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Posts tagged ‘Ann Barr’

Psychofood

This week, two people forwarded me the same article. And in a pleasing coincidence, it happens to relate to something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently. The piece is by the New York Times food writer Frank Bruni and is titled ‘Dinner and Derangement’. It’s a review of Romera, a restaurant which has recently opened in New York and serves food based on the principle of ‘neurogastronomy’. Its chef patron is Miguel Sánchez Romera, a former neurologist who seeks to cook food which ‘embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient’. So what does this mean? Bruni explains:

My server explained that each dish’s palette and aroma, as well as its flavour, were supposed to prompt a ‘sense memory.; He said that the tuna tartare with coconut, jasmine and orange blossom had brought him ‘straight back to Cape Cod when I was 8 years old and I tasted my first virgin piña colada.’

All of that from the tiny, six-bite portion? I must be a sense-memory slacker. I was brought back only to other, more voluminous tuna tartares, which I suddenly and sorely missed.

That tuna dish is called Cloris, after a Greek goddess of flowers. A subsequent dish of 12 kinds of grains encircling a black olive jam is called Omnium, a Latin term for the whole of something.

Euterpes is the name for the foie gras with white chocolate, referring to a muse of lyric poetry.

Each dish is accompanied by a kind of crib note which guides the diner

through the Romera phantasmagoria. The cards, with a butterfly illustration on one side and text on the other, delve verbosely into etymology, ecology, horticulture, philosophy. ‘The objective of any pre-appetizer,’ says one, is to ‘prepare the guest for the degustation that will follow.’ Another: ‘By looking at nature with eyes of solidarity we will see that it is always expressing something to us.’

This is, indeed, deranged dining. Other than their unbearable pretentiousness and incredible expense – $245 per person, not including drinks or tip – this restaurant and its conceit are indicative of a wider psychosis, as Bruni describes it, around food:

While blazers are optional at Romera, straitjackets would be a fine idea.

It’s the craziest example I’ve encountered of the way our culture’s food madness tips into food psychosis, at least among those with keen appetites and the means to indulge them.

But it’s hardly the only illustration. Surf the cable channels and clock the time before you spy a spatula, a strainer, someone chewing, someone oohing or Gordon Ramsay. I bet it’s less than 11 seconds.

Diners at the latest hot bistro or trattoria snap loving pictures of everything they eat, seeming to forget that it’s dinner, not ‘America’s Next Top Chicken Breast.’ In New York, even the meatballs have paparazzi.

Steaks come with discourses on breed, feed and dry versus wet aging; coffee with soliloquies about growing regions, grinding methods and the optimal pour-over technique; beer with overwrought tasting notes.

I’ve written before about the origins of the term ‘foodie’: it was coined by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in The Official Foodie Handbook (1984), at a time when food was co-opted into the construction of yuppie identities. As cars and clothes were markers of middle-class status, so now was owning the right kind of balsamic vinegar. There have always been people who have had a more than normal interest in food – gastronomes, gourmands, epicures – but foodie-ism is a form of snobbery.

There has been a shift in the nature of foodie-ism since the mid-1990s. In a now notorious, yet absolutely spot-on, article about foodies for The Atlantic, BR Myers explains:

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as ‘gods,’ to restaurants as ‘temples,’ to biting into ‘heaven,’ etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face.

Foodie-ism has become snobbery dressed up as ethical behaviour. Deciding to roast organic, purple-sprouting broccoli with locally-pressed rapeseed oil not only demonstrates that the foodie is entirely up to speed with recent food trends, but that she is a Good Person: she has made the ethical choice. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t eat well, and that we shouldn’t be concerned about where our food comes from, who produces it, and who sells it – far from it: my point is that foodie-ism is inherently exclusive.

So far, so obvious. Foodie-ism is another form of the disorder described by Bruni as food psychosis. Two things struck me about Bruni’s article: the first was that for all the fawning and obsessing, food psychosis is not so much about food as those who eat it. (And Bruni emphasises how bad the food at Romera is.) Secondly, and connected to this point, food psychosis or foodie-ism emerged at the same time as a gradual rise in global food prices and a startling increase in rates of obesity, first in the West and then gradually throughout the developed and the developing world.

