I wish I had a euro for every one of you faithful friends who sent me a link to Steven Poole’s denunciation of food enthusiasts. Excerpt:
It is not in our day considered a sign of serious emotional derangement to announce publicly that “chocolate mousse remains the thing I feel most strongly about”, or to boast that dining with celebrities on the last night of Ferran Adrià’s restaurant elBulli, in Spain, “made me cry”. It is, rather, the mark of a Yahoo not to be able and ready at any social gathering to converse in excruciating detail and at interminable length about food. 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.
Where will it all end? Is there any communication or entertainment or social format that has not yet been commandeered by the ravenous gastrimarge for his own gluttonous purpose? Does our cultural “food madness”, as the New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggests, tip into “food psychosis”? Might it not, after all, be a good idea to worry more about what we put into our minds than what we put into our mouths?
The Ravenous Gastrimarge! That ought to be the name of my blog.
You might be surprised to learn that I mostly agree with him. As with any good thing, too much of it, or enough of it taken wrongly, becomes vice, and people who talk of a thing obsessively — whether opera, or golf, or what have you — turn themselves into twits or boors (see Simon and Minty Marchmont, above). Surely it is possible to nurture a particular enjoyment of and appreciation for food, cooking, and gastronomic culture without becoming a jerk about it. And oh my dears, believe me, it is certainly possible to disdain food culture and the people who like it and be a pluperfect asshat.
I recall a time when I, in my ravenous gastrimargy, acted like someone who needed to be taken down a few pegs. It was over (what else?) a platter of raw oysters in Paris this spring. My niece asked me why I loved them so much, and I launched myself into a discussion of the sacramentality of oysters, and, more broadly, of food itself. What is food? What does it convey to us? Why are these simple creatures so sublime? And so forth. Basically, it was a short course in the metaphysics of oysters, and while I still stand by my basic philosophical point, it was utterly pompous and ridiculous, and I ought to have been made fun of without mercy. In that moment, I was exactly the guy Steven Poole hates.
That said, one must not lose sight of the fact that food — like music, architecture, film, and sport — is a core part of culture, and is intrinsically about so much more than mere ballast and nutrition. Well-made food, whether a simple platter of raw oysters, a baguette from the corner shop slathered with fresh salted butter, or some fantastically complicated concoction from the den of some haute cuisine alchemist, has the power to thrill, to delight, and to inspire wonder.
I am a workmanlike amateur cook, but the creative joy I take in cooking comes in part from the pleasure I take in eating, but mostly, I think, from the satisfaction present in the ability to take ordinary ingredients and, through creativity and work, turn them into something that makes people happy — and, at its best, makes people happy together, around the table. As a child, I loved loved loved Thanksgiving. There we were together, all of us, around a big table groaning with good food, most of it prepared by my dear grandmother, the matriarch of the clan. She made that happen. She made the magic — she, and that turkey, and dressing, and cranberry sauce, and pecan pie. I can do that too. So can you, if you want to.
Again, no one can possibly doubt that the food mania we see in the culture certainly has its excesses. By all means, let’s make fun of it. But let’s not overcorrect. It is true that man does not live by bread alone, but that’s no reason to deny the ordinary grandeur of a well-made baguette, one of life’s great joys, and a democratic one, available to all.
UPDATE: I love this comment by DS in the thread below:
I was thinking just last night (while hunched over a board of homemade bread and a selection of stinky cheeses, as I watched another dismal episode of Treme) that I haven’t seen a simple chocolate mousse or standard creme brulee on a menu in nearly a year.
Instead, it’s always chocolate mousse with honey-stilton glaze, or creme brulee crusted with with bacon-bourbon sugar, or some other cutesy bastardization. I’m getting tired of all that. When you make “Dippin Dots” out of foie gras, you’ve reached the point where it’s not enough to kill and eat the animal, but you must insult it, too.