@Bittman, Beyonce, and @ByronHurt

via nytimes.com

via nytimes.com

A few weeks ago, food writer and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dipped his toe into the sea of pop culture studies with his column on Beyonce’s PepsiCo deal, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?” In the piece, Bittman’s eponymous question proves to be rhetorical. Instead of exploring why “stars think it’s o.k. to sell soda,” he explains why they shouldn’t: because soda’s empty calories “directly cause weight gain” and are linked to “obesity and [therefore] early death”.

Bittman’s piece focuses on superstar Beyonce’s enormous endorsement deal from Pepsi in compensation for her performance at the Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show and her image being emblazened on limited-edition Pepsi cans, an effort on which Pepsi is spending $50 million. In this column and elsewhere, Bittman advocates for legal limitations on soda (for example, making food stamps ineligible for soda purchases), and so he has a clear sense that Beyonce’s choice is a bad one for the health of her fans. He writes that “Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

But  Bittman misses an opportunity to understand this Beyonce deal when he rushes to moralize it. Given Beyonce’s political activism, even her advocacy for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Bittman see’s her choice to pose for Pepsi as mere hypocrisy. To Bittman, soda is an obvious killer, an ingestible non-food that should be regulated with “anti-tobacco-style legislation and [tried in the court of] public opinion.” Looking at Britney’s Pepsi ad above, for example, it clearly markets Pepsi as hip, aspirational, youthful, energetic, democratic, carefree, and sexy. Those are still characteristics fans associate with Beyonce, and her acceptance of the Pepsi deal suggests that Pepsi still reads hip, youthful and fun – what may be the bigger shift here from Britney days is not that Pepsi has changed but that a black woman can be the face of hip, youthful, sexy and fun.

Bittman’s equivalence between soda and cigarettes is a false one precisely because of their differences in the eyes of contemporary American consumers.  Beyonce has accepted an endorsement deal from Pepsi without damaging her image of “success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour” (Center for Science in the Public Interest qtd in Bittman). This speaks not only to the strength of Beyonce’s star image but also indicates that soda is not perceived by most as it is by Mark Bittman. He laments that “Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons,” but of course we know that Beyonce would turn down any endorsement deal, no matter the payday, with a cigarette company. She doesn’t even shell for alcohol. (Carcinogenic cosmetics are another story.) Beyonce’s proud acceptance of this deal is an indicator of public opinion on soda: we don’t see it as a killer, not yet. Bittman would do better to understand the meaning of her choice and what it means about soda’s public image.

(Side note: While we’re here, though, let me praise Mark Bittman. That the food-centric writings of a cookbook author are so incisively political speaks to the centrality of food and food policy to many national debates and struggles. His writings on food politics cut to the core of so many facets of American life, government, and community right now: public health disaster, big business corruption, pollution and global warming, revolving doors between government agencies and corporate board rooms, and–let’s not forget this–the thousands of grass roots movements in food, community, and sustainability taking hold across the country every day.)

Byron Hurt’s new documentary, Soul Food, is streaming on PBS.org until January 22. It uses the death of Hurt’s father as a jumping-off point to an exploration of how food health and security impact African American community. Most interesting to me in the film were folks’ contrasting responses to soul food’s roots in slavery: some people took eating the chicken feet white folks wouldn’t eat as a badge of honor, while others rejected slave foods for their association with enslavement. The film is a great exploration of so many foods we think of as plain American: mac n’cheese, fried chicken, stewed greens, but put in the context of African-American history, experience, and culture.

The film was also a surprising compliment to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which (as a story of the Great Migration) is a book about travel, about eating on the go, and about the movements of traditions and cultures of which food is a huge part. Anyway, check out the film and let me know what you think!

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