In a worthwhile rant last week, Stephen Marche tore into foodies, telling them to set aside their particularism on Thanksgiving. He uses that indisputably correct moral judgment to reflect on the spread of foodie culture in America. Excerpts:
Food may well have replaced high art, as Deresieswicz argues, but it has also replaced popular culture. People talk about food now the way they used to talk about bands. Music has become too fractured and diverse to provide the necessary combination of accessibility and specificity for self-definition. If you liked Kiss or The Eagles in the 1970s, the fact established part of who you were: your class affiliations, where you came from, what drugs you liked to take, whether you were urban or rural. Today, if you like Grizzly Bear or Kanye West, it virtually means nothing. You could be a banker or a member of Occupy Wall Street. You could be eighty or eighteen. You could live in East Texas or the Upper East Side. I mean, Marco Rubio’s favorite group is NWA.
Today, your attitude toward pork belly is a clearer statement of who you are and where you come from than any television show you watch or band you follow. Tell me what you know about pasta, and I’ll tell you how much your parents made, how much education you managed, how much is in your savings account. Unlike other cultural phenomena, which are more or less generationally undefined now, food explicitly identifies youthfulness. The younger you are, the more you know about food, generally speaking.
The figure of the chef has replaced the figure of the rock star as an idol, and David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine is for today what Creem was for the 1970s. This change is almost entirely good. Chefs are far better people than rock stars. The rock star was self-destructive in pursuit of momentary fleeting ecstasy. The chef is a celebrity insofar as he provides and gives pleasure to others. I genuinely believe that younger people are much more polite and more generous and more responsible, just generally nicer, than their elders. Food culture is a part of that transformation. Rock stars are on the highway to hell. Chefs are trying to run businesses that people like.
So, for the most part, the rise of foodie culture has to be overwhelmingly good news, and not just because we eat better.
The problem, Marche says, is that the laudatory and constructive movement toward eating better has in some cases become just another category of status competition. I find it hard to disagree with much in this essay, though it must be pointed out that Marche lives in Toronto, which is far, far ahead of the pop-culture curve in foodie trendiness than many other parts of North America. If I still lived in Brooklyn, for example, even though I’m a fairly enthusiastic foodie, I would surely find some of the local DIY food culture insufferably twee, even as I supported the movement in general. But I’ll happily put up with the foodie fussbudgets if tolerating them means that the broader culture is pulled along in their general direction.
Yesterday we were over near Lafayette, in Cajun country, eating and drinking and dancing at a small-town cafe, with some friends from St. Francisville. We talked to some folks standing next to our table, a family from Baton Rouge, which is about a 40-minute drive east-northeast, on the other side of the Mississippi River. We all agreed that you couldn’t find any place like this on our side of the river — by which we meant “in non-Cajun Louisiana.” And after breakfast, we went over to a nearby Cajun meat market, and I brought home sausages, boudin, and tasso (spiced ham) for the freezer.
Now, the point to be made here is that none of this food culture — from the Cafe des Amis to Poche’s Meat Market — is upper-class or bourgeois stuff for Cajuns. It’s just how Cajuns roll. Breaux Bridge, the town where the cafe and the meat market are — is a small town on the prairie, not much bigger than the town I come from on the other side of the river. But it is a world away. These people come from a country French food culture, and it has dramatically influenced the way they eat, and think about food.
It seems to me the main thing is that they think food is important, and worth thinking about, and doing well. Again, we’re not talking about haute cuisine here; we’re talking about sausage-making, roasting pigs, coming up with ways to use local ingredients — rice, pork, seafood, and so forth — in delicious ways. We people from English Louisiana aren’t necessarily bad cooks — and country people of the Deep South can do soul food pretty well (see photo above) — but we don’t have the food culture that the French Louisianians do.
Yet in food culture terms, it is more like Shreveport than Lafayette (which is authentically Cajun) and New Orleans, which is more Creole — that is, a mixture of colonial French and Spanish, African, Cajun, Caribbean, and Italian. The cover story in the current issue of 225, the Baton Rouge city magazine, takes a frank look at the city’s food culture, and though it notes that things have gotten a lot better there in recent years (there’s now a terrific farmer’s market downtown on weekends), the culture is not set up to encourage an adventurous or sophisticated food culture. For example:
When nationally renowned chef Donald Link was considering a second location for his phenomenally successful New Orleans restaurant, Cochon—an “upscale Cajun” eatery that has been referred to as one of the Crescent City’s best by The New York Times and USA Today—he considered Baton Rouge, where he cut his teeth at Sammy’s Grill.
At least, he considered it briefly.
“I did think about it,” he says, pausing, then laughing without finishing the sentence.
In part, the former Baton Rougean’s decision was economic: He wasn’t sure the Capital City’s market would be willing to pay a hefty premium for the organic chicken, rabbit and ribs that are his staples.
His decision was based on something more intangible, too: His less-than-flattering perception of our restaurant culture.
“Baton Rouge has a lot of places to eat, but it doesn’t have a great restaurant culture,” Link says. “God help any place there that doesn’t serve burgers and beer.”
A local chef friend of mine told me the same thing a while back. He’s here for family reasons, but said that most chefs who aspire to do anything creative and trendy in their careers, and who don’t have other reasons to stay in Baton Rouge, leave for New Orleans or beyond.
So, foodie-ism, to the extent that it exists in Baton Rouge, needs encouraging. The food truck culture in BR is a hopeful sign. I have another friend who’s a local chef (and a neighbor), and his gourmet burger place is terrific and doing very well. BR has a craft brewer now, and, as I said, a farmer’s market. It’s going to take time. As Marche says, younger people are more interested in this sort of thing; the older folks tend to be satisfied with finding one more way to make crock-pot crawfish etoufée.
The point is this: the extent that regional food culture gets more sophisticated — by which I mean not simply fancier, but broader, and more varied — is the extent to which we become more French. That is, the extent to which we pay more attention to our food, and think about it, and talk about it. It used to be the case in our country when nobody talked much about beer, or thought about it. Beer was beer. That’s no longer the case, of course, but it’s interesting to think about who drinks craft beer. I don’t know if I know anybody over 55 who does; Bud Light, Miller Lite, etc., are fine for them. It’s the younger people who have a taste for the more adventuresome stuff. It’s the younger people that the new local craft breweries are appealing to.
This is a good thing. In fact, this is a great thing! It goes too far, in the sense Marche means, when someone would, let’s say, go to a Mardi Gras party and inwardly gripe because the beer was Bud Light out of a keg instead of Abita Amber. The point I wish to make is that it’s worth bearing the unbearable prissiness of food snotty-tots if that means the overall quality of food culture improves.
A final bit: a French friend recently gave me a history called “The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture.” In it, historian Rebecca Spang examines accounts that British and American travelers to Paris in the post-Revolution era (which is when and where modern restaurants began) of eating in those early restaurants. Spang writes that they left detailed descriptions of the rooms, and the manners and dress of the people in the rooms, but rarely if ever talked about the food itself. She writes, “to show too much attention to dinner even after its arrival was to risk being tarred with the brush of gluttony.”
Ah-ha! There seems to be something in the Anglo-American character that looks down on caring about food and its taste as sinful, as an indication of a character defect. Ideas have consequences, alas for us on this side of the river.
UPDATE: Put another way, there’s a fundamental difference between Germanic Europe’s food culture and Latin Europe’s food culture, and I think it has spiritual implications. See the film “Babette’s Feast.”