Monday, October 1, 2012

Death to Foodies: A defense of epicurean culture

Steven Poole of the Guardian recently posted a diatribe against foodies. Apparently, they've replaced famine as the third horseman of the apocalypse. "Western Industrial Civilization is eating itself stupid," he writes. I find more telling his description of a Jamie Oliver stage appearance.
Food festivals (or, if you will, "Feastivals") are the new rock festivals, featuring thrilling live stage performances of, er, cooking. As one dumbfounded witness of a stage appearance by Jamie Oliver observed: "The girls at the front – it's an overwhelmingly female crowd – are already holding up their iPhones […] A group in front of me are saying, 'Ohmigodohmigodohmigod' on a loop […] 'I love you, Jamie,' yells a girl on the brink of fainting."
So the burgeoning food culture is the new rock and roll? Wouldn't that put Mr. Poole in the age-old position of septugenarian critic, looking down his nose at kids these days? That doesn't seem that far off the mark.
On a crisp autumn evening in a north London street, a rôtisserie trailer is parked outside a garden flat, green fairy lights blinking on and off, warm chickens perfuming the air. A thirtyish hipster wanders out to where I'm standing with a friend on the pavement and drawls his unimpressed judgment of what is going on inside. "I think the arancinis are not quite spicy enough," he informs us, with an eaten-it-all-before air. "Could have more flavour, not really exotic." Right now I haven't the faintest idea what "arancinis" are (or that arancini, like panini, is already an Italian plural) . . . .
I think we can all agree that hipsters are annoying. But what does this really say about epicures as a whole? The people I've met who have loved food have generally been generous souls, more eager to share their new finds than to declaim how they liked that dish before anyone had heard of it. But to be fair, Mr. Poole's problems seem to extend further than old-man-syndrome. He complains that food has become a new religion:
Food is not only a safe "passion" (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of "passion" that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one. The unexamined meal, as a pair of pioneer modern "foodies" wrote in the 1980s, is not worth eating. Most cannily, the department of philosophy at the University of North Texas announced in 2011 its "Philosophy of Food Project", no doubt having noticed which way the wind was blowing, and presumably hoping that it would be able to trick food-obsessives into hard thinking about other topics. One can of course think philosophically about food, as about anything at all, but that is not what is going on in our mainstream gastroculture. [. . .]
Everywhere in the ideology of foodism we see a yearning for food to be able to fill a spiritual void. Food is about "spirituality" and "expressing our identity", claims modern food-knight Michael Pollan. His celebrated catechism of modern foodism, The Omnivore's Dilemma, speaks of eating with a "full consciousness", and claims that every meal has its "karmic price"; it ends with the declaration that "what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world". And so chewing on pork products becomes a sublime union of self with planet, a Gaian eucharist.
 Kant defines art as something which provides the occasion for much thought, and while he likely would not be happy with the idea of food as art, I don't see anything self-contradictory in the idea. "The unexamined meal is not worth eating" may be a bridge too far, but there can be value in thinking about what we eat. And the spiritual essence of food, far from being absurd or Gaian, is obvious. When we celebrate a meal, we have communion with those with whom we share it. It is not for nothing that the most prominent religion in American (and England) has the consumption of bread and wine at it's center.

And even to the extent a meal is purely an aesthetic experience, there's nothing wrong with that. Philosophers as diverse as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have seen the aesthetic life as being in many ways closer to the best way of life than the blander life of ethics and duty. Having something outside of ourselves that we value leads us outside of ourselves, even if that thing is simply good food, well-prepared. And, unlike Rock 'n' Roll, the best epicures value healthy food as much as tasty food. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.)

Mr. Poole seems to inadvertently hit on some of these themes when he talks about the linking of food and culture:
In an experiment, two psychologists gave different groups of people Heston Blumenthal's "Crab Ice-Cream" while describing it differently: one group was told it was about to eat a "savoury mousse", the other was expecting "ice-cream". The people given savoury mousse liked it, but the people thinking they were eating ice-cream found it "digusting" and even "the most unpleasant food they had ever tasted". The psychologists add that most food tastes "blander" without the "expectation of flavour caused by the visual appearance or verbal description of what is going to be eaten". One is reminded of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, in which the plates of homogeneous brown muck at the restaurant are differentiated by the colour photos stuck in them and the savouring announcement of their names: "Numero deux, duck à l'orange", "Numero une, crevettes à la mayonnaise". (Slavoj Žižek calls this comic disjunction the "split between the food's image and the real of its formless excremental remainder".) The "exercise of vocabulary" in a menu, then, is never merely "abstract", as Robbe-Grillet thought. You eat their words.
To repeat a line: And what is wrong with that? Of course our experience is mediated through language. Who would deny otherwise? I remain unclear about what Mr. Poole's problem is. He seems to be upset that some restaurant have clumsily written menus, or perhaps that they engage in marketing; what he seems not to realize is that epicures just want to enjoy food.

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