Veggie of the Week - Foodieism
sponsored by Coleman Farms
I sometimes wonder what I'm doing here, writing for edhat.com: it's the result of the sort of career evolution that makes me wonder about Survival of the Fittest, let alone Intelligent Design. Still, when "What do you do?" follows "How do you do?", I sometimes say "I write about vegetables". This often requires further explanation (though less than "food stylist": arranging the models during photo shoots); "food writer" would be more generally understood, but I've avoided that probably because it's inspecific. I realised with something of a shock just how inappropriate a job description that would have been when I happened on this article¹. This got me thinking about trends and food.
The beginnings of cooking dealt with the realm of the possible: making do the best you can with the materials at hand, which might be only tree bark and purlsane. In time, some could control their access to food and, freed from want, they might pledge themselves to desire: for them cooking entered the realm of the imaginable, of fashion and of power. A current manifestation of this is Foodieism.
There's a lot of fashion in Foodieism. When I was involved in retailing, I had a colleague (since become a food writer) who, when we'd meet each week at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, would run through the list of restaurants she'd visited or food folk, chefs, mostly, but sometimes growers, she'd seen in the previous week. Most of this meant little to me - I'd heard some of the chefs' and restaurant names, but knew none of them. On the other hand, the actual food figured small in her conversation, even when growers' names came up. This was a fairly extreme Foodie Fashionista, but not an uncommon one.
And with fashion comes display. Foodies spend a lot of time discussing presentation - the presentation of the food itself, of course, but this extends to the presentation of the presentation - staff and ambience if talking about a restaurant, or, if the eating is domestic, about homes, colorful sources of ingredients, packaging, and method of delivery. Part of the display may be honest exuberance, but frequently too it has to do with power. Just as there are 'power suits' there is also power eating, and it's correlative, power Foodieism. A lot of Foodieism has to do with establishing one's bona fides with others of the kind - the name dropping, the catalogues of eating encounters - but this sort of display - like clothes or cars - can easily transition to a display of dominance: instead of baring fangs or spreading tail feathers one displays (perhaps figurative) menus and wine lists.
We've come a long way here from considering what you've collected at the market or in the woods and figuring out how to make it into a meal. And this leads us to questions of authenticity. "Authenticity" can figure quite large in Foodie concerns, whether it be of ingredients, preparation or presentation. Yet to the philosophically inclined, there may be questions of authenticity in the Foodie experience itself. How does the authenticity of a vietnamese sandwich bought in Sacramento compare with that of one bought in Saigon or Hanoi: can we suggest that the ambience - the streams of Vietnamese on foot or moped, their talk and laughter, the fin de siècle Colonial architecture, the tropical air and smells - not to mention the local ingredients, the 'make the best of what you have available', are a part of the authentic eating experience, and are simply not available in Sacramento (where, if you were lucky, or unlucky, enough to be from Vietnam, the authentic ambience would be replaced by nostalgia)?
And what about hunger, is this part of the authentic eating experience? Few of us have ever been hungry enough to have to resort to grass and tree bark, but many of us are familiar with the sort of hunger developed by extended physical exertion and not overly abundant food. This is the sort of physiological state in which most cooking and eating has been done, and it affects the way we accept, eat and perceive food. In a book² about a group of Italian partisans there's a passage which describes the virtues of their one meal a day, which consisted of maize polenta with lashings of white British margarine. The author dwells at length on its preparation and consumption, with particular attention to the dense wood smoke of cooking and to the smells, tastes and textures of the dish, the oily fishiness of the marge and the painty taste and smell of the crusty part of the polenta peeled off the cooking vessel, a parachute drop cannister put to a new use. This gastronomic rapture was engendered not by the dish itself, considered objectively, but by the constellation of the circumstance and ritual of preparation, the food, and the hunger with which it was welcomed. The contribution this sort of hunger and privation make to eating is not part of the Foodie's life.
It may be appropriate that the first article we linked to takes the form of a tour. Tourists, particularly those on a tour, see a lot of things and may have a lot of fun doing so. Quite likely they see things and have fun that the locals don't, but the resident's experience, the breadth and depth of his knowledge of and the quality of his enjoyment in his native surroundings is something a tour can't even hint at. In this, I think, Foodieism is much like Tourism.
1) I linking these two particular articles only because of the happenstance of having come across the first of them, and because the author, Marlena Spieler, is a delight to read.
2) Luigi Meneghello, I piccoli maestri.