Obesity disproportionately effects those who are poor – those who rely on cheap, calorie-rich foods because they can’t afford better quality food, lack the knowledge or time to cook healthily, or don’t have access to shops which sell fresh food (we say that these people live in ‘food deserts’). There is even some research, quoted by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level (2009), to suggest that children born to mothers who were stressed and anxious during pregnancy and who had stressful childhoods – for whatever reason – have a greater likelihood of putting on weight and becoming obese.

The Spirit Level’s central argument is that the root cause of most social problems is inequality: countries which are more unequal tend to have more obese people, higher crime rates, a greater number of teenage pregnancies, lower educational attainments, and an increased incidence of mental illness. It seems trite to say so, but it’s true that more equal societies tend to be happier societies.

So what does this have to do with foodie-ism, you ask? Well consider: foodie-ism has existed since the early 1980s, and the obesity ‘epidemic’ (as it’s often called, even though, technically, it can’t really be an epidemic) dates from around then too. Food prices began rising in the late 70s. All of this happened as the commodity derivatives markets were deregulated, allowing food to be traded freely – and for speculation on food to drive up food prices.

As these graphs from the New York Times demonstrate, the world has become progressively more unequal since the 1980s:

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that our ideas about food as a consumer product have changed since the shift in our global economic system in the late 70s – which was partly responsible for fuelling increasing social inequality around the world. As middle-class foodies worship food, the trading of food as simply another resource – like timber and oil – has contributed to a gradual increase in food prices so that those on the bottom of the social scale – and, indeed, now too the middle classes – eat cheaper, calorific, and more highly-processed foods.

My point is that we can’t disentangle changes in the way in which we see food as a consumer product from a major shift in the economic system. Also, and equally importantly, however much foodies may disdain supermarkets and other markers of consumer culture, foodie-ism is a form of consumerism too.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, [2009] 2010).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Not Foodies, but Food

In this week’s Mail and Guardian, Mandy de Waal describes a spat between established food journalists and South Africa’s increasing ranks of food bloggers. This tension between professional food writers and amateurs who write simply for pleasure isn’t particular to South Africa: in the United States, Pete Wells was notoriously rude about food bloggers, and Giles Coren of the Times referred to them as ‘pale, flabby’ and ‘wankerish’ (although, presumably, he didn’t include his food blogging wife in this description). In a sense, it was inevitable that the same argument would boil over in South Africa.

The focus of De Waal’s piece is on charges of unprofessionalism levelled at the new media, as well as on the amusing pettiness of food bloggery in this country – particularly in the Cape, where most of the country’s top restaurants are situated. I’d like to pick up on one point that she makes in passing. She quotes JP Rossouw, author of the eponymous restaurant guides:

Yes, [food blogs] are playful and fun, but the mistake we make is to attach too much importance to what essentially is candyfloss.

Exactly. One of the most comical features of many food bloggers is their incredible self importance. (De Waal mentions one author who refused to accept food served to her at a special lunch at Reuben’s Restaurant because it came on a large platter and not individual portions. Good grief.) They dress up recipes and accounts of meals as moments of incredible profundity – moments which demonstrate the authors’ connectedness with the local restaurant in-crowd, insider knowledge of international culinary trends, and superior ability to understand the ‘real’ significance of food. These blogs are, in other words, manifestations of food snobbery.

It’s little wonder, then, that so many food bloggers describe themselves as ‘foodies’. This term has travelled a long way since it was coined by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in the early 1980s. Now it’s usually taken to mean a love and enthusiasm for eating, cooking, and finding interesting new ingredients. It’s shorter, and sounds less pretentious, than ‘food lover’. I think that many food bloggers use the term in this sense. But it was originally meant to describe a kind of food snobbery. Stephen Bayley explains:

We have, in the past, had epicures, gourmets and gastronomes, but today’s foodie is rather different. A foodie is someone whose interest in comestibles is not only ardent, but also exquisitely self-conscious. Foodies treat their asparagus kettles not as mere utensils, but as badges of honour in the nagging battle for self-identity.

