Monday, May 20, 2013

What to Make of the "Foodie"

ISBN-10: 0226651401
ISBN-13: 9780226651408
Published: University Of Chicago Press, 04/01/2013
Pages: 200
Language: English
As a person who considers peanut butter on rice cakes to be the pinnacle of culinary achievement, I have found the growth of "foodie" culture to be fairly puzzling (the term "foodie" is nebulous and ill-defined, but, essentially, a foodie really really likes food). However, the rise of foodie literature clearly indicates some sort of shift in cultural attitudes towards gourmet eating, and an excellent book review on Slate convinced me to explore the topic further. I discovered a complicated, surprisingly heated world of pro- and anti-foodie literature. Take, for example, B.R. Meyers' fire-breathing polemic published in the Atlantic titled "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies." It's not hard to guess where he goes from there, but I'll give you the deliciously over-the-top closing argument: "Whether gluttony is a deadly sin is of course for the religious to decide, and I hope they go easy on the foodies; they’re not all bad. They are certainly single-minded, however, and single-mindedness—even in less obviously selfish forms—is always a littleness of soul." Ouch.

 On the other side, there are your Anthony Bourdain's, who seem to be dedicated to providing a kind of culinary voyeurism. These books re-shape the pursuit of a good meal into an exotic adventure. Many of these are surprisingly aggressive or visceral, such as Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (I usually try to cut long subtitles, but this one was irresistible). Even the skillfully written Blood, Bones, and Butter seems to promise violence and grit with its very title. I struggle to imagine where the legendary Julia Child would fit into this new cooking landscape.  

Memoirists thrive on the foodie literature scene. Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life is a good example of this sub-genre. Foodie memoirs often seem to link the preparation and enjoyment of food with spirituality. This phenomenon can be observed even in the more scientifically-oriented Michael Pollan, arguably the king of modern food writing, who constructed his new book around the four elements-- earth, water, air and fire-- and frequently references philosophy to support his exhaustive arguments. In opposition to B.R. Meyers, Pollan and his ilk seem to view good food as a window into a kind of primal expanded consciousness

As fun as it is to watch intelligent people squabble among themselves, the wisest approach is often the least flamboyant. Alison Pearlman's Smart Casual, the subject of the earlier Slate review, appears to be an academic and even-handed take on the evolution of fine dining in America. Give it a read and see which side of the fence you stand on. Join the discussion. Or hang back with me and watch the intellectual fireworks. I'll be eating a bagel.


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