Review of A Decent Meal: Building Empathy in a Divided America By Michael Carolan, Stanford, California: Redwood Press. 2021. 228 pp.

Reviewed Book

A Decent Meal: Building Empathy in a Divided America By Michael Carolan, Stanford, California: Redwood Press. 2021. 228 pp.

Cover of A Decent Meal (2021)

Emily Mendenhall

Georgetown University

A Decent Meal: Building Empathy in a Divided America uses food as an intimate embodied encounter and place of departure to ask hard questions about society. Sociologist Michael Carolan uses the Heartland (as a political region) to consider how people can come together and change their perspectives. Through multiple experiments, Carolan engages the reader in thinking differently through a “heartland model for social change” (6, my emphasis). As opposed to a headland model, where one introduces new ideas to change behavior, the heartland model requires embodied engagements in activities “to nudge our focus beyond the unsubstantiated belief that facts alone will bring us together” (10). Carolan reveals how “motivated reasoning” (7) for thinking differently can be embodied through the “idea of proximity” (9) with people who think differently. In this way, Carolan holds the central belief that “people generally have the capacity to care for others not of their political tribe if given the opportunity to experience that difference first hand” (26).

A central critique of Carolan’s project is interrogating the world around him to untangle white racial resentment of increasingly diverse rural landscapes. In many ways the critique harkens Jonathan Metzl’s book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, although he never formally engages this work. Carolan describes the resentment as engrained in “stayers” who, in contrast to “movers” who came into a rural community at some point in their lives, have for several generations conceived a myth of what community looks like and therefore resented demographic changes (58). These resentments have been deepened by political partisanship from Trumpism and COVID and he wonders if these divisions are related to “geographic sorting” (61)—where people move to live closer to people who believe the same things. His language and ideas about political in-groups draws from Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion—speaking to the moral foundations on which people cultivate meaningful relationships and “political tribes”. Carolan concludes that these divisions are framed as cultural or personal when in fact they reflect the marketization of everyday life and the influence of toxic media outlets spewing unfounded “outrage” (71).

Breaking down these divisions was Carolan’s goal in organizing several “wild game dinners” where people differing in politics, race, and residence came together to see “fellow humans rather than enemies” (176); in these events, food was brought forest to table, modeled off dinners from his childhood in northeastern Iowa, where he once ate snapper turtle soup. Ted, an urban organizer who lost a cousin to gun violence, said he realized the gun debate wasn’t about guns but rather it was “existential” (160)—about losing a way of life. While some associate this fear with loss of white “heteronormative, hypermasculine expressions of rurality,” Carolan argues that for his interlocutors, “it is a struggle animated by a belief that what it means to be a rural American is being asymmetrically shaped by people who have not a clue about what life is like, other than stereotypes” (161). Although these dinners did not solve larger issues of racism or cultural discordance, they demonstrate how we might start chipping away at the “incivility problem” (177) by generating empathy. Carolan concludes that building empathy requires to start “S-M-A-L-L” (182) by bringing people together, building relationships, teaching kids about food production, and constructing policies that build cohesion over hate.

These political divisions are often felt as geographic divisions. Carolan shows how “urban food plans do little to make rural residents, farmers and ranchers in particular, feel like they matter” (147). In one case, an urban pediatrician outraged a rural potato farmer by suggesting the rising childhood obesity problem is linked to not eating enough fruits and vegetables; while not intentional, the physician communicated a perception that the potato farmer’s food wasn’t good food and that he was not a good farmer (141). In another case, urban dwelling social activist Antonio overcame his mistrust of rural white farmers by spending time together and appreciating each other’s land, priorities, and personalities. A rural wheat farmer overcame prejudice toward urban development to say, “rather than viewing those in cities as the enemy they ought to be understood as partners. We’re all fighting the same fight—globalization, billionaires rigging the system to benefit them[selves], corporate control of our food system” (149). These intimate exchanges illuminate how and why people so often talk across each other rather than finding common ground.

Discovering how to foster empathy has been Carolan’s project for many years. The first experiment shows how living on a food stamps (SNAP) budget for 2 weeks can transform people’s perspectives on such programs. For instance, when Paul tried to live on a SNAP budget for a week, he shifted from using words like “Goddamn welfare” (33) to telling Carolan how crucial it is to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” (34). Martha set out to “prove a point that these handouts were plenty generous” (38) and (even though she sort of cheated) she concluded that “a few more dollars a day could make a big difference” (42). Another protagonist ironically cozied up with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed at the end of his experiment—where the author wrote about getting by on minimum wage in three states (48), trying to understand the meaning of his experience.

In another experiment, Carolan described how people developed empathy for people different to them while volunteering for a CSA, or Community Sustainable Agriculture. The case studies illustrate how people overcome “discomfort” with “those who have been Othered by one’s political tribe” (83) via pulling carrots together and nurturing the soil. For example, Rebecca and Bryan—a couple who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016—complained of the “illegals” who were pulling vegetables a few meters away from them early on in their CSA journey. Only a few years later they would identify these individuals as friends. Two polar opposites (Juliette and Nick) fell in love with their hands in the soil and found common ground. Also, Nicole—the ultimate individualist—ditches her belief in the myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and realizes how “interdependence” can be crucial for thriving through new friendships (97).

Carolan makes the point that interrogating indifference can be meaningful. He introduces Berry Bootcamp to challenge the ways in which right-leaning participants think about farm work and farmworkers by picking strawberries for a day. The second experiment was an invitation for urbanites to work on large scale industrial farms in rural America. In both cases, protagonists were intrigued and reflective—but perhaps not energized or transformed—although, they often expressed an interest to learn more. Here, Carolan returns to Haidt’s moral foundations to suggest that such interventions can cultivate empathy, which can ultimately lead to caring. “And this begins,” he argues, “the process of recognition: to view rural, large-scale commodity farmers neither as victims nor as people of privilege but as individuals with legitimate concerns, aspirations, and fears” (126).

A Decent Meal is not only about food but also about racial politics, industrial food production, and culture wars. As an interdisciplinary analysis, it looks at how people perceive, feel, and think through embodied experiences at the crux of the industrial food system. In some ways, this book provides a white American reckoning of the global food system, putting it into conversation with deeply embodied stories, such as Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2013), which unveils farmworker realities of health and illness. It also speaks to Alyshia Galvez’s pathbreaking book Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico (2018), revealing the minimal understanding that many consumers in American carry with them into the market. Moreover, A Decent Meal might be paired with Ashanté Reese and Hanna Garth’s Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice (2020), to exemplify why recognizing the depth of disjuncture in American society around food and the need for a focus on Black food culture, which can then “illuminate the variety of ways in which Black cultural forms come up against other dominant (white) culture in analyzing why Black ways of being are sometimes degraded and other times celebrated” (14).

It is an excellent book for students to devour in undergraduate courses about food policy studies, rural sociology, cultural anthropology, or food politics. The book is also ideal for book clubs and library discussion groups—it’s funny, thoughtful, critical, and clear. There is also a feel-good tone to the book and optimism that keeps your reading. It stands as an exemplar in public scholarship by bringing together an extraordinary body of research in an appetizing way. Other academics hoping to summarize a huge body of research and to reach a broad audience should use this as a model. Finally, this book exemplifies how to construct a career that is deeply ethnographic, creative, and impactful not only through research but also community engagement and education.