Yesterday, I interviewed a lady who had up until recently worked in Marketing for one of the food giants. As is quite trendy these days, this particular company has jumped onto the “real food” bandwagon, with TV ads showing farmers gently caressing their luscious crops as they carefully load them into battered trucks straight out of the Milagro Beanfield War. These images are intended to align the company with the growing (at least among the well-heeled) desire for real food as opposed to what Michael Pollan calls the “edible food-like substances” that pervade our food system.
I asked her what she wanted from her next job and she, almost guiltily, replied, “I want to work somewhere where I can be proud of what I do…or at least neutral about it”. She went on to explain that she couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy of her previous employer because, “After all, the food was loaded with all kinds of nasty stuff…you can’t make frozen enchiladas without adding a boatload of chemicals and preservatives”.
Watching network TV has one redeeming benefit: It gives you a moment-by-moment glimpse into the current zeitgeist of the average Western “working stiff”. Since advertisers pay handsomely for the brief access into their potential customers’ souls, they make sure that their messages are in tune with the preoccupations, fears, concerns, desires, and “unmet needs” of their targets. A great line that I keep hearing in ads directed at the parents of younger kids is, “…..with the taste kids love”. One example shows a group of kids ranging in age from 6-12, around the family table, greedily lacing into a stack of sliced white grocery-store bread, which the advertiser assures parents is actually made with 100% whole grains but designed to look like the stuff kids purportedly adore (as opposed to that nasty brown bread that adults like).
The same thing has been going on for years. I remember being a kid and seeing ads for Tang, touting its load of Vitamin-C and connection to the astronauts who supposedly drank it. Of course, my Mom would never have bought it, but she did let me occasionally try new stuff that I nagged her for. I suspect she realized that trying something bad and probably hating it was better than forbidding it and creating a mystique of desirability around it. She was right. Tang tasted like shit, especially compared to the fresh-squeezed juice my grandmother would make for me every morning.
All this to say that taste evolves in children over time. The vegetables my son hated at 5 years old, he now asks for and cooks with at 25. But that taste is also a function of exposure, i.e. what you make available to them. If the parent responds to these whacked out ads and buys all this shit, that’s what the kids will get used to as their reference base. Bottom line: Food manufacturers lie…duhhhh.
When our kids were growing up we had a simple policy. They ate what we ate. If they didn’t like it, they were never forced to eat it (well, except for the time my 10-year-old son took one bite out of a stack of pancakes intended for the whole family and then discarded them. He had to work on that stack for the next three days at every meal while the rest of us ate our normal food…cruel, I know). We had what I think is a great line: “Oh, I’m sorry you don’t like it….perhaps next meal you’ll find something to like”. It’s amazing what hunger can make you like.