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Everyday food jokes disguise the dark side

April 10, 2017

When I became vegan, there was a certain type of joke I started making less and less. And not the one I expected.

I assumed that I would no longer partake of the casual vegetarian and vegan shaming that ritually goes on.

Because I had, of course, come to know better. I have often wondered how involved I was with it in the first place; it seems so obviously prejudiced, mean-spirited, immature, ignorant, arrogant and downright asinine now, I’d like to think I was never that person.

But what I have noticed is that I make fewer jokes about food dependency. These jokes are incredibly common, to the extent of going unnoticed; they blend into the fabric of everyday life, like the walls and floor.

They usually revolve around eating in preference to activities that eating cannot really replace, such as dates, sex or social activities.

Look through your Facebook feed; how many times do you see people share that old joke about being in love with or married to pizza, or not going out because they’re spending quality time with ice cream?

It’s everywhere, and you don’t notice until you stop doing it yourself. Then it looks worse than trite. It looks like a full blown global obsession.

Going vegan cut me off from this “humour” because the food in question was no longer food to me. When you suddenly find yourself outside of a culture or pattern of thinking, you see its problems more clearly. I realised that food jokes hide insidious dependency and that for that reason, they are far from funny.

There was another factor; often, I was the butt of the joke. It’s easier to see that the joke isn’t funny when you’re the butt of it. That’s not just me being sore – if you really break the joke down, it’s pretty lame.

The joke goes:

Vegetarian: Try this vegetarian sausage, it’s just like the real thing.

Meat-eater: Let’s never speak to each other again.

It’s apparently funny because the vegetarian has committed the unforgivable faux pas of suggesting that vegetarian food can ever come close to being as good as the Holy Meat. This makes them Not Like Normal People, but rather weird. Let us laugh at them.

The idea behind the joke is that the vegetarian has a brain problem, and just doesn’t get what meat is all about. If they only understood the virtues of Holy Meat, they wouldn’t dare suggest that substitutes could come close.

Well, if the vegetarian friend does have a brain problem, it’s naive optimism; they say these things to their meat-eating friends because they’re assuming that the meat-eating friend, underneath the hedonistic outer shell, has an ethical vein that can be tapped.

Vegetarians imagine that, because meat-eaters know the reality of meat, they don’t need a gigantic impetus to switch – the impetus is already there. What they need is to have their shy ethics tempted out into the light with titbits of tasty food, like an ornery shrew hiding in a dark crevasse.

The anti-veggie-sausage joke is a wonderful example of how we venerate hedonism. If there’s a moral point hidden under the joke, it’s that dismissing the hedonistic quality of meat is close to a sin. Which, if you think about it, is the most spectacular display of feebleness imaginable.

At risk of coming over all Daily Mail, in what dire straits does the moral core of a society have to be in to actually scorn people who don’t treat hedonistic indulgences as their top priority?

That most people behave as though there’s nothing larger in the world than the question of when they will next get a pizza is not, to me, particularly funny. It’s too close to the bone; it’s too true that we think in food to the point of being selfish and amoral.

The most extraordinary example of this I saw was on Twitter recently. Someone had received two leaflets through the door; one, a charity appeal for people in poverty, and another, pizza delivery service.

She tweeted that the child on the charity appeal could, basically, get on her bike, because the tweeter in question had her own problems – namely, which pizza to order.

It was a joke. It was meant to be ironic and satirical. I understand all that, but it didn’t make me laugh.

Underneath and behind that apparent self-awareness is a lack of it; we routinely disregard real suffering, poverty and hunger in favour of our “first world problems” and we are mostly unapologetic about it, sometimes even behaving like it’s something to be proud of.

In short, most people given those two leaflets would throw away the wrong one.

You have to question the value of satire and irony when it doesn’t change behaviour at all, but rather makes it easier to justify; under the argument that everyone does it, so it must be OK – we’re all in the same boat of poorly disguised shame and self-disgust, unable to break free of habit, knowing full well that we should. Oh well, another day, another suppressed sense of deep unease.

This airbrushing of shame is incredibly useful for the natural and unavoidable embarrassments of trivial social interaction, but dangerous when it obscures important issues.

In this case, food obsession and our jocular embrace of it allows us to wave away problems like sustainability, and ironically, issues directly related to eating, like obesity and world hunger.

You can’t talk to such a person about ethical or environmental food choices. Their thinking process goes: this action will take ice cream away from me. Ice cream is the substance of life. Therefore I will not follow this action.

How important that action is makes no difference to this process, so strong is the process. Most people don’t even particularly realise they’re doing it.

We should cut the crap and not hide behind humour; avoid jokingly calling ourselves pathetic, not-so-subtly looking for other people to agree and therefore make us feel better about that negative side of us because, hey, at least we’re normal. We should call ourselves out on it, and think: maybe this is my chance to be stronger, instead.

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