How does a “selective return to the habits of (our) Paleolithic ancestors” sound?
What part of that life would you select? Well, look to the young, virile, and well-dressed New York thirty-something crowd for some suggestions. Described in an article published today in the New York Times, this group calls themselves urban cavemen. The element of Paleolithic life they’ve selected? Consuming large quantities of meat, sometimes raw, and then fasting for a few days to recreate the cycles of hunting and consumption that defined pre-agricultural life in an effort to achieve the physical prowess and “fearsome feats” of prehistoric man. There is no mention in the article that these men actually do the hunting in which that physical prowess would be so necessary but they do the fearsome eating. A Frenchman mentioned in the piece who similarly admires the cave life but favors a caveman chic version, espouses the benefits of “mouvement naturel” like the “essential skill” of “playing catch with stones.” New York’s savage nobles pride themselves on mitigating the numbing world of climate control and comfort by walking the city streets. One such innovator claims, “New York is the only city in America where you can walk.”
Up to this point, I was trying to be somewhat sympathetic. With a few laughs at the embarrassing masculinity of it all, I understood that they were trying to rediscover a relationship with food. Slow Food could hardly scoff at that. But the relationship they discovered, or perhaps created is a better word, reveals less about anything “naturel” and more about the complicated stories we tell about ourselves through our food, the strange ways we construct our bodies and our habitats through how we frame our consumption patterns. San Franciscans can immediately see that story start to unravel when our caveman claims that New York is the only walkable city. But what about the freezers full of meat? The exercise retreats of boulder jumping? The identification with a group of people completely alien to us?
Though your story may not have quite this much testosterone, you have one nonetheless. But, as is often the case with our most personal choices in life like religion, it is dangerous to pretend that instead of telling a story we are simply fulfilling a pre-written text, we are simply living as we are “supposed” to. What makes us human is not incredible quantities of meat, but our need to tell stories about that meat. It seems misguided to dredge up lives of people we don’t understand and pretend we do. The cavemen had their own stories, their own systems, their own fabricated order of things. But stocking a freezer full of meat whose origin doesn’t even warrant a thought let alone concern is a dangerous story to tell, a myth that obscures its own process of signification in the spirit of Roland Barthes’ mythic speech.
The impulse is understandable. We want validation that our stories, our choices are correct or authentic. We want to think our engagement with food is more profound than what we are served systematically through impersonal commodity chains. The efforts of fast food empires to serve these uniform products with a smile of personal warmth have not fooled us. But replacing the wrapped up hamburger with a slab of raw meat is more of a lateral move into an alternatively branded regime of consumption. As far as prescribed eating goes, I’ll stick to Slow Food’s good, clean, fair because it helps me to tell a story, a story still in the process of being told whose promises still need our active verbs, in which our relationship with food is not validated by an ability to throw stones, leap across boulders, or admire feats of strength but is instead affirmed through food’s ability to connect a community, to provoke reflection on our role within that community and our subsequent responsibilities, and to push us to live our lives for each other. My food story doesn’t move through the principle of survival of the fittest but rather through an understanding that no man is an island.