Why Do We Equate Junk Food with Fun?
Twenty-six years ago, I had a friend/massage client (my first career was as a massage therapist) whose husband ran a business as a “jobber”, buying out overstock and stuff from businesses that were closing down and then selling it to places like Big Lots and Dollar Tree. I was at their house one day, giving Ann a massage, when her husband offered me a five-pound bucket of cookies from a lot he’d just purchased. I said, “No, thanks, I don’t eat sugar or flour.” He said, “What, you don’t have any fun anymore?” It took every ounce of self-restraint I had not to respond, “I prefer sex, thanks.”
I was reminded of this today when I was driving behind a Frito-Lay delivery truck. Beneath the Frito-Lay logo was the slogan “Good Fun.” Not an hour later, watching Law & Order reruns, I saw an ad for Blue Bunny “twist cones.” Their slogan was “We make fun!”
We are surrounded by friends, acquaintances, and businesses who equate junk food with fun, and who do not hesitate to tell us so. Have you turned down cake at a birthday party recently? I can do this without pushback because I have a reputation as a hardcore, nutcase low-carber. No one expects me to eat cake, not at a birthday party, not at a wedding, not at any celebration. Fortunately, I also have a reputation for sprightly conversation, a sense of humor, the ability to tell a story entertainingly and to listen to the stories of others, and a readiness to dance my butt off. My friends have figured out that I am fun, my oddball diet notwithstanding.
But if you have not been doing this for nigh-on twenty-seven years and made writing about it your career, chances are good that someone, somewhere, sometime, will try to convince you that passing up the junk food makes you a buzzkill.
This is where I usually go into my suggestions regarding how to derail such pressure tactics, but I’ll save that for another time. Instead, I found myself thinking about how we came to equate junk food with “fun,” to the point where many people cannot imagine, say, enjoying an awesome movie unless they also have a big bucket of popcorn or bag of chips. How did this happen?
For most of human history, sweets were expensive and hard to come by.
I have a few ideas. First, for most of human history, sweets were expensive and hard to come by. In London in 1319 sugar cost two shillings a pound, or about $50 in today’s economy, putting it out of the reach of all but the wealthy. Even the well-to-do would have saved it for special occasions. By 1700, sugar consumption in England had soared to four pounds per person per year, or roughly 4% of modern American sugar consumption. Except for a little sugar in one’s tea and sugar used to preserve fruit – there’s a reason that jams and jellies are called “preserves” — that sugar would again have mostly been consumed on special occasions. Those of us who grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books will remember how dazzling it was for Laura and her sister Mary to each receive both a single stick of candy and a little cake made with white flour and white sugar in their Christmas stockings. (And a tin cup! And a penny!)
Going to the same source, Laura helped Ma make the cake for her wedding to Almanzo; it involved whipping egg whites with a fork until stiff; Laura ruefully joked that her arm was stiffer. Again, a rare and celebratory occasion and a lot of work.
In short, sugar was associated with fun because it was saved for celebrations.
Going back even further, things like raisins were the equivalent of candy, and took plenty of work – growing the grapes, picking the grapes, washing the grapes, laying the grapes out on a clean cloth in the sun, chasing the birds away from the grapes, then removing the seeds from the raisins upon use.
Too, some kinds of food were fun in and of themselves. The taffy pull was a popular kind of party in the 1800s – hey, recorded music and videos had yet to be invented, and packaged candy was, again, rare and pricey. So boys and girls buttered their hands to keep the taffy from sticking and pulled it over and over again to lighten it and make it chewy rather than rock-hard. If you have ever been to the Jersey Shore – my roots are showing – you will have seen machines pulling salt-water taffy. There’s a reason a machine was needed to do it on a commercial scale! But in small quantities, it was a way for kids to get together and be entertained. All of this, again, made taffy something associated with fun times – parties or trips down the Shore, as we say.
Similarly, making one’s own ice cream took not only cream, sugar, probably eggs, and flavoring of some kind, but an ice cream freezer, salt, and ice. That last meant either buying a block of ice from the iceman or having one’s own icehouse and all the work involved in harvesting ice from local lakes. You then needed several people to take turns turning the crank on that ice cream freezer. Sounds like party food to me! How do you think that cake and ice cream became traditional birthday party fare?
How about potato chips? Ever made potato chips from scratch?
I have. It’s a lot of work, a heckuva lot more work than tearing open a cellophane bag (and I had a food processor). Could explain why potato chips were not invented until the 1800s in Saratoga, New York. Then they were a regional restaurant item only. It wasn’t until 1920, when industrialization was booming and machinery becoming available, that Herman Lay (yes, of Frito-Lay) decided to make them on an industrial scale and introduce them commercially. So, again, the potato chip started as an item served at upscale restaurants where people went to have fun.
In short, what is today cheaply available in every gas station mini-mart was, for most of human history, a rare treat used to celebrate special occasions, and those occasions were, in and of themselves, fun.
This does not mean, however, that candy, cookies, cake, chips, and the like are, in and of themselves, a source of fun. If you have ever eaten a pint of ice cream because you were depressed <sheepishly raises hand>, you know this.
So for today, all I am suggesting is that you work on separating the concepts of “carby junk food” and “fun” in your mind. I can tell you from experience that a night out dancing with friends or an evening spent playing Cards Against Humanity with seldom-seen family members can be huge fun with no sugar at all.
Thus endeth the sermon.
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