Late last week, I read one of those books I'd heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a while: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's the story of a girl named Lee, a scholarship student at a New England boarding school. The book is elegantly written and full of very real teenage angst and I loved it. Not surprisingly, really. Narrated by the main character when she's in her late 20s, and written by a woman who's exactly my age, it was easy for me to feel a connection to the story. Though Lee's miserable high school experience is much worse than how I remember my glory days, I've reread my old diaries often enough to realize I, too, was dramatically unhappy for much of my teens. I mean, not really, but according to my melodramatic writing I was.
All of this is a long way of saying that I enjoyed the book very much and think it deserved all the accolades it received. It made me happy to read because it reminded me of a great time of my life (I like Laguna Beach for the same reasons, but that's a whole different story.)
And how is this about food? Well, to be perfectly honest, I had to scrounge around for a connection to food so I could feel justified posting about the book. But I found one, and it was good.
Sittenfeld's Lee seems to spend the majority of her time at school analyzing the complex social structure that leaves her feeling like an outsider. Early in the book, during the chapters that cover her freshman year, she identifies several subtle preferences that become the sort of random social norms that organically grow up in insular subcultures. One of these is about food. It's important, according to Lee, to conform in every way - even to shun the same foods in the cafeteria. At her school, these undesireables include tater tots and key lime pie.
Now, norms around food exist in every culture - anthropologists hoping to understand a culture always study the food ritual and the hidden values and meanings of certain foods. It's easy to think about the odd role certain foods can play in cultures when you're thinking about an exotic culture. It's often much more difficult to look at the same behaviors in our own culture.
Prep made me wonder, though, what the hot-button foods were in my high school. I didn't go to boarding school, but looking back now, it's clear to me that I was living in a bubble of sorts. I'm sure every high school fosters its own crazy, moody subculture.
In retrospect, I don't remember anything as randomly taboo as key lime pie. In fact, the only real taboo I do remember was Coors Light; the silver bullet was considered the lamest, girliest drink ever - lower on the alcoholic totem pole than Zima. So girly even girls wouldn't drink it. (Now, of course, the same guys who mocked it drink it on occasion. How things change in a mere thirteen years.)
But when I think of the foods that bound us, my memories are much more generic: birthday cakes brought in to lunch, Friendly's sundaes after football games (but only for the freshmen), sports teams meeting for breakfast at McDonald's on game days. Food that's about the ritual, not what we were actually eating.
I'm sure it was there, though, those totem foods. But I wasn't paying enough attention to remember them. I guess when you're in the moment, it's just too hard to capture it.
Come to think of it, that's another reason why I admire Sittenfeld's book. She captures the moment like she's there. It's great writing.