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[T]he racks of nuts and spices where whatever surprises might be [are] bottled and boxed with kindergarten attractiveness . . . the vegetables, all shining and wet and sprinkled perpetually with a soft mist spread upon them, bringing out colors and presenting shapes impossible in the outside world . . . unreal in their bright perfection as plastic representations.[1]

The makers of CLR (the Calcium, Lime, Rust, cleaning product) assure us that there are “all kinds of dirty, one kind of clean.” One can feel confident that soap scum buildup and toilet bowl stains in the bathroom as well as grease splatters and dried-on tomato sauce in the kitchen can be wiped away with the help of one yellow bottle. The pithy slogan asks us to be preoccupied by dirty in all its forms, without taking into account the many discourses of clean. By contrast, this article concerns itself with the cult of “cleanness” and the ways in which it has taken hold of the imaginary when it comes to our bodies, the things we put into them, and the spaces we make use of or inhabit. I set out to examine the ways in which clean is implemented and interpreted by and within two major sites of food shopping: the supermarket and the market.

Spaces in which food is sold are held to a certain standard of cleanness or, more accurately, food safety practice. They are required to meet the standards and policies set and administered by Health Canada and the Minister of Health, and enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which reports directly to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. Targets set and regulated by such agencies and federal departments regarding labelling, packaging, food handling, transport, processing, and so on, are found within the Food and Drugs Act. My aim here is not to determine whether or not such standards are being met.

While our understanding of what clean means has certainly informed and been informed by the aforementioned act, I contend that there are many competing discourses of clean at work in the spaces of the supermarket[2] and the market. I am attentive to those who create these discourses: federal departments, retailers, urban planners, activists, individual shoppers, food producers, and so on. This study seeks to map out how discourses of cleanliness are circulated. In other words, it is defined by the following questions: how are such discourses put into practice? How are they perceived, if at all, by those who frequent or avoid these spaces?

I have sought to bring together sociological, anthropological, cultural, and literary studies[3] on the spaces in which food is sold. What connects this seemingly diverse collection of writings is an interest in everyday life and a commitment to defamiliarizing the familiar and often taken-for-granted supermarket and market. The featured texts explore the lived realities of such spaces. In reading these texts I begin by looking at the supermarket’s physical layout, with its backstage area that hides the excess, the dirt, the mess, and the history of food production. I then articulate ways in which whole shopping sites are packaged or mythologized as clean and/or dirty spaces. I also discuss the different kinds of clean featured within such spaces, from sterilization to sustainable practices. Finally, I explore the instability of the boundaries we set between clean and dirty.

1 stage, n. 2 stage, v.

The modern supermarket, as Robert Polack suggests, “illustrates the essential structure of staging in every aspect of its design.”[4] The word “staging” implies players, an audience, a performance, and, of course, a concealed backstage area that helps to “create and sustain the world of a staged presentation.”[5] Food items make their way along an ever-lengthening chain of production, processing, packaging, and distribution, a chain that extends far beyond the storage facilities and workrooms found at the back of the supermarket. As they are at last unloaded from trucks and brought into the building, such food items enter into a kind of final backstage preparation zone. This is the space within which excess packaging is removed from products, bread and cakes are baked, and meat is processed from primary carcass cuts into secondary meat cuts. There are break rooms for the staff, maintenance rooms stocked with cleaning supplies, and offices from which the incoming and outgoing supply of goods is carefully monitored. The backstage portion of the store is separated from the arena of retail presentation by a series of swinging doors, adorned, inevitably, with a bold-lettered panel that reads “authorized personnel only.” Moving back and forth between this space and the space reserved for the customer are the players, the personnel: the butcher, the baker, the cashier, the stock person, all of whom wear immaculate uniforms to underscore the fact that they are working in a sterilized environment. Meanwhile the heavy—and in some cases bloody—work takes place behind closed doors, most often during the night shift or “when there are no customers.”[6] One must not forget the products themselves, displayed behind gleaming glass casings, piled into tidy pyramids, and neatly arranged on shelves, occupying “[a]s far as possible every square inch of the eyes’ range of vision.”[7]

