Just a few days ago, I was sitting in a very mediocre restaurant loved by foodies, eating local cabbage and involuntarily eavesdropping on the noisy table next to mine. It was four marketing people who were discussing — no joke — ways to exploit the sustainability movement in the promotion of a product similar to Tupperware. So it goes everywhere.
Soon, Ronald McDonald will morph into Mr. Green Jeans and Mayor McCheese will make a comeback with the head of an heirloom tomato.
I’m all for the sustainable movement but I was interested to see that some of my own misgivings about its blindly obsessional regard were articulated by editor Darra Goldstein in her latest column in Gastronomica. A sample:
I've lately been troubled by how polarized the discourse about food has become. Either American food production is big and bad ("corporate farming," "the agroindustrial complex," or simply "Big Ag," the abuses of which I've seen firsthand), or it is small and heartwarming—the farmers' markets, the csas, greenhorns choosing the life of the soil over the corporate rat race. Our national conversation has descended into argument: Either you are on the side of might (the existing American food system), or on the side of right (the locavores or, as my husband the organic vegetable gardener calls them, the locabores). Both sides are blindered. Industrial is pitted against local; growers are either laboratory dependent or committed to "natural" practices. Such extremes lead to cynical decisions, like the waving of green and sustainable flags by corporations that are anything but environmentally concerned.
She goes on to describe how anything that becomes notably trendy in our culture is short-lived and soon replaced by a new obsession. Will sustainability itself go the way of the pterodactyl and the kiwi fruit, as celebrity chefs and food-swamped TV almost certainly will? As Goldstein says, we need a serious and realistic discussion about food, instead of the increasingly pointless drama obscuring a real global food crisis.
Frank Bruni, the former dining critic for the New York Times, wrote an editorial page column a few days ago entitled “Dinner and Derangement” and it relates to this subject. Bruni describes his visit to New York’s latest hotspot, Romera, where the tasting menu of “neurogastronomical” dishes costs $245. A sample of the column:
Romera is Manhattan’s newest culinary oddity, an elegant hideaway whose conceits include the pairing of each dish in an 11-course meal with a lukewarm flavored water in a lidded grappa glass. One water might be infused with leek and radish, another with jasmine and dried seaweed. Most taste like indecisive teas, commitment-phobic broths or pond runoff.
“Feel free to smell them,” said a server, as if I might otherwise feel jailed. “And to taste them.” He paused. “Make a memory of them.”
This is indeed a clear example of how utterly deranged our food culture has become in its extremes — worthy of the bizarre banquet of Trimalchio in “Satyricon" (video of Fellini's interpretation above). Petronius, the author, satirizes the tastes of the nouveau riche and the sycophantic response of his guests to cooking from hell.“Does Food Writing Matter?” and was prompted by the announcement that Times critic Sam Sifton has been promoted to the position of national editor. Roberts wonders why it’s called a promotion. Is writing news more important than dining criticism?
I agree with a commenter that Roberts conflates dining criticism and general food writing, so that his point is a bit fuzzy. Sifton’s role was as a critic, not a general food writer, after all. But the post does provoke questioning whether restaurant dining and criticism matter much in a world in which huge numbers of people, including many of America’s children, don’t have enough to eat. The need to write about hunger — life on the street instead of in a restaurant — is acknowledged by all of us and undertaken by practically nobody.
I’ve had this argument with many people over the years. Of course there is considerable elitism among foodies, whether it involves classic fine dining, dinner parties at home or breathless slumming in ethnic eateries.
But you can cry “elitism” about any creative process. The ensconcement of fine art in museums and the private collections of the wealthy, for example, is often called elitist, as is the art criticism that attempts to delineate the good and the bad. Why shouldn’t some cooking be likewise treated as a fine art worthy of critical assessment?
But there's no denying that it's a tiny minority of Americans who worry about the pedigree of their hot dogs and the titillation of their palates by obscure ingredients . Millions of children live with "food insecurity" and their parents would be happy to be able to give them vegetables grown in China. Besides hunger, our food writing and dining criticism should include much more attention to politics, history, ideology, classism and the interaction of aesthetics and psychological well-being, It's cool that we write about health now and then, but I'm sick of reading about Alice Waters' and Michele Obama's gardens.
Let's not abandon cooking as escapist performance art and fine art. But, shouldn't we broaden our analysis?
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