All Power to the Poutine!

Manna from Heaven

A headline in the National Post (07/10) announced, “Hot dogs and poutine stage comeback after Quebec rink’s fans revolt.”

The story revolved around the town of Lac-Etchemin, Quebec that prided itself on being the first Canadian municipality to ban ‘unhealthy’ food from its arena. “Now, in an admission that paninis are outmatched against poutine, the town council has lifted the ban and French fries will return before the end of the month.”

You might chortle at the hubris of a Quebec town trying to ban the delicious French Canadian staple of french fries laden with cheese curds, smothered in gravy. You should applaud the victory of rebellious Canadiens against the Nanny State municipality. In doing so, however, it is important to realize that the attempted ban is neither humorous nor trivial. It is merely one instance of government’s creeping encroachment into what goes onto your dinner plate. In the ’80s, people protested under the slogan “Get government out of the bedroom,” meaning that the state had no proper business monitoring or punishing the consenting sexual choices of adults. Today, the protest should read “Get government out of the kitchen.”

FOOD AS SELF EXPRESSION

The governmental censoring of food choice is often viewed as a trivial matter or even a benevolent one. After all, what is one french fry more or less? And the goal, as stated, seems well-intentioned.

There is nothing benevolent, however, about state imposed control over one of the main ways in which human beings express themselves. Food choices are personal; they define our identity as surely as our choices in attire or reading material. “Food is love” is a hackneyed saying that conveys the basic truth that eating is about far, far more than sustaining life.

Food is an integral aspect of transmitting culture and ethnicity. From Italian pastas to Indian curries, from poutine to falafels,  a rich array of dishes form a part of your family’s history and the background of who you are. Often the mere smell of a dish as you walk by a restaurant can elicit a flood of childhood memories, including how recipes or cooking techniques were passed down from one generation to the next.

Food is also a form of cultural exchange through which diverse ethnic groups can automatically appreciate each other’s heritage. The appreciation happens spontaneously, without tax-funding, laws or government programs. It happens every time someone chooses a Chinese restaurant or expresses preference for a Jewish deli. During World War II, sauerkraut was widely banned in North America as “unpatriotic” because of the deep hostility toward anything German. Equally, the approval of ethnic food is a form of acceptance of a culture or, at least, of one significant aspect of it.

Food is also a moral choice as every vegan knows. It is a religious choice as Orthodox Jews will attest. Food is also a political statement as any farmer who produces raw milk will tell you.

One of the most important functions of food choice returns to the saying, “food is love.” When a spouse or mother celebrates your birthday, it is through making “a favorite meal” or baking a cake. When a man proposes, it is over a romantic meal at an expensive restaurant. When you express sympathy at a post-funeral gathering, you do so while holding a casserole that you’ve brought over. It is commonplace for those who are emotionally distressed to seek ‘comfort food’ that allows them to ‘feed themself’ when the world is not. How many women have recovered from a broken heart over tubs of ice cream?

Precisely because of its strong emotional pull and roots in culture, food choice has become one of the most important rituals in our society. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, from Hallowe’en candy to chocolates on Valentine’s Day, food and ritual are inextricably linked.

Ultimately, food is also one of the main forms of self-control you exercise over your own body. Through these choices, you express a personal judgment on what benefits your body and/or fits your lifestyle; for some, the judgment leads to an Atkins diet, for others it is organic lentils. Even people who make allegedly ‘bad’ choices are expressing themselves.

The bounty and diversity of food available in every grocery store and each passing street corners should cause joy because it demonstrates the richness of society itself – not merely in terms of prosperity but also in terms of choice.

Thus, when government dictates what you may or may not eat, it is restricting your heritage, your religious and political choices, the control over your own body; telling you that a choice every bit as personal as freedom of speech or the art you view is not yours to make. That decision is theirs.

Why? For your own good. Even as an adult, you cannot be trusted with choosing the food that goes into your own mouth at your own expense. That’s what government experts are for.

ARE THE EXPERTS CORRECT?

Politically-speaking, it does not matter whether the food ‘experts’ are correct about poutine any more than their opinion on a specific work of literature should matter…at least, politically-speaking. You have an inalienable right to read graphic novels about a dystopian future rather than be force-fed Ibsen’s writings on dysfunctional families. You have a similar right to eat food bought at your own expense.

Nevertheless, almost all discussion of government’s censorship of food choice revolves around whether or not the claims being made are true or false. This would be a fascinating and valuable discussion if it did not always seem to end at the conclusion “there ought to be a law.” Thus, otherwise interesting discussions about the value and risks of raw milk result in farmers being arrested and driven out of business by huge fines. Otherwise interesting discussions about the calorie-count or artery-impact of poutine end in the banning of a cultural choice. This is akin to banning literature because a government book reviewer finds the contents to be ‘unhealthy.’ Society should cease to have discussions that end in such conclusions.

Those who are in the “there ought not to a law” camp often encounter the following argument: we live in a society that offers (to varying degrees) free health care. This means that tax-payers bear the consequences of providing health care to those who are reckless with their bodies through drugs, alcohol, smoking or unhealthy diets. In short, your neighbor has a vested and financial interest in what goes into your body.

