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Be Modern: Worship Food?

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.

Donna Hay's adored pavlova

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.

Pears' Soap - The White Man's Burden

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.

Pears' Soap - the Birth of Civilisation

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.

Further Reading

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, [1867] 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).

Other sources:

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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18 Comments Post a comment
  1. shahpar #

    excellent post. I watch australian masterchef in south asia (lots of new yuppies here) and sometimes feel that it encourages a subtle worship of an aspirational lifestyle. Being a foodie in this new class involves being lectured on the perfect pavlova – and other dishes we’ve never even heard of. After the lecture we are supposed to really covet it and feel unworthy that we’ve never tasted it. I’m totally guilty of feeling like that.

    There is an indian version of masterchef that features indian recipes, but the attitude is the same when featuring “foreign” recipes or ingredients – if you don’t know that the main function of fish sauce is to add a salty taste to thai curry, then, well, its just not cool.

    April 10, 2011
    • That’s really interesting about there being an Indian version of Masterchef. We’ve yet to get a South African one, and I think it’s partly because food hasn’t yet been taken up fully as part of an aspirational lifestyle here. I wonder when it will?

      May 7, 2011
  2. Your post reminded me of a favourite CS Lewis quote: ‘You can get a large audience together for a striptease act–that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?’ (Mere Christianity, 1952).

    Which is of course applicable to the whole range of food fetishists out there, from Alice Waters to the obese person who scarfs chips while watching a pavlova on Masterchef.

    April 11, 2011
    • Thanks so much for your post (and sorry for the very belated response). Your quote is absolutely perfect – and sums up precisely why, as a friend puts it so beautifully, Alice Waters really grates my cheese. I love your blog, by the way.

      May 7, 2011
  3. Great post, and an interesting point about food.

    April 11, 2011
  4. Emma #

    Fabulous piece, thankyou! I work for a food magazine and in the line of my work meet so many people who put food up on a pedestal rather than realising that ultimately, it’s about putting dinner on the plate.

    Incidentally I now have an image of Alice Waters sitting in her office holding a whopping great leg of lamb whilst trying to write another long-winded ode in praise of some obscure ingredient….

    May 16, 2011
    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! That image of Alice Waters is utterly priceless. I love Angela Carter’s question about whether she’s the Alice of Alice’s Restaurant (and what DOES it prove?).

      I could not agree with you more about needing to remember that eating is primarily about providing nourishment – and not inflating egos.

      For which magazine do you write?

      May 16, 2011
      • I write for Sainsbury’s Magazine *braces self for outraged comments re: supermarket* and I try to focus on doing simple, delicious recipes that everyone can make at home. Sure, I sometimes enjoy spending a whole weekend cooking ridiculously complex food, but most people just want dinner with the minimum of fuss and maximum amount of yumminess.

        May 16, 2011
        • I have nothing against Sainsbury’s Magazine at all. (At all – I used the Sainsbury recipe cards often in the UK.) I feel very strongly that the slow food movement (and other, allied trends and organisations) have much to answer for in terms of mystifying and ‘sanctifying’ cooking and preparing food. They hark back to a time when women spent their lives in the kitchen – or employed other people to cook for them. Sainsbury’s Magazine – and the BBC Good Food magazine, Olive, and Delicious – are so important because they help readers to cook delicious, healthy food within the limitations of their budgets and time.

          May 17, 2011
  5. “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. ”

    No, no, no, no, NO! Well, and a little bit of yes. Have you READ the foodie handbook? Irony layered upon irony so that you end up with a lovely double negative: yes it’s precious, but the obsession is real, and they celebrate it’s sillness and the very real joy it brings, while also poking fun at the pretension that accompanies it. Ultimately this is not fetishism, it’s monotheism, real worship, and The Word is spreading. Never do Barr & Levy actually elevate food as a class differentiator – although they mock those whoe do – their bottom line is that foodieism is something anyone can do. I was a foodie long before I could afford rarified ingredients and fine restaurants. Although the industry admittedly contains a huge aspirational component, true foodies are still about the flavour and quality.