Polack’s metaphor, it must be noted, can only take us so far, particularly when we consider that the theatre as a whole has historically been saddled with a reputation for being a rather dirty space, in many senses of the term. In 16th and 17th-century London, for example, theatre companies faced repeated closures by city authorities who feared the spread of bubonic plague. The theatre has also been considered a site of moral contagion. As Jeremy Collier's 18th-century anti-theatre pamphlet infamously decries, “nothing has gone further in Debauching the Age than the Stage Poets and Play-house.”[8] It is also important to acknowledge that the stage itself is not entirely devoid of evidence of production history. Much depends on the play. The term “stage” is variously defined as a raised floor or platform, as a means of travel (“stage-coach”), as a stopping-place or a period of time.[9] The term may thus refer to a process, in addition to a polished finished product.

The literary text I have chosen to focus on, Tessa McWatt’s This Body, presents us with one spectator in particular who is attentive to this relationship between “process” (a series of stages) and “display” (to stage). While Polack tells us that the customer or spectator, so to speak, is generally not privy to what goes on behind the scenes—observing that “backstage factors are usually not considered and only vaguely known, if known at all”[10]—McWatt’s central character, Victoria, demonstrates an awareness of the mechanisms or theatrics of the spaces in which she buys food. In This Body, Victoria represents a more calculating shopper than the bewildered dupe featured or described in many post-war anti-supermarket texts.[11] She is aware that the apparent perfection of the produce she buys (and tries to avoid) depends upon a number of interventions: pesticides, ethylene gas, wax, synthetic dyes, organization, placement, packaging, directional lighting, and a liberal sprinkling of water.[12] As Elspeth Huxley notes, “[y]ou can’t sell a blemished apple in the supermarket, but you can sell a tasteless one, provided it’s shiny, even, uniform, and bright.”[13] In the numerous food-foraging scenes of McWatt's novel, Victoria consistently insists on traceability and actively engages with vendors (and, ideally, producers) about the provenance of various products. She is on the lookout for the kind of shopping experience in which “[y]ou can look a farmer in the eye as he hands you what he first touched as a seed.”[14] In part this is a matter of developing a personal relationship with her food provider. She is willing to pay more for the privilege of belonging to a food community of sorts. For Victoria, traceability is also directly related to the question of food safety: “I want to know what I’m eating,”[15] she says.

Feeding/Breeding Grounds

Victoria has very definite ideas about the places where she buys her groceries. They are, she finds, almost too clean, as in plastic, artificial, unnaturally perfect, efficient, hygienic symbols of modern merchandising:

But London doesn’t make much of its markets, in that English way of hiding the good things. Don’t flaunt the food because there’s pleasure there. Hide the lettuce that unfolds like lips between a woman’s legs. Hide the bulging ripe tomatoes filled with seed. Hide all the reminders of desire in plastic packaging, neutralizing it.[16]

McWatt is concerned in this short paragraph with that which must be concealed and/or neutralized. In biological and medical terms, to neutralize is to “inactivate a toxin, other biologically active substance, or pathogen.”[17] The toxin in this case is pleasure and desire. The author invites us to think about toxins and the seemingly neutralizing effects of packaging at the level of the products themselves—in this case, lettuce and tomatoes—as well as the shopping sites as a whole.

In “Shopping for Food,” Bob Ashley et al. write that “[d]iscursive constructions of the city have routinely come to privilege the market as . . . a site of communion between producers and consumers, rather than a site of exploitation.”[18] As the following example reminds us, however, one theorist’s “site of communion” is another’s breeding ground for dirt, disorder, and disease. Between 1890 and 1930, urban planners adhering to the ideologies of the North American City Beautiful movement set out to build and rebuild cities that were “more healthful, more efficient, more moral.”[19] The public or farmer’s market did not, unfortunately, fit within this vision. Charles Mulford Robinson, a prolific and widely recognized plan-maker of the time, sought to banish markets from the city centre, recommending that they be relocated to industrial areas.[20] Robinson believed that markets were “not provocative of clean streets.”[21] They caused “street litter, congestion, and offensive odor.”[22] For a City Beautiful to be modern, moral, and hygienic, there must be a clear separation between zones of production (industrial areas on the outskirts of town) and zones of presentation (civic centres, parks, public buildings).

