Luke Slat­tery on our food ob­ses­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Luke Slat­tery

‘ 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.

the sight­geist

jon kudelka

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