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.
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,  2010).
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.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The best television chef ever is Adam on Northern Exposure (surely the greatest series ever made). Dirty, self-centred, arrogant, appallingly rude, yet phenomenally talented – he once turned down a job at the legendary Tour d’Argent – Adam appears periodically, often accompanied by his neurotic, hypochondriac, and equally selfish wife, Eve, cooks incredible food, and then vanishes.
Adam is the anti-foodie. His enthusiasm for cooking isn’t borne out of snobbery or a desire to demonstrate either his sophistication or moral superiority, but, rather, out of a liking for food and eating. And possibly a hatred for the people for whom he cooks.
He is a world away from the TV chef-celebrities who populate cooking-driven channels like the Food Network. Indeed, when Northern Exposure aired between 1990 and 1995, the idea that a single TV channel could be devoted entirely to food was relatively new. In the US, the Food Network launched in 1993, and the now-defunct Carlton Food Network – for which, incidentally, a young David Cameron did PR – aired for the first time three years later in the UK.
Now, food is everywhere on television, and food programmes have evolved from their most basic format – a chef cooking in a kitchen – to embrace travel and reality programmes. There’s been a lot of fuss about the launch of the most recent incarnation of the unbelievably successful MasterChef franchise in South Africa. In fact, the evolution of MasterChef says a great deal about how food on television has changed over the past few decades.
The original MasterChef series aired in the UK between 1990 and 1999 and was presented by pasta sauce entrepreneur and mid-Atlantic accent promoter, Loyd Grossman. It was all very serious and restrained and most of the contestants were terribly tense ladies from the Home Counties who replicated the nouvelle cuisine they had eaten at Le Gavroche, with varying degrees of success and anxiety.
It was revamped in 2005. With two shouty judges and considerably more socially representative participants, its popularity demonstrating the shifting significance of food within middle-class Britain. The new series’s focus on training contestants to be good, highly skilled chefs is meant to produce people who could, conceivably, run their own restaurants – which, to the credit of MasterChef, winners like Thomasina Miers and Mat Follas have done successfully.
The Australian, American, and South African versions of MasterChef have increased the emphasis on teaching would-be chefs how to work in professional kitchens. Of course, people watch these series for the same reasons that they tune into The Amazing Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Project Runway. But MasterChef has the added appeal that it aims to teach its audience about cooking: the master classes offered by its presenters are aimed as much at those watching the series as at the contestants.
In fact, the earliest and most enduring TV cookery shows were intended primarily to educate, rather than only entertain, audiences. Dione Lucas – who claimed, incorrectly, to be the first woman graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cookery Institute in Paris – taught classical French cooking to the affluent American middle classes during the 1950s. Julia Child, an altogether warmer and more appealing presenter, did the same in her long-running series. Their aim was to teach Americans how to cook properly – and during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘proper’ food was French food.
Even Fanny Cradock, despite her increasingly ridiculous television appearances towards the end of her career, cooked a version of French cuisine which was meant to be affordable and accessible to her audience. Delia Smith’s first series, Family Fayre, in the mid-1970s was intended to teach its audience how to cook. Her success – built partly on the fact that her impeccably-tested recipes always do work – owed a great deal to her ability to teach and to de-mystify processes which may at first seem difficult and complicated.
Many of the cookery shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were made by the BBC’s Continuing Education Department: Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom, among others, owe their early success to the Beeb’s efforts to educate audiences. It was only with the coming of Graham Kerr – the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ – and, more successfully, Keith Floyd, that cookery programmes began to shift their emphasis from education to entertainment.
I’ve never really understood Floyd’s appeal, as Paul Levy writes:
But he could be amusing – and more so than most of the considerably more serious presenters of food programmes in Britain. In many ways, the entertainment- and lifestyle-driven series presented by Nigella Lawson, Ainsley Harriott, Sophie Dahl and others are part of Floyd’s unwitting legacy.
I’m more interested in the way that presenters of food programmes have linked their teaching to wider, social projects. In post-revolution Cuba, cookbook writer Nitza Villapol used her long-running television series to teach Cubans a cuisine which was at once ‘authentically’ Cuban but also compatible with the country’s system of food rationing. During the Special Period, she provided recipes and advice for making limited supplies go further. She is still – regardless of her association with the period – seen as the pre-eminent expert on Cuban cooking.
In Egypt, Ghalia Mahmoud has recently emerged as a popular TV chef on the 25 January cable channel. From a working-class background, Mahmoud teaches audiences ‘traditional Egyptian food, such as mahshi (stuffed vine leaves), bisara and keshk, simple fava-bean and buttermilk-based stews.’ Not only do her recipes respect the differing dietary requirements of Egypt’s range of religious groups, but she cooks with an awareness that many members of her audience have limited resources. This is patriotic cuisine for a new Egypt: one which demonstrates how to feed a family on only 250g of meat a week.
It’s particularly telling that the TV chefs of the final years of the Mubarak regime were, as Mahmoud says, ‘bigger than movie stars and spoke English and French.’ The most popular cookery teachers on television – and this includes Ina Paarman in South Africa – have been lower- to middle-class women. It’s a common observation – even complaint – that while the majority of people who cook family meals are women, the best-known and most feted cooks are all male. This isn’t entirely true. Arguably, the most influential cooks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – those who actually teach their audiences how to prepare food – are women.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.