We spend a lot of time thinking about food at my house. We read about food. In particular we are fond of Michael Pollan’s work on the subject. So, we’re very aware of the dysfunctions of food culture, economics, politics, and policy, particularly in the U.S. (for thoughtful posts in those areas visit Ezra Klein’s Food Archive).
So it seemed likely I’d enjoy Yale Psych 123, Kelly Brownell’s course on the psychology, biology, and politics of food. And I did. But I recommend starting with Pollan’s books The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I see he now has another book on food I haven’t yet read: Food Rules). They will provide most of the background that Brownell covers in the first half of his course but in a personal, narrative style that I found a little more engaging. With Pollan’s work as background, you can jump to lecture 12 of Psych 123.
I admit I listen to podcats in general and Open Yale Courses (OYC) content in particular for entertainment, not just for information. (All my reviews of OYC offerings are under the Yale tag.) Brownell’s course is packed with information and took a more entertaining turn in the second half in which his passion for his subject comes to the fore. His strong opinions about food policy are evident in later lectures, and a good way to entertain is to take a strong position.
Two parts of the class stood out as particularly interesting to me. The first occurred in the seventh lecture when Brownell described the starvation that occurred during the World War II siege of Leningrad. He read from The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker, which is worthy of a lengthy quote:
It was November 1941. The people of Leningrad were beginning the hungry winter, the coldest winter ever in the city with a proud history of miserably cold winters. … Hitler formulated an elegant plan, … [a] siege [that] would last 872 days….
As the siege dragged on, the temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees. The people collectively remembered that some wallpaper paste was made from potatoes. Wallpaper was stripped away from the living rooms and parlors of Leningrad, the paste scraped into pots and boiled into soup, a soup that tasted much more like paste then potatoes. Leather too could be boiled into a gelatinous mess that could briefly satisfy the sharpest pangs of hunger.
By 1943 the siege entered its second year, all the animals, wallpaper paste, and leather had been consumed. The people descended into a rare kind of hunger, a hunger that tested even the most fundamental taboos, people began eating corpses. …
By the beginning of 1944 as even corpses and children became scarce there were reports of people cutting off their own body parts and eating them in a desperate attempt to stave off hunger. The Red Army broke through the German lines on January 27, 1944 and the siege was lifted. In all, a million Soviets had starved to death in that city, more then a thousand per day. People were forbidden both officially and unofficially, from ever speaking of the cannibalism that took place during the siege. The Soviets had learned, to a frightening extent, how much the availability of food allows civilization to occur.
That’s powerful stuff. Much less powerful but just as interesting is the guest lecture by Stephen Teret (number 19), an expert in the application of litigation as a tool for the promotion of public health. He’s a very entertaining lecturer and tells some humorous stories. Listen to his lecture alone for a bit of edu-fun.
I also like one of Brownell’s final assignments. He asks students to write and try to publish an op-ed on a food-related issue. As someone who believes in the power of the 650-word blog post/op-ed, I think this is an excellent assignment. If you can’t make the case for one idea in a piece of that length you’ll have a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to you. (I write this with awareness that this post is approaching 900 words. We can’t win them all.) If any of Brownell’s future students wish to publish their op-ed on this blog, send it my way and I’ll consider it.
Throughout the class, but particularly in the final lectures, there is much made about the parallels in the evolution of culture and policy between food/obesity and other threats to public health like guns, alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Brownell and other champions for better nutrition through policy view victories in other arenas as models for what might one day be achieved for food.
Perhaps. But food is fundamentally different from those other threats. Everyone must eat. Not everyone must use a gun, drink alcohol, use drugs, or smoke. Moreover, food choices are intricately bound with socio-economic and cultural forces in ways that differ from some of the other threats mentioned. For these reasons, changing the culture and policy of food will be more challenging than that of, say, cigarettes. I’m glad folks like Brownell and Pollan are trying, but I think victory is a long way off. A good first step is for more people to pay attention to their work, including you.