Fifth of a 5-part series as a model for student work.
American Original Sin: Our Obsession with Sweetness
30 March 2020
We might claim a great deal that is wrong with the United States or its self-named “American Culture.” (A couple of dozen other countries in the northern and southern hemisphere also name themselves ‘American’–go figure.) But the past hundred-odd years have seen writers and artists assaulting our culture’s idealism and Dreams, the false promises of Puritan work ethics and Lazarus-gilded doors in New York harbors. It’s a struggle with patriotism (or at times, nationalism) and intentionality. It’s the willingness to work earnestly to realize an ideal or the ideological rationalization for failing to.
These are difficult arguments, and so, as good symbol-using animals, we tend to reduce the abstract complexity to symbols and fight over those instead. Why challenge American exceptionalism when we can argue over the best baseball team? (The one thing we agree on being that all American teams are superior to, say, those in Japan.) And baseball is a fine choice, since it has emerged not merely as a symbol for our country, but an enduring and foundational archetype for it, one of the few images that are indelibly marked as representing the idealism of our country. Baseball, the “Great American Pastime,” sits alongside other indelible images, as well: the apple pie, bbqs, suburbia, the bald eagle, and the chocolate chip cookie.
At this point, what won’t we call a chocolate chip cookie?
(My local Kroger)
These glossy symbols are almost uniquely our own: accept no imitations. Who am I to argue with their placement? Each, to a greater or lesser extent, reveals the darker price of that American exceptionalism. Freud says that there are no accidents, so what we do to our symbols, how we envision them, is essential to interpreting our understanding of ourselves. And beneath our consumption is, perhaps, a deep self-loathing.
Let’s dispense with many of them quickly. Baseball has been steroided into near oblivion, cracking the foundations for sportsmanship and fair play. Backyard barbecues are being replaced by George Foreman grills and isolation: how many can rely (or even say the names of) their next-door neighbors? Suburban life, detested for its oblivious consumerism and class self-isolation, has built a mortgage and credit debt nearly impossible to maintain. The bald eagle has been hunted nearly to extinction (and its recent near recovery only underscores our recklessness with it). And the Apple Pie was literally screwed in some movie or other.
“And beneath our consumption is, perhaps, a deep self-loathing. “
The chocolate chip cookie, as I have argued in these recent entries, is one of the most egregious of examples. Far from ideal, its very presence exists upon a bloody history and bloody present that resonates through much of American “common sense” economics. Our own diabetes-motivated obsession with sugar is a perverse substitute for our loss of the sacred cacao. Chocolate and cookies are not moments for reflection but “quick fixes,” a phrase we once used in dark irony and which now is often raised as an egoistic banner of dependency and addiction. Desserts are not luxuries but expectations. (The frozen dessert industry in the US alone hovers around $8 billion revenue annually (“Industry Revenue”). Cookies and crackers account for $132 billion (“Cookies”).)
Field research leads to incredulity.
What is worse, this small, affordable, and consumed criteria for consumption is passed on to other products. Any one of them could be examined in a similar way to discover its exploitative work in our social system: cell phones, plastic ware, bottled waters, and, as I was recently told by an appliance store, refrigerators.
No, the chocolate chip cookie fills the bill as American archetype, a tiny morsel of sweet, desirable poison become avalanche, reliant upon a “hidden” economy of exploitation and pain. Mine, however, is not a call to ban the cookie (or the chocolate), but to rediscover it with care, to preserve its just production, to savor its flavors, to embrace its once significance. I do not expect, however, to be heeded: this is America, after all.
“Cookies & Crackers – Worldwide | Statista Market Forecast.” Statista, statista.com/outlook/40100300/100/cookies-crackers/worldwide.
Zendehrouhkermani, Fatemeh. “Forecast: Industry Revenue of “ice Cream and Frozen Dessert Manufacturing“ in the U.S. 2011-2023 | Statista.” Statista, 26 Nov. 2019, statista.com/forecasts/917865/ice-cream-and-frozen-dessert-manufacturing-revenue-in-the-us.