An incredible column appeared in The NY Times recently, “A Matter of Taste?”, in which William Deresiewicz observed the religious characteristics inherent in the ascendency of “foodie” culture. Cuisine has always been a personal and ethnic identity marker of course, but in the last twenty or so odd years, what we eat/cook has become a much more powerful and widespread barometer of personal sophistication and merit. A cultural law of undeniable potency, in other words, with chefs serving as high priests of taste, in both senses of that word. No wonder that so many (excellent) cooking shows have emerged on television – what’s at stake here is not just good food and good talent but goodness itself. And it’s a goodness/righteousness that’s theoretically achievable (Top Chef) but also fundamentally ephemeral (Life After Top Chef). Sound familiar? The creative aspect is just, um, icing on the escargot. Whatever the case, it certainly puts talk of “heavenly banquets” in an interesting perspective. Now if you’ll excuse me, this broth isn’t going to reduce itself:
Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.
Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.
It took me some effort to explain to a former student recently that no, my peers did not talk about food all the time when we were her age, unless she meant which diner we were going to for breakfast. “But food is everything!” she said.
Just as aestheticism, the religion of art, inherited the position of Christianity among the progressive classes around the turn of the 20th century, so has foodism taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st. Now we read the gospel according, not to Joyce or Proust, but to Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.
“Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first. Nor do they have to. Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.
But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion.An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.
A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
Yes, food centers life in France and Italy, too, but not to the disadvantage of art, which still occupies the supreme place in both cultures. Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.