Luke Slattery on our food obsession
‘ GOLD for Gourmands: Fine dining to grassroots grub on a foodie tour of Peru’’, trumpeted the cover line of The Sun-Herald’s travel section recently. I wish they’d check their French. Mine isn’t brilliant but at least I know my gourmands from my gourmets. The latter is a culinary connoisseur; the former a glutton, a guts. And I presume ‘‘ gold for greedy pigs’’ isn’t quite what the editors wanted to convey.
On the other hand this French malapropism does come in handy as a pointer to something in the culture, for there’s no doubt in my mind that our obsession with food has reached grotesque proportions. Greed may no longer be altogether good on Wall Street, but in the nation’s cafes and restaurants, its lifestyle magazines and television shows, we can’t get enough chow. Eateries with the right vibe seem to be the only commercial ventures undented by the economic slowdown.
I should add a caveat here straight up: I like my tucker as much as the next bloke and I’m quite interested in food produce, but what I can’t abide is mass culinary fetishism. Somewhere back in the 1990s people stopped debating politics, literature and world affairs at dinner parties; now they swap recipes.
And how is it that chefs have become such cultural superheroes? How many are educated, articulate and original? One of my worst dining experiences in recent years was at a Melbourne restaurant where the resident celebrity chef had been encouraged to think he was all three. The menu was full of culinary jokes that just weren’t funny. If the food industry is rife with under-educated people burdened by substance issues, as someone from inside that industry told me recently, why do we habitually soften the lenses through which it is viewed?
With these questions in mind I was cheered when a little paperback bearing the title You Aren’t What You Eat, by British writer Steven Poole, landed on my desk. The title is a negation of the phrase minted in the late 19th century by German atheist Ludwig Feuerbach, who was merely driving home the point with a taut aphorism that reality was more material, or physical, than mystical. But it’s since become a kind of foodie touchstone: the idea being that the more virtuous the victuals, the more laudable their consumer.
Here is Poole in full flight: ‘‘ It is not in our day considered a sign of serious emotional derangement to announce publicly that ‘ chocolate mousse remains the thing I feel most strongly about’, or to boast that dining with celebrities on the last night of Ferran Adria’s restaurant El Bulli, in Spain, ‘ made me cry’ . . . Food is not only the safe ‘ passion’ ... it has become an obligatory one.’’
This is spirited and entertaining prose, but it’s no mere adornment to a maladroit thesis. Poole is spot on, in my view, when he observes how food culture has colonised many other areas of modern life. ‘‘ Food becomes not only spiritual nourishment but art, sex, ecology, history, fashion and ethics. It even becomes, in the mind of some of its more addled fanatics, a universal language.’’
The only solace available to those unsettled by the prevalence of foodism is contextual: it is not unique to our culture, our time. The Roman poet Horace wrote satires of food fetishism as fresh today as at the time of their composition more than 2040 years ago. It is only time that separates the world Horace is scorning in this satire, titled ‘‘ Gourmet a la Mode’’, from the world of Heston Blumenthal’s gastronomic grotesquerie:
And no one/ Can claim to have mastered the art of good dining until/ He has acquired a detailed knowledge of the subtle theory/ Of flavours, become as it were a Brilliant Savorant/ It’s not quite enough, for example, to sweep up the fish/ From the most expensive fish stalls if you don’t know which/ Go better with sauce and which, when served up broiled/ Will make your jaded guest sit up and take notice/ The host who wants to avoid serving tasteless meat/ Will hold out for Umbrian boar that, fattened on acorns/ From the holm oak, makes the platter bend under his weight . . .
That image of the fattened Umbrian boar reminds me — as does the word itself, with a variant spelling — of some of the high priests of foodism.