On Monday evening I watched the first episode of the latest series of Australian MasterChef to be broadcast in South Africa. The previous series was so wildly popular here that I was interested to see what the fuss was about. Based on the latest incarnation of the MasterChef franchise in the UK, over the course of a few weeks the programme whittles down a group of fifty aspiring cooks to a four or five finalists who are put through a series of challenges – working a shift in a hotel kitchen, recreating a chef’s impossibly complicated signature dish (I hate the term) – until only one contestant emerges triumphant. It’s fun, self-important, and utterly ridiculous.
And then, towards the end of this first episode of season two, an audience of at least sixty intelligent adults applauded a pavlova.
A pudding consisting of egg whites, sugar, vinegar, and vanilla received a round of applause. I mean, I lecture three times a week and I’m never applauded.
I love pavlova and the MasterChef version – baked and unveiled by Donna Hay – looked fantastic, and I really don’t have much against reality TV shows (I can’t – I was once badly addicted to the second series of My Restaurant Rules.) And, to be fair, to accuse MasterChef of not being adequately realistic would be to miss the point. The British version is hosted and judged by two middle-aged men who yell things like ‘Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!’ at the camera. It’s a competition and no attempt to train a new generation of chefs. But the round of applause and the reverence for a pudding struck me as being more than silly. It was, in fact, too serious.
MasterChef is like many other reality shows: it judges contestants on their ability at a particular skill. This skill can be anything – from fashion design to hairdressing – because it’s secondary to the format of the programme. It’s the vehicle for television series which are, essentially, talent shows, but on a more elaborate and glamorous scale. The adulation of the pavlova undermined this format. All of a sudden, the focus of that episode of MasterChef shifted from the contestants to the food.
Am I overreacting? Probably. But not without reason. Earlier that day I had read an article written by Angela Carter in 1984 for the London Review of Books, in which she reviewed The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and Paul Levy, Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. While she acknowledged that the Foodie Handbook was meant to lampoon middle-class ‘foodies’, it is was one of a series of guides – like the Sloan Ranger and Yuppie handbooks – to middle-class living which, she felt, walked an uneasy line between guide and satire. Writing about the Preppy Handbook she noted:
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.
Along with David and Waters, the authors of the Foodie Handbook elevate the preparation and eating of food to a rarefied art form only done ‘properly’ by those educated and sensitive enough truly to understand cooking. The book advised its readership: ‘Be modern: worship food!’ Carter was, like Jay Rayner and Anthony Bourdain, particularly scathing of Alice Waters:
Alice Waters [serves] a Franco-Californian cuisine of almost ludicrous refinement, in which the simplest item is turned into an object of mystification. A ripe melon, for example, is sought for as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Ms Waters applauds herself on serving one. ‘Anyone could have chosen a perfect melon, but unfortunately most people don’t take the time or make an effort to choose carefully and understand what that potentially sublime fruit should be.’ She talks as if selecting a melon were an existential choice of a kind to leave Jean-Paul Sartre stumped.
She concludes, gloriously:
Ms Waters has clearly lost her marbles through too great a concern with grub, so much so that occasionally ‘Alice Waters’ sounds like a pseudonym for S.J. Perelman. ‘I do think best while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb,’ she confides. For a person of my generation, there is also the teasing question: could she be the Alice, and ‘Chez Panisse’ the real Alice’s Restaurant, of the song by Arlo Guthrie? And if this is so, what does it prove?
Carter bases much of her criticism of the Foodie Handbook, Waters, and Elizabeth David on the grounds of insensitivity: how is it possible to be so precious about food, she asks, when so many people go without? I agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a world where some populations have so much food that they feel that they should spend a day searching for the perfect watermelon, while others starve or are reliant on the tender mercies of aid organisations.
We have, though, always imbued food with meaning. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.
There is a difference, though, between the association of food with civilisation and cultural superiority and giving a round of applause to a pavlova – or, indeed, to a melon. In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (1995), Anne McClintock examines the ways in which Victorian advertisers used images of empire to sell their products. Pears, the soap manufacturers, produced a series of advertisements which implied that soap was somehow connected to the success of British imperialism. In one of their best known ads from the early 1890s, a sea captain – surrounded by images of travel and conquest – is depicted washing his hands in his ship. It’s captioned: ‘The first step towards lightening the white man’s burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.’ Another titled ‘The Birth of Civilisation’ is of an African man holding aloft a bar of soap which has floated ashore after a shipwreck.
This campaign crudely linked cleanliness – long associated with being ‘civilised’ – with the civilising mission. Colonised people, suggested Pears, could be made European by a bath with Pears soap. In the first volume of Capital (1867), Karl Marx began to develop the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’ to explain the kind of ‘magical’ attraction and meaning which commodities – ordinary, manufactured objects – seem to exude. He argued that a range of meanings – which are socially and culturally inflected and which change over time – are attached to commodities. Capitalism encourages people to confuse the utility of the object and social meanings – this is what Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’. In other words, objects take on meanings to the extent that they assume a kind of independence from their utility. The purpose of soap was no longer to clean bodies and clothes, but, rather, to civilise.
A similar process occurred with the pavlova on MasterChef: it was no longer simply a pudding, but, rather, representative of success and good taste. When one of the contestants in the final round produced what she thought would be a bad pavlova, she collapsed in tears and refused to continue. It was as if it was she – rather than her ability to bake a pudding – who was being tested. When Alice Waters hunted for the perfect melon, she was not only seeking out a fruit, but also an object which embodied what she believed to be her goodness and moral superiority.
I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought that this strange affliction was limited to Californian chefs and anxious Australians. Look at food magazines and food programmes: aimed at middle-class audiences, they conflate being able to cook well and to eat good – whole, organic, humanely reared – food with being good, successful, and environmentally and socially responsible. I have absolutely nothing against farmers’ markets, artisan bakers, small-scale farmers, co-operative supermarkets, and organic grocers – in fact, I think that they’re helping to create new ways of thinking about food – but I am deeply concerned when their produce is no longer thought of simply as food, but becomes a marker of middle-class morality.
This form of commodity fetishism is limiting: it associates good food with class and wealth. It encourages those who consume this food to think only about the product which they buy, and not to consider the complex processes which brought that piece of cheese or that steak to their deli or supermarket. It also mystifies the production, preparation, and eating of food. If we are to become more careful eaters – and more aware of how our eating habits impact on the world around us – we need to see food as food: as a product which is fundamental to life and which all people have a right to eat.
Texts quoted here:
Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Karl Marx, Capital: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin,  1990).
Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (London: Leicester University Press, 1996).
Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
Yves Péhaut, ‘The Invasion of Foreign Foods,’ 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. 457-470.
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