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