I once knew a thin sociologist who believed that people were obsessed by food only when they were chronically hungry. If there were enough food easily available, he reasoned, humanity wouldn't be worrying about the berries and the beasties. They would be free to contemplate higher things, like the Meaning of Life or the Civil Service Reform Act.
Even Freud described "oral" as a stage that adults (and perhaps cultures) would grow out of, with no more than an occasional regression for, say, weddings or Thanksgiving.
But today, we live in a country where most of us are on demand feeding. The average American doesn't have to stalk the wild hamburger or go out gathering ice cream in the woods. There is less energy that we absolutely "must" devote to food.
But it seems that much of the time we used to spend on the basic problem of food - getting enough - has simply been transfered to the more elaborate food problems.
Last week, I read no only Julia Child's delightful new cookbook but an intriguing group of articles in the latest Psychology Today magazine on the new food consciousness. These readings reminded me that we have developed two major alternatives to the meat-and-potatoes main-stream, and that these alternatives are gaining more follower ever year. They are the "gourmet food" culture and the "health food" culture.
On one level, these two food "regimens" seem wildly disparate. Gourmet food is a response to our fantasies about what tastes good, while health food is a response to our fears about what's bad for you. Moreover, as alternative menus to the burger bourgeoisie, the first group offers Turkey Orloff, while the second group offers Tofu with bean sprouts. One group is "into" a fish mousse en coute, while the other is high on brown rice. It's a matter of vintage Bordeaux versus fresh carrot juice.
Yet I think they have more in common than meets the mouth. The most extreme devotees of both the sensible Julia Child and late Adelle Davis demonstrate, at times, a moral elitism that is both righteous and intimidating.
Many of the gourment set are convinced that anyone who doesn't make his or her own mayonnaise is hopelessly gauche.
Others among the health contingents look upon a beef-eater with as much horror as if they'd caught him biting the left leg off their dog. Their particular brand of one-upmanship is eating lower on the food chain than anyone else.
These two alternative groups often share another characteristic. They are the oral equivalent of joggers. Conversation among the most committed Cordon Bleu crowd runs the gamut from artichokes to zabaglione with arguments about preservating the balance of the elusive hollandaise. Dinner among the food cultists concerns the organic growth of vegetables, and the best way to maintain harmony between the yin and the yang on the serving platter.
No Twinkie would darken the lips of either group. Instant coffee is taboo, although for different reasons. And Wonder bread is to both an unspeakable obscenity: the kidporn of the food fetishists.
But the appeal of both of these groups is enormous - for another reason. These advocates of the good life share something significant with the rest of us: the need to pay attention to food every day.
The easy, fast-food mainstream of America, the simple three-meal culture, may satisfy our hunger pands, but not some kind of innate need for allotting to food and eating an important place in our lives.
At the risk of sounding like a culinary sociobiologist, food has always been more to us than just a list of stuff we put in our mouths, more than the "fuel to stroke the machine." There isn't a human society without both feasts and food taboos, without some reverence for nourishment.
It may be that our current attraction to the alternative food cultures is more than the allure of the perfect pate or the sirrens of guilt and sensible warnings of the natural food advocates. It may be that part of our current fascination with both analyzing and preparing "health foods" and concooting gourmet dinners is a rebellion against easy eating. We may have turned from worrying about the hunt and the crops to a concern for the proper sprouts and sauces.
I suspect that humans can change a great deal in their food habits - fo from gorging to fasting, from Junk foods to pure foods and back again. But one thing remains constant our obession with what and how we eat.