The first supermarkets, a 20th-century American innovation, came into being during the 1930s. What distinguished such stores from the self-service grocery store, which by now had already begun to replace the full-service variety, was their sheer size, which allowed them to offer an even greater variety of goods to the customer. The supermarket was promoted as a thoroughly modern, efficient, ordered, and hygienic environment.[23] Many traces of the market were actively effaced from this new and developing retail space. As Rachel Bowlby has observed, a clean and orderly supermarket is a silent one.[24] Missing from these “gleaming palaces”[25] was the market hawker, a “shouting outdoor character,”[26] who was ultimately replaced by silent and often non-human salespersons: window displays, brightly coloured packages, and even cardboard cutouts of salespersons. The market, it must be acknowledged, has not been entirely expunged from this space. The bakery, the deli-counter, and the fish counter, in which a limited amount of food is prepared in full view of customers, have recently been made to look and feel more like they belong in a traditional marketplace.[27] The walls are painted with murals of market scenes or scenes of the countryside and products are advertised with slogans like “market fresh” and “freshly prepared on site today.” This particular trend may be a response to the growing popularity of the outdoor or farmer’s market: last year in Canada, farmer’s markets had a $3.09 billion impact on the Canadian economy.[28] Also worth noting, as Harvey Levenstein reminds us, is that the fully prepared salads, cooked chickens, and samosas sold within these spaces allow the supermarkets to compete with restaurants and take-home outlets for profits.[29] In other words, the in-store market has a great deal to do with market share.

Ashley et al., referring to sociologist Kim Humphery’s Shelf Life: Supermarkets and the Changing Cultures of Consumption, observe a tendency among Humphery’s respondents to polarize the terms market and supermarket. The former is described as unpredictable, while the latter is categorized as a thoroughly modern and predictable space. Ashley goes on to suggest that “predictability is generally desirable in food hygiene.”[30] The relationship between predictability and cleanliness has also been investigated by James L. Watson in his writing about McDonald’s.[31] As is the case for the fast-food chain, standardization in the supermarket means that, as Alan Beardsworth writes, “the consumer eating [or in this case shopping] away from home, no matter where the outlet is located can have a high degree of confidence that paradox 1 and paradox 2 anxieties [displeasure and disease] will not need to be confronted.”[32]

Tessa McWatt’s novel is replete with references to such food-related anxieties. She is particularly interested in exploring and fleshing out multiple understandings of the connections between concepts of contamination and foreignness. There are many foreign bodies in this text, including the protagonist herself, who has settled in London, England by way of Guyana and Toronto, Canada. The foreign bodies to which Victoria steadfastly objects take the form of genetically modified (GM) and imported foods. GM foods, as far as Victoria is concerned, contain contaminants and impurities, and pose a direct threat to her health and to those who eat at her table and pay for her catering services:

she could taste it in them, something foreign, something shot through the eggs to make the yolks bigger. Huge, bright yellow yolks. Or maybe it’s the hens that have been shot through with growth hormones – rBGH, or its equivalent for chickens . . . That madness has a taste. So, no more supermarket eggs.[33]

Extending outside the limits of the body, Victoria is convinced that imported foods (with the notable exception of turmeric, masala, and plantain chips) contaminate the marketplace. They undermine the local food industry, the farmer’s markets, and the local land that has the capacity to provide a region with its food. Her solution? “Destroy the supermarkets. A farmer’s market on every high street would do.”[34]

To Market, to Market, to Buy . . .

Having restricted this discussion to the ways in which urban planners, supermarket retailers, and shoppers package or mythologize whole shopping sites as clean and/or dirty spaces, let us also consider the packaging of individual products: the pristinely pink skinless, boneless chicken breast, for instance, on its moisture-absorbing sheet and colour-coded polystyrene plate, wrapped in plastic; or the fair-trade coffee package, upon which one finds a detailed description, from field to shelf, of its backstage history. Cleanness is framed, by food producers and retailers, as a matter of removing and/or revealing traces of a food item’s production history. Certain aspects of the chicken’s production history have more recently begun to make an appearance on labels that read corn-fed, grain-fed, hormone-free, anti-biotic-free, free-range, organic, and my personal favourite, natural. As we have been informed by a recent television commercial for Maple Leaf Prime, “tomatoes, you touch; bread, you squeeze; … chicken, you read.”[35] It must also be noted that, for the most part, the chicken breast is stripped of its immediate history. Its relationship to the slaughter facility and to the collection of feathers, bones, beak, joints, skin, and guts from whence it came is neutralized, as Victoria would say, by its plastic packaging. As food writer Tom Philpott tells us, with reference to the National Chicken Council of the United States:

In 1962, 83% of broilers were marketed whole; 15% were sold cut up; and just 2% got “further processed”. By 2004 fully half of broilers ended up further processed (think McNuggets). Another 42% of birds arrived in supermarket cases in cut-up form. A paltry 8% greeted consumers as whole birds.[36]

Canadian statistics, gathered from the Chicken Farmers of Canada Chicken Data Booklet (2004), are comparable.[37] The breast’s saran-wrapped sterility, along with the fact that much of what reminds us that this was once an animal has been removed, is what makes the product clean for consumption.

A second kind of clean promoted within these same shopping spaces is one related to the question of social and environmental responsibility. Clean as green, in other words. The makers of certain products demonstrate a concern for (forgive the pun) making a clean breast of it in terms of a product’s production history. On packages of coffee grounds, for instance, next to the photograph of workers sorting coffee beans, it is often possible to find a lengthy paragraph about labour conditions, land stewardship or sustainable development, and attempts to shorten the distance between farm and table. This food production model is touted as supporting and creating food that is, to borrow a phrase from the Slow Food movement’s website, “good, clean, and fair.”[38] Those adhering to the principles of the Slow Food movement suggest that the well-informed consumer becomes, in fact, a co-producer, or consomacteur, “a part of and partner in the production process.”[39]

If we were to look beyond the package that envelops foodstuffs and, with the aid of a microscope, examine the item itself, we would be confronted with a group of unicellular microorganisms that command a great deal of attention in discussions about dirt: bacteria. “Our idea of dirt,” Mary Douglas writes in Purity and Danger, “is dominated by the knowledge of pathogenic organisms.”[40] When we think about dirt, in other words, we often think about infectious diseases, caused (sometimes) by the foods we eat and the beverages we consume. It is important to keep in mind that the “our” in Douglas’ statement refers to contemporary (1960s) Europeans, and that as Douglas points out, pathogens and the bacterial transmission of disease are relatively recent (19th-century) discoveries. What I take from Douglas in the context of this study is that the boundaries between what is clean and what is dirty are not universal. Neither are they rigid and unchanging. “Friendly” bacteria or probiotic food products have been heavily promoted of late. Various claims have been made about the risks and health benefits of such products. In the dairy section of my grocery store, heat-treated yogurts compete for shelf space with those that contain live and active cultures. The co-presence of such products on supermarket shelves with varying approaches to, or kinds of, bacteria further demonstrates the instability of the boundaries we set between clean and dirty. These boundaries are determined not only by the threat of pathogens, but also by fashion and marketing strategies. Both filtered and supposedly pure foodstuffs and “friendly bacteria” are packaged for the consumer willing to read his or her food.

In this study I have been concerned with the task of pointing out some of the processes and motivations behind the idea of clean, a rather slippery, shifty concept that is appropriated and continually reworked and redefined within the spaces in which we buy food. Clean is green, fat-free, hormone-free, and filled with Omega 3. It is, as I have attempted to point out, partly a question of packaging and presentation. The boundaries we set up, take down, or recognize between clean and dirty change, ranging in scale from the food item itself, to its packaging, its location within the store, and even the location of the store. How do I know if a food is clean? There are, in fact, many answers to this question. The answers vary according to the cultural, historical, economical, and geographical context in which the question is asked. For the food studies scholar, “clean” is a charged adjective providing a versatile and revelatory lens through which to examine past and current preoccupations with nutrition, the environmental impact of our foodways, food consumption, distribution, safety, and security.