How food became a weapon in America’s culture war

As the final decade of the 20th century dawned, the nation’s politics were changing. There was a growing clamor on the right, led by Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich and firebrand pundit Pat Buchanan, to abandon what they described as the “morning in America” pragmatism of the Reagan era and exploit the cultural divides that had opened up a generation earlier around the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement.

To the right’s new Kulturkrieger, eager to recast themselves as populist champions of “real America,” the emerging foodie culture proved irresistible, as Brent Cunningham explains in FERN’s latest story, published with The Nation. Painting coastal liberals as out-of-touch elites rhapsodizing over French cheese and expensive wine was a natural extension of the “limousine liberal” line of attack used by earlier generations of culture warriors.

It would have been easy to dismiss this new food fight as little more than a fashionable twist on routine political posturing. But as the conversation around food got bigger in the ’90s, the stakes also got higher. Mounting evidence that the American way of eating was causing serious health problems spurred talk of reform. Obesity, which had risen sharply over the previous decade, was deemed a national crisis. Rather than engage with reformers, however, the right simply broadened its culture war around food, politicizing the debate in ways that had significant consequences, not only for public health but, eventually, for the nation’s response to climate change. Indeed, the weaponization of food would escalate beyond partisan name-calling, becoming a matter of life and death.