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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.

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

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice post; I definitely agree re the oddness of the ethical dimension here — perhaps related to how widely the fat are mocked and vilified in culture. Two quick thoughts:

    (1) I guess the Wilkinson/Pickett thesis (viz. inequality is growing and this is _bad_) is tangential to your main point — all you need is that inequality is growing, which is less controversial. (I find the W/P thesis plausible but there are some real problems with their data analysis, see e.g.: http://lanekenworthy.net/2010/01/18/inequality-as-a-social-cancer/ )

    (2) I _feel_ like a lot of the stuff Bruni observes could have come straight out of Pope or Swift (I am thinking in particular of Pope’s Epistle to Burlington), or any satire of the culture-craving rich of any age. What is remarkable is not the derangement but the “dutiful” aspect of it, the willingness to pay thousands to be bored and edified. I wonder whether — putting this together with that chart of liberal vs conservative food prefs — one should think of the “foodie” as a specific breed of rich political liberal. (One cannot, e.g., readily imagine a homophobic foodie.) Perhaps the neurosis is an attempt to synthesize a need to flaunt status with an obscure guilt about one’s wealth? (A further bit of anecdata here is that I think of foodies as essentially coeval with hipsters in Am. culture.)

    October 23, 2011
    • Thanks – and your comments are exceptionally useful. So,

      1. I had heard about misgivings around their analysis, so thank you muchly for the link. I think my major problem with The Spirit Level is its political naivity – I don’t see its recommendations working in South Africa, for instance.

      2. Yes – you’re absolutely right. One must acknowledge that foodie-ism is a phenomenon of the left, rather than the right. But I do wonder, though, if this is a relatively recent shift: I think that the foodie-ism of the 80s and early 90s tended towards the right (with the rise of the yuppie), but had gradually shifted leftwards with the rise of the food movement. Hmm….

      October 23, 2011
  2. ‘meatballs have paparazzi’ – brilliant! Really interesting article.

    October 24, 2011
  3. Great article, really got my mind working. I’ve recently realized a bit of my own food snobbery, something I am often disgusted by in others, and reminded myself to just relax… I love food, but that doesn’t permit me to be an a-hole about it.
    Never would have made the connection to econimics, either.

    Thank you for sharing!

    December 29, 2011
    • Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – I confess that I was most proud of the title.

      I do so like your attitude towards food – it’s an excellent motto: ‘I love food, but that doesn’t permit me to be an a-hole about it.’

      December 29, 2011
  4. Have just come across your blog and this post. It’s fantastic. Thanks.

    January 22, 2012
    • Thanks! Yours too – I LOVE the title. Cake against Cuts is truly the height of civilisation.

      January 23, 2012

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