This line of reasoning – rather than justifying a Nanny State or a nosy neighbor dictating your personal choices – constitutes a powerful argument against socialized medicine. If socialized medicine had been ‘advertised’ decades ago as a government mandate to control the minutia of your daily life, then it would probably have never been implemented. If socialized medicine had announced itself as the right to usurp parental control over what to feed children, then it would have met the same ‘rink-revolt’ that occurred in Lac-Etchemin.

Tell the government that it is not a welcomed guest in your kitchen. There is no room for bureaucrats at your dinner table.

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15 Responses to “All Power to the Poutine!”

  1. Roacho says:

    I saw this article in the National Post a couple days after I read it here. I also saw a quote from Human Action in last Friday's Post. What's going here? Did you sneak in a sandwich for Lord Black to get this published, or is the mainstream becoming rational? In any case, keep up the good work Ms. McElroy!

  2. Storm says:

    Great article! In the US food is regulated from every angle to the point where the food you grow in your garden can be targets by the federal government as a violation of interstate commerce! Good to see that there is some backlash in Canada to this same sort of nonsense.

    Funny that Europe was brought up given the age old practices there that are largely illegal in the states and Canada. Ducks hanging in store windows, hams hanging without refrigeration, and of course raw milk and raw milk cheeses readily available. Home made wines abound, as do other home made products which are available from farmer's markets much different from those in here across the pond.

    Then too there are the constantly changing "conclusions" by the experts. Salt has been attacked for decades as terrible for us, yet a great deal of research has shown that this is mere hype. And we have all see the diet fads, which one or another expert endorses. High carb, low carb, high fat, low fat, the advices changes near daily. The fact is that not only do the experts not know what is good for everyone, but the fact is that what is good for one may be bad for another. The result should be that this leads to government staying out of it, but sadly the mindset of those who seek power is to lower life to the lowest common denominator.

    Food is too important to let some grey faceless bureaucrat, or worse yet a red-faced politician, decide for any of us.

  3. Ryan says:

    Great article, Ms. McElroy!

    I would add to your very comprehensive list of reasons why such bans are reprehensible one additional fact:

    As I argued on my own blog a couple of weeks ago, a tax on saturated fats disproportionately impacts people with atypical dietary requirements. Myself, for example: I'm diabetic and as a result am forced to consume a smaller portion of carbohydrates and therefore a larger proportion of fat (beyond about 22% of total caloric intake, protein cannot be absorbed by the body).

    So such taxes are actually discriminatory. Here's the link: http://stationarywaves.blogspot.com/2011/10/illeg

  4. Ross says:

    To quote a Epic Meal Time, "175 Burgers for 175 dollars? This country is winning!!!" Some day soon Ronald McDonald will reawaken from his dreamless sleep in Avalon and return to wreak his vengeance upon those heretics who drove his image from the temple!

  5. gdp says:

    Excellent article Wendy! You bring up the very cogent point that choice of food is even more intimate form of self-expression than speech.

    It is becoming quite disturbing, the degree to which Government Officials now believe that they can and _should_ micromanage every aspect of our lives "for our own good," and more tightly than any iron-fisted tyrant has ever before dreamed — a tyranny "sincerely exercised for the good of its victims" by a never-sleeping army of "omnipotent moral busybodies," as C.S. Lewis once wrote.

    New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a recent address to the U.N., stated “There are powers only governments can exercise, policies only governments can mandate and enforce and results only governments can achieve. To halt the worldwide epidemic of non-communicable diseases, governments at all levels must make healthy solutions the default social option. That is ultimately government’s highest duty.”

    Talk about "Mission Creep!" :-(

    No doubt one can expect Bloomberg's NYC Gov't to follow in the steps of this Quebec Town, by banning NYC's own signature "unhealthy" food — the "Giant Slice of New York Style Pizza" — in favor of a "Healthy, Trans-Fat-Free Vegetarian Wrap." But unlike the feisty residents of this Quebec town, I fear that New Yorkers no longer appear to have the backbone to stand up to Bloomberg's Dietary Tyranny… :-(

  6. Thanks all for the comments. They are unusually insightful. Adam…yes, when it finally occurred to me that dictating food choices is a form of censoring self-expression, it gave me an entirely new view of this Nanny State activity. I am not sure I've seen it described as 'censorship' before. I love your twisting of Voltaire! Paul…I almost refuse to discuss certain issues with people who have a clear "there oughta be a law" mentality because I do not believe those to be 'honest' discussions. We are not discussing facts but politics. I have an endless interest in the former and fair amount of scorn for the latter.

  7. Adam says:

    This has given me a lot to think about. I'd never before thought of food as a matter of freedom of expression. I look forward to trying that argument on some of my liberal friends. And I'd never thought of food as a cultural expression, but of course it is. Controlling food is controlling culture.

    I've never much cared for poutine, but I'll defend to the death your right to eat it!

