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Dark Days Week 10: The Eye-Stomach Connection

In all the time I have spent in the past year writing/dreaming/eating/thinking about food, I am still amazed by how visually connected we are to our food. I love cookbooks that have full color images for every recipe; rarely do I choose to cook something if I haven’t seen the final product. You could be the best food writer in town but if the images on your blog are sub-par, odds are your message won’t stretch far.

Yesterday I had a perfect example of what I like to call “The Eye-Stomach Connection,” and how powerful it is, little control over it I have.

I came home early from a pretty stressful morning at work. Let’s just say the office hasn’t been the source of good employment news lately. I grouched upstairs, dropped my stuff in the office and went straight for my pajamas and slippers. It was 11:30 A.M. With my cup of tea in hand I started to comb through the mail when I there it was. The answer to my day’s problems:

Oh, chicken pot pie. Right on the cover of the February King Arthur Flour catalog. With a perfect heart-shaped golden-brown crust and warm creamy inside. What I’m about to tell you really happened, I swear. I was ogling the catalog when the chicken pot pie spoke to me. I was in the middle of drooling and it just started to talk. It said “Amy. You look a little sad today. No worries friend. My perfectly golden-brown heart-shaped crust still loves you. And I promise that I taste as amazing as I look. Don’t eat the catalog. Just make a pot pie for dinner.” Oh, chicken pot pie you are perfect. And something perfect is what I needed. Skip the lame Dark Days dish I had planned, we’re having pot pie tonight!

See what I mean about the eye-stomach connection? Open the mailbox and out goes my self-control. One good image communicated so much about comfort, safety, and warmth I changed all of my plans to recreate it. The looks-so-good-I-could-eat-the-catalog chicken pot pie said “make this and your problems will go away.” Clearly, those King Arthur marketing folks know what they’re doing.

Fast forward a few hours…

As I’m eating my SOLE chicken pot pie (with local carrots and potatoes, frozen green beans and corn from the garden, and a chicken from my dad’s flock), I started to think more about marketing and its role in promoting local food. Let’s be honest. We Americans have some of the worst eating habits on the planet. We have an obsession with high-fat, low-nutrient convenience food. We love it, and in obnoxious quantities. But do we love it because it tastes good, or because it’s heavily marketed to us? Do we choose the frozen pre-packaged dinner because it’s fresh and full of nutrients? No way! We eat something that tastes like salted cardboard because we were told it would make us more healthy, lean, and beautiful. Do we choose a supreme-sized steak and potatoes meal because it’s the best choice on the menu, or because it’s packaged in a “I’m a man. And men should eat big hunks of meat,” package?

Here’s another example: When the kitchen partner and I are out for beers we order what we both prefer; I order a Guinness and he chooses a light beer. More than half the time, when the server brings the drinks back to the table, the Guinness is set in front of him and I get the light beer. Why? Because alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products in the food industry and Americans have received some strong messages about who drinks what. Guinness is for rugby-playing pirates, not for a 5 foot gal in a scarf and matching shoes. Duh. Women don’t drink Guinness. And what self-respecting man drinks light beer? We’re marketed like crazy to believe women drink the lightest calorie-free beer possible.

The kitchen partner and I shrug it off, and occasionally I’ll do my best rugby-playing pirate impression just to prove I fit in. The point is not to downgrade the server for holding stereotypes about men and women and their beer. The point is one step farther back–because in the end the server puts the glasses down in front of women because women order light beer more often. Not because it tastes better (trust me. walk away from the 55 calorie mess in your glass), but because our eyes saw the commercial and the commercial told us it will make us look, feel, and just plain be better. Eyes tell stomach. Stomach eats what eyes think will make us feel the best.  Light beer, frozen low-calorie microwave meal, and chicken pot pie. They’re one in the same.

Which brings me back to local food…

For so long major corporations were the only folks who could afford major food marketing campaigns. Have you ever seen a commercial for carrots? celeriac root? But in recent years, local food has begun to inch into the spotlight and shove out the rest. More restaurants are advertising their support of local farmers. More schools are promoting fresh local vegetables. The farmers’ market has become the trendy place to be. Americans are finally starting to see messages about fresh local food and make new eye-stomach connections. Farmers, food bloggers, and chefs are starting to use the same techniques that make us crave chicken pot pie to get us to buy local.

Why not? Americans love food that makes them feel good. It’s time for local producers to replace the feel-goodness messages of chicken pot pie, with the feel-goodness of eating fresh local food. We already know it’s power to compel eaters into action. Let’s just make sure they’re eating the the right thing.

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