Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
If you’ve ever been at least mildly intrigued by the idea of eating a bacon sundae or of drinking a unicorn Frappuccino (what constitutes “unicorn” flavor, anyway?), then you are the target audience for the new movement in fast food and snacking: the stunt food.
At its root, stunt food is a juvenile phenomenon, a phase to pass through in our development.Stunt foods are creations based and built upon novelty. They do not sell primarily on the basis of getting consumers to think, That would taste really good! Rather, the desired impulse they are looking for is, “My life will not be all it can be until I taste a chicken-and-waffles-flavored potato chip!” The newness of the experience is what matters.
The mother of all stunt foods is the Doritos Locos Taco, first released by Taco Bell in 2012. It is a Taco Bell taco with a Doritos chip-constructed shell (right down to the orange stuff that you can’t get off your hands). It has gone on to become, in the words of Business Insider, “one of the most successful fast food innovations of all time,” selling over a billion units in its first year alone, and spurring Taco Bell to hire an estimated 15,000 additional workers just to handle the demand of this single menu item. As such, it has inspired a cavalcade of imitators, as food makers constantly seek to find the unusual (and sometimes just plain odd) flavor combinations to peak consumer interest.
In seeking to market food items marked primarily by novelty, rather than qualitative excellence, food-makers seem to be tapping into an impulse which runs deeper than food itself, as Americans—particularly younger Americans—have shown themselves to be extraordinarily given to seeking out the new, and fleeing from anything which smacks of boredom. According to researchers Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz, we are hungry (har har!) for new, “collectable” experiences in order to fill what they called an “experiential CV,” consisting of “unusual and extreme consumption experiences.”
As evidence for their argument, Keinan and Kivetz conducted surveys in which they gave participants a series of scenarios, asking them to choose between traditional pleasant experiences and those which would be less luxurious and more strenuous, but more novel and exciting. They found that while only eleven percent of respondents believed that staying in a freezing ice hotel in Quebec would be more pleasurable than a Florida Marriott, ninety-eight percent believed it would be more memorable, and as such, seventy-two percent would choose the ice hotel over the beachfront Marriott. Similarly, in choosing between an exotic and a familiar restaurant, four percent rated the exotic restaurant more pleasurable, but ninety-two percent rated it more memorable, resulting in seventy percent choosing it over the familiar one. These results suggest that, for many, it is not the desire for excellent taste, or even quality, which drives them so much as the desire for something new and unusual, something previously undone and unimagined. Call stunt food, then, the dietary equivalent of the one-night stand.
Now you may be thinking, “Surely this is a bit overblown—we’re only talking about food here! How can you possibly use such a loaded metaphor?” And yet, our eating habits, while seemingly inconsequential, are significant, because they reveal something important about the condition of our souls, and they serve to reify that condition in our souls. As Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, following a train of thought which spans centuries, pointed out in his book You Are What You Love, our habits are a result of the liturgies we construct in our lives, liturgies which reveal the deepest desires of our hearts. These liturgies, then, turn around and shape our hearts, which shape our habits, and the feedback loop goes on and on. This is true with all forms of culture. As Winston Churchill said when discussing the need to rebuild buildings after the Second World War, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
So how has this new creation, this stunt food, shaped us? And what does it reveal about us? Stunt food (and the larger fast food culture from whence it emerges) is a blowing off of constraints, whether those constraints be the time it takes to prepare food, the conscious counting of calories, or, perhaps most significantly, the constraints of the ordinary. Who wants the same everyday boring meal when we can go up the road, pay a few bucks, and get something new? And there are times when a gleeful deviation from the dietary norm is justified and even, I would argue, healthy. When the deviation from the norm becomes the norm, however, it usually doesn’t end well, and the culture which gave birth to stunt food is beginning to show some corrosive effects.
Communal meals are ostensibly foregone in the name of personal autonomy—the ability to fulfill personalized tastes, and to dine on a staggering variety of foods, hence always keeping the eating experience empowering and interesting. Upon closer inspection, however, the staggering variety on offer today, even in the radical combinations of stunt foods, is illusory. We’re still only eating a handful of actual foods. They are just differently arranged packages of corn and soy, supercharged by copious additions of sugar, salt, and fat. As Todd Dawson, the biologist quoted by Michael Pollan in his megaseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, quipped, if we are what we eat, so to speak, then Americans are “corn chips with legs” (23). Nearly everything we eat, including stunt foods, is a product of corn, in obvious ways (corn chips for the Doritos) to not-so-obvious ways (feedlot beef fed industrial corn, high fructose corn syrup for sweetening, etc.). Stunt foods, pursued in the name of novelty, turn out to be more of the same old, same old.
Novelty is a wonderful thing—a gift from God. You could even say that each truly novel thing we encounter is a manifestation of the imagination of God. And yet, true novelty is not found by pursuing it. Rather, it appears within the constraints of the ordinary. It emerges within the boundaries which enclose it—whether those boundaries are ecological, or stem from the culture of tradition. Great innovation, the stuff of novelty, cannot be recognized as such without the ordinary, because how else would we be able to spot the deviation from the norm? Embracing the traditional, the ordinary, the boring, is crucial, then, because it creates space for the deviation, for the blowing-off of the traditional, without the worry of long-held traditional values being consumed for a desire for novelty which has metastasized into something dangerous.
At its root, stunt food is a juvenile phenomenon, a phase to pass through in our development. As is the case with sex, we are called to a much richer relationship with food than that which cheap, instant gratification of our curiosities could possibly provide. In “The Ethics of Elfland” chapter of his seminal work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes,
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. (65-66)
Exulting in monotony frees us from pursuing false novelties and can steer us, I am convinced, into pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. If Chesterton is right, it also steers us into real novelty, because we can learn to see the perpetual, eternal novelty of divine personality hiding in the family cookbook or the holiday gathering. It can change our perception from, “Oh, we’re having that again?” to “This food we eat binds us together, and reminds us of our distinctiveness, our novelty, as a people.” In short, pursuing real food, passed down through generations, can be a path towards becoming more fully human, and towards abundant life.
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