    Now yes, the industry has it’s dark side, and I resent the Constantia pretenders as much as the next devotee, but on the upside, this means that really good food (generally also healthier food) is now freely available to the middle class masses. Nearly every Pick ‘n Pay stocks decent olive oil at student-income prices, free range chicken can be had for barely more than the price of fishy miserable battery farmed versions (thanks Jamie), real Vanilla can be had for R4 for a bunch (last week), people know what real bread tastes like, hundreds of people are making a living doing nothing but selling coffee that DIDN’T get ground in Italy 12 months ago. I could go on. A lot. Because I remember a time before food worship. When salad meant shredded cabbage with salad cream (gasp, yes!) and raisins (actually the raisins were OK). Yes, back then I was special because I was the only guy anyone knew that served home made pasta (and holy shit, it took me months to find a pasta machine, and it cost a FORTUNE, not R300 for a decent stainless steel one from @home), but now everyone all share the love. Good ingredients are freely available now, at reasonable prices, and they never were before. Let the people who want to use food to elevate their social standing buy 200g of 3yr aged prosciutto for R600 (tastes like soap), while the rest of us celebrate Olympia Bakery ciabatta.

    I am an environmentalist by career and action, and I would also argue that for the very first time people are actually becoming aware of the provenance of their food, and this really is influencing demand.

    But of course you already knew all of this. Because you’re a historian, and a FOODIE you damn hypocrite, and you were just winding me up, right?

    June 13, 2011
    • Wow. Thanks.

      I think that the point I’m making here is that a liking for good, delicious food shouldn’t need to have a label (which is why I detest being called a ‘foodie’). I argue here that in doing so, we render food a rarefied field of interest which only some have the knowledge/sensitivity/skill to understand properly. That is patently ridiculous.

      June 14, 2011
  6. lynne #

    Hello..Your blog was referred to me by a friend after I complained about the ridiculous comments made by the judges on Masterchef….and that CS Lewis quote about gazing at a mutton chop is a long time favourite. I hear what Donavan is saying, but he writes as if the ability to produce good food is a new “middle class” phenomenon, just discovered by mod “foodies”. If you had grown up among farm people, as I did, you would have tasted home grown vegetables, cooked with very little embelishment, meat grown on site, home-made butter, unpasturised milk almost directly from the udder, ice-cream made with cream lifted off the top of the milk jug where it had seperated after a day. My parents and their peers knew what good food was….without the fuss!
    What appals me is the waste of food due to the pernickety standards in these oh-so-over-themselves restaurants. Have you heard of the Freegan movement? It’s a group of people who feed themselvesout of the dust-bins of fancy restaurants. No, not food scraped off plates….food discarded in its packaging because it’s not quite up to the standards of beauty required.

    June 14, 2011
    • Thanks for your comment! I agree with you entirely: eating well shouldn’t have a label attached to it. It should be something that we all (can afford to) do. Freeganism is absolutely fascinating. In fact, the food that they tend to collect in the UK is that which has been thrown out because it’s exceeded its sell-by date. It’s still perfectly edible. Do you know this organisation: http://www.thisisrubbish.org.uk/ ?

      June 15, 2011
  7. Hey Sarah, what an insightful post! Wow! I must admit, I watch Masterchef Australia every night. What I really don’t like is the ridiculous amount of emotion that is being generated in every episode. It is nauseating. But what I do like, is the “masterclasses” – I’ve learnt a whole lot and I think the contestants did too. But enough of Masterchef. I don’t mind being labled a “foodie”. I have a very simple love affair with food. I cook and eat with passion. And I write about it for my personal pleasure. Therefor I am not as offended or as affected by other people’s opinions or books or articles than others. I prefer to keep my love of food just that: a sincere love of food. Maybe I am ignorant, or not as informed, but I don’t really care.
    In the meantime, I do respect the insight and opinions of informed writers like yourself. Seriously well-written post!

    July 13, 2011
    • Thanks! And thanks also for your response. I think that what really gets to me in MasterChef is that the contestants’ ability to cook – and some of them are really amazingly talented – is confused somehow with their value as people. That they seem to believe, in other words, that when the judges evaluate their food, that they – as people – are being judged. That’s ridiculous. But I take your point about the educational value of the series.

      And as to foodie, I see precisely what you mean by calling yourself a ‘foodie’. My problem is not with people like yourself – of course not – but, rather, with food snobs who believe that cooking well somehow makes them better people – better people than those who can’t (or can’t afford) to cook and eat as well as them. I like the way you emphasise sharing your knowledge with others. That can only be a good thing.

      Anyway – well done on the developing career!

      July 13, 2011

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