The same goes for ingredients: while once we had only Sarson’s non-brewed condiment to put on our chips, the foodie store cupboard now contains vinegars with genealogies, rare and costly vintages of balsamic, fruit vinegars made with herbs, herb vinegars infused with fruit to put on their pommes allumettes. A defining foodie product is verjuice, or what used to be known as filthy cooking wine. And foodies explore more than the palate: they hunt and collect restaurants, too.

Barr and Levy’s The Official Foodie Handbook (1984) walked an uneasy line between being a spoof of a new middle-class trend (and this could only be a fashion followed by those wealthy enough to buy the exotic and expensive ingredients and meals demanded by foodie-ism) and a guide to it. Angela Carter commented that it was best to understand the Foodie Handbook within the context of the other Handbooks published by Harpers & Queen:

the original appears to be The Official Preppy Handbook, published in the USA in the early days of the first Reagan Presidency. This slim volume was a light-hearted check-list of the attributes of the North American upper middle class, so light-hearted it gave the impression it did not have a heart at all. The entire tone was most carefully judged: a mixture of contempt for and condescension towards the objects of its scrutiny, a tone which contrived to reassure the socially aspiring that emulation of their betters was a game that might legitimately be played hard just because it could not be taken seriously, so that snobbery involved no moral compromise.

The book was an ill-disguised celebration of the snobbery it affected to mock and, under its thinly ironic surface, was nothing more nor less than an etiquette manual for a class newly emergent under Reaganomics. It instructed the nouveaux riches in the habits and manners of the vieux riches so that they could pass undetected amongst them. It sold like hot cakes.

In other words, the books began a process which has recently been completed: satirising while simultaneously approving, even celebrating, snobbery.

I realise that many food bloggers don’t know about the etymology of ‘foodie’ and don’t mean to use it to mean what it did originally. And I have nothing at all against what most food bloggers do: sharing recipes, advice, and useful information about food and cooking. They do what cooks and food enthusiasts have been doing for hundreds of years. A greater flow and availability of information about food can only be a good thing.

But I do object very, very strongly to the foodies – in Barr and Levy’s terms – of the internet who use their blogs and, occasionally, presence on social media to write about food, and good food, as the exclusive preserve of those who have the knowledge, sensitivity, and right social connections truly to appreciate what is worth eating. A few years ago, the BBC aired a fantastic comedy series called Posh Nosh. Starring Arabella Weir and Richard E. Grant as a social-climbing (her) and upper middle-class (him) pair of foodies, the series lampooned the deep, moral seriousness of foodie-ism. As Grant’s character says in the first episode (and I urge you to watch the series – most of it seems to be available on YouTube), ‘Food is beauty. And beauty is food’:

One of the useful things about foodies is that it takes very little to show how ridiculous they and their pretentions are.

Food, then, is like cars, furniture, or clothes: it’s another way of signifying people’s class status and social positioning. Of course, we’ve used food to do this for hundreds of years. But the difference with foodie-ism is that it attaches a moral value to eating in a particular way. Foodies confuse this snobbery with doing and being good. For foodies, knowing about and eating good food is a badge not only of class status and social and cultural sophistication, but also of moral superiority. Roasting organic purple-sprouting broccoli and then drizzling it with an estate-origin extra virgin olive oil signifies the foodie’s commitment to being green and supporting small, artisan producers. This dish is a manifestation of why that foodie is a Good Person.

It’s for this reason that I object so strongly to foodie-ism. Not only does it mystify cooking and eating, and elevate them to experiences that can only be appreciately properly by appropriately trained foodies, but it judges those who – for whatever reason – eat less well than themselves. Foodies, then, don’t really care that much about food and eating.

The subtitle of the Official Foodie Handbook is ‘Be Modern – Worship Food’. By elevating – or fetishising – food to the level of something which needs to be worshipped, foodies no longer think of food as food – as nourishment which we all need to consume – but as something which is simply an indicator of status and value. They don’t aim to inform and educate about food, nor do they work towards making good, wholesome food more widely available. They simply congratulate themselves on eating well. In a time when food prices are sky high – and look likely to remain that way for the forseeable future – and the planet’s diet is looking worse than ever, it strikes me that to ignore these crises while claiming to be interested in food and to enjoy eating, is deeply hypocritical.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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