You Really Are What You Eat
“I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that.” Oscar Wilde
Upon my arrival at the New School dorms from Paris, my new roommate hosted me with the astronomically challenging Socratic question: “So, what are you?” I started to tackle the question in my mind by a process of deduction, excluding all the things I am not: “ A man,” for instance; I am not a man.
She clarified: “Are you vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, pollotarian, flexatarian, raw?”
Given our cohabitation this could have been a purely practical inquiry: She was trying to settle the fridge politics. But having been asked the question on several other occasions, I realized it was not merely pragmatic; it was a deep and existential question, because here at Lang it was going to set my identity. In France, all my friends are omnivorous, although they never say so or think about it. When they talk about food, what is important is that it’s delicious, not what ingredients it contains.
I shared this with another exchange student from Sweden. We laughed at the abuse of the suffix and played around with it—“asparagasarian,” “artichokarian,” “heartartichokarian” (one that exclusively eats artichoke hearts)—and then thought of more realistic diets such as “kebabarian," “bagelarian,” “microwavarian”…
I tried to think how I would answer if I were asked the same question at home in Paris. Perhaps I would cite my sexual orientation. Most likely it would be a question of geography, and this would be inevitably interlinked to a social standard: “I am *Rive Gauche*,” which means you are rich. But dietary habits are far removed from one’s characterization.
Compared to such Parisian socio-economic categorization, at first, I loved the New York food-identity freedom. However, I soon realized there is an exhibitionist component to food identification that bothered me. Food has become a means of distinction—food is now a style, one’s diet an accessory. It is now an item that one wears and shows off.
Moreover, food has become a type of confession and self-identity. The religious factor can be observed on a moral ground when, for instance, one abstains from meat to dignify squeamish feelings of guilt towards cute, furry creatures. This is okay, on the condition that this guilt does not make you smugly moralistic. Not only is food the latest distinctive fashion item, it is also a belief that seems harmless. But it is apt to fill one with self-righteousness.