well.

Healthiness is so bold and so rampant it even dares to show its face in such notoriously vile and unhealthy neighborhoods as Cocoa Pebbles Park and the Tang Terrace. Frozen microwave burritos hawk reduced fat content (1/10th less fat than other fat-laden, frozen microwave snack foods!) Popcorn venders spout fiber content. There’s even Snack-Wells, a brand that effortlessly marries two previously mortal enemies.

This realignment from Goodness to Wellness means big changes in the Winn-Dixie universe. A perfectly good snap-top can of Vienna Sausages may be chockfull of Goodness but totally devoid of Wellness, because unlike Goodness, Wellness can never be contained in a product. Supermarket products can only promote Wellness,encourage Wellness, coax Wellness. Wellness is elusive and all the Ginseng-enriched, Gingko Biloba-fortified, Saint John’s Wart-laced, Zinc and Echinacea with Vitamin C-enhanced supplements can only wimpily suggest they “contribute” to an overall sense of well-being.

We are left to reminisce about a simpler time when our Space Food Stick or Shake-a-Pudding contained 100% of our daily recommended allowance of Goodness. While Goodness was there for the buying, Wellness takes work. Those liberal days, when Goodness was handed out on silver platters, are long gone, rudely replaced by the conservative meritocracy of Wellness. Those who don’t participate in a personal quest for the acquisition and consolidation of Well-being better step aside.

It’s that spiritual unattainability suggested by Wellness that makes it the ultimate consumer motivator. While Goodness promised fulfillment embedded in a simple Snak-pak or Pot Pie, Wellness suggests fleeting glimpses of satisfaction attained only through constant and repeated application. The successful maintenance of Well-being requires a steady dose of new products, and a steady capital expenditure. It’s a form of spiritual methadone program for us all.

© Michael Rock