  8. Kate Pitrone says:

    A side issue, but where do I find a good and proper recipe for poutine? And where do I get cheese curds like that? My daughter fell in gourmet love with this dish on a school trip to Quebec. I have tried to reproduce it by her description, but not come close to that dish shown above.

  9. Steve C says:

    Look at Europe. They have way more food standards and regulations than the USA. Things like Aspartame-Phenylalanine , High Fructose Corn Syrup, and other artificial sweeteners and preservatives are rarely found in food. There's more organic fruits and veggies, as opposed to genetically modified foods. Another thing Europe has less of is cancer cases. I'm an American student studying abroad in Belgium and I love knowing that the food I'm eating is healthier (and also tastier, especially the fruits). Honestly, I highly doubt that any first world government will go all tyrannical on us and allow us to only choose from a limited selection of food. (With almost as much faith as I would in believing a truly free market would allow top-down policies to truly work.)

    From the Classical Liberal perspective, the food industry will respond to the public and demand if foods with all these additives, preservatives, Frankenstein foods, etc are clearly affecting people's health, and will start to produce "healthier" options. But think about it, there's going to be a time gap where the transition will take place. That time period, as well as the time previously where the danger was there but unknown, would be when America would be a dangerous place to eat. If government can discover such a threat (if it does exist) early, it can respond much quicker than the transition time it would take businesses to restructure. I never want America to be an unsafe place to eat in so if there's the power to make us safer, why not use it. I think the free market can sometimes be blind and slow, and during those times, the use of government could be justified.

    • Redmond says:

      Look at Europe. They have way more food standards and regulations than the USA.

      Europe and the USA is going bankrupt – obviously their model isn’t working. And how do you know that the EU has more Regulations? I’ll bet you they have about equal, just different.

      Things like Aspartame-Phenylalanine , High Fructose Corn Syrup, and other artificial sweeteners and preservatives are rarely found in food.

      Seems like a very broad assertion. Corn Syrup in food is actually because of government regulation – who would of thunk it?

      There's more organic fruits and veggies, as opposed to genetically modified foods.

      There is plenty of organic – you just have to go to whole foods – they are everywhere.
      As for GMO – there is no problem with them – straw man.

      Another thing Europe has less of is cancer cases.

      Where did you get that idea?

      I'm an American student studying abroad in Belgium and I love knowing that the food I'm eating is healthier (and also tastier, especially the fruits)

      Come to Canada food is great here.

      Honestly, I highly doubt that any first world government will go all tyrannical on us and allow us to only choose from a limited selection of food. (With almost as much faith as I would in believing a truly free market would allow top-down policies to truly work.)

      It is already happening – look at Europe – they have very protectionist policies that bar all sorts of food from the third world.
      You seem very confused – top down is what we have now – bottom up is what you have in a free market

      From the Classical Liberal perspective, the food industry will respond to the public and demand if foods with all these additives, preservatives, Frankenstein foods, etc are clearly affecting people's health, and will start to produce "healthier" options.

      Only if people demand it – I think you are and greenpeace is fearmongering when it comes to all of these “additives” and “frankenfoods”
      Are you sure you know what a classical liberal is?

      BTW – have you gone to a grocery store lately? There are many many “organic” options.

      But think about it, there's going to be a time gap where the transition will take place. That time period, as well as the time previously where the danger was there but unknown, would be when America would be a dangerous place to eat.

      Speaking of Dangerous places to eat, do you remember the 20+ people who died in Germany from food poisoning just about two months ago?

      If government can discover such a threat (if it does exist) early, it can respond much quicker than the transition time it would take businesses to restructure.

      No it can’t

      I never want America to be an unsafe place to eat in so if there's the power to make us safer, why not use it. I think the free market can sometimes be blind and slow, and during those times, the use of government could be justified.

      Government does not make us safer.
      Period.
      Ask the civilian population in Iraq.

    • cb750 says:

      So given your reasoning if slavery or locking everyone up would cure poverty then we should do it? The irish potato famine also reduced incidences of cancer and heart disease so is famine a good thing?

      You do not know what's good for me or anybody else. Also the market can react a great deal faster than the government. We had bumpers on cars all the way back in the 1930s. The first piece of legislation dealing with bumpers was in 1978… over 40 years later.

  10. Ohhh Henry says:

    Umm, yeah, but if you let people decide what food to eat then where will it end? Next thing you know they'll decide that they know which drugs make them feel better and which ones don't, and then they'll start getting cranky about which charities they want to support, what curriculum their kids should be studying and with what teachers, and it'll go very rapidly downhill from there (for the tools that work for government). The way to the public's heart (and intestines) is through their stomach!

  11. Paul Mollon says:

    Awesome piece Wendy. So often we see the argument "X is not good for you" (raw milk, fried foods, salt or whatever) followed by some variation of "there oughta be a law". As long as we accept the argument that the force of law can somehow "improve" the way we live then all manner of laws, rules, regulations and prohibitions can and will be enacted "for our own good". Get the government out of our bedrooms and kitchens, not to mention all the other rooms. Oh yes hockey rinks, baseball stadiums, theatres and restaurants and…well, you get the idea. Long live poutine!

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