Steven Poole thinks we are eating ourselves stupid. Poole is the author of a new polemic called You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed up with the Gastroculture. I have been unable to get hold of the book, but I have heard a number of interviews with the author. While I don’t agree entirely with Poole’s thesis, I do think he is onto something. We are living in an age in which what we eat has become an important way of expressing our identity. Television schedules are awash with cookery programmes. Bookshops are full of the offerings of the nation’s TV chefs. If Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are too vulgar for you, the patent troll entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold the patent troll entrepreneur, who I featured a few weeks ago, has published “the cookbook to end all cookbooks“, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six-volume, 2,400-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for preparing food. It will set you back £375.25. And Jamie Oliver has been complaining that 30,000 linen napkins a month are stolen from his restaurants — it’s almost as though they’re religious relics. At the heart of this trend is the rise of the foodie.
I have heard different versions of the origin of the word foodie. The OED’s very first citation is from 1980, from a New York magazine piece about a Parisian restaurant. Another variant is that it was first used in a Harper’s & Queen article entitled “Cