Ramen: why the hell do we eat that garbage?

It turns out that the Catholic liturgy gives us at least a partial answer: through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault. In their wisdom, the Church fathers have given us liturgical forms that cover a multitude of sins, a multitude that is very much like Tom Hanks’ proverbial box of chocolates. I reckon you didn’t think you were gonna get that; you were probably expecting something having to do with sexual repression. And chocolate.

Nah, I’ll leave that rabbit hole unexplored.

I must confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I abuse the royal we, and that I just ate me some fucking ramen. Why? Because I’m a poor and I’m staying in a motel that doesn’t provide kitchen facilities; that’s why. But I don’t usually eat that crap. I eat a lot of other junk food that I know I shouldn’t, including a burrito and an apple fritter as the other two courses of the fourthmeal that I just finished, but I’m usually unswayed by ramen’s sultry siren call.

What I don’t get is why so many other people apparently do eat it. It’s hypertension-inducing garbage, it leaves behind a huge amount of the literal kind of garbage, it’s unfilling, and for what it is (cheap pasta, a few itty-bitty pieces of dehydrated vegetables and maybe shrimp, and a nasty powder of salt and salt-like products, for better living through chemistry) it isn’t even that reasonably priced. Convenience can’t fully explain its popularity: 7-Eleven sells all sorts of tastier and more filling junk foods for marginally higher prices. I know this because I just bought and ate two of them. (Before buying the apple fritter, I discreetly palpated the blueberry muffin. Verdict: underbaked like whoa. And twenty cents more. Yuck.) Ramen is the classic poverty food of early postwar Japan. If you just wandered out of the ruins of Nagasaki, I can understand why you’d really enjoy a bowl, but none of the 7-Elevens were open in the days after our boys dropped the bomb. If you’re reading this, you probably live in a less shitty world than that; the occupation authorities have probably already restored broadband to your neighborhood, or at least a decent 3G signal. (You can see why they were playing for MacArthur’s erection.) So the only thing stopping you from getting that burrito instead is seventy cents. Or you could do what I did, and get both, for variety.

There is, however, one thing about ramen that sets off my social control bullshit detector: it’s most closely associated with university students. Notably, it isn’t popularly associated with poor old-school Irishmen (potatoes), poor Latinos (beans), or poor blacks (pork and beans: a neighborhood as well as a food to those of us who follow Det. Joe Schillaci on his investigative adventures across Miami). There are exceptions (e.g., Northern Italians who ate polenta before it was trendy) (NB: typically known as grits when eaten by Crackers, so that gives you an idea of what an ontologically charming ethnic foodstuff cornmeal is), but it usually when abjectly poor ethnic groups get pilloried for leaning too heavily on some handful (or less) of cheap and monotonous foodstuffs, they’re accused of eating something with a surprisingly full nutritional profile. If not, they’re probably also accused of pellagra; refer to Tom Lehrer for details.

I don’t call bullshit on the college student/ramen meme just because it’s popular, but also because it’s generally regarded as nothing worse than a cute foible. This is in contrast to, say, impolite gringo opinion on Mexicans and beans, or impolite SWPL opinion on fat poors and their junk food. It’s widely considered totally normal and appropriate for late teen and twenty-something students to subsist on one of the most nutritionally useless convenience store junk foods ever created. Worse, overreliance on ramen is fairly widely regarded as the proper eating lifestyle for students. Overreliance on nutritionally half-assed processed foods can have a variety of weird ill effects on mental and physical health; if you’re thinking that these ill effects can easily be treated with psychotropic medications (and your school’s student health service may well agree with you on this), realize that psychotropics have all sorts of weird side effects, too. Oops. Personally, I had lithium make my strabismus go totally out of control and Adderall give me a powerful case of the ADHD for which an idiotic psychologist had prescribed it. Trust me: that sounds a lot more fun than it was.

Let’s do a little logic exercise here. For “student,” we’ll substitute “alcoholic.” The point isn’t to smear students as a bunch of lushes; for one thing, I find it awfully liberal to describe Penn State’s undergraduates as “students.” Rather, it is to examine the extra latitude given to students (use scare quotes to taste) for ostensibly being reckless with their own nutritional health on account of mere callowness and overachievement and overscheduling rather than a substance abuse problem that can conveniently be ginned up into a moral panic. Here goes:

“Alcoholics eat the shittiest junk food you ever saw.”

“Some alcoholics eat so poorly that they become anemic.”

“In consideration of their iron deficiencies, some alcoholics go mouth-to-track with the R6 right-of-way. The tracks usually win.”

“Alcoholics have really marginal health because they spend too much time drinking to eat a decent meal and get some exercise.”

“Alcoholics use nonverbal cat-like shrieks to explain to strangers why they don’t always watch where they’re going when they’re out getting wasted in the Gaslamp Quarter.”

With the exception of the catstuff and the amateur railroading, these items can easily be applied to students. It’s just that they’re running themselves into the ground in pursuit scholastic achievement, not in furtherance of a seedy addiction.

No society can keep a disordered minority of Type A idiots from running themselves into the ground with unbalanced lifestyles of academic overexertion, abysmal nutrition, and the like, any more than a society can stop an equally disordered minority from turning into dissipated, cirrhotic gutter drunks. What a society can do is to stop celebrating such grotesque, destructive behavior. In a truly healthy, functional, thoughtful society, mainstream people would react to stories of others with access to decent food eating practically nothing but ramen in about the same way that they’d react to stories of drunks losing bladder control on couches at house parties. It wouldn’t just be crunchy eccentrics saying, “whoa, that shit’s totally weird and fucked up. You aren’t gonna come to any good living like that.” Certainly such a society would regard counseling others to subsist on such nutritionally useless food as little better than counseling six to eight tall boys of malt liquor a day for the stomach’s sake.

But that just wouldn’t be sadistic enough for Americans. We believe that people should have to pay their dues for the finer things in life, like adequate nutrition. The least they can do is finish school first, and stop complaining about the physical condition of dorms that would be regarded as actionable slumlord housing in any other circumstance.

If you do one thing for me this week, next time you go out to get ramen, get a fucking burrito while you’re at it. I recommend the beef and green chile chimichanga. It’s mighty good eatin’, and if you have $1.69 in your pocket that isn’t marked for something else, it’s your due. Don’t let any delayed-gratification-for-thee-but-not-for-me asshat tell you otherwise. Good God, Rush Limbaugh looks like he’s eaten a few of the things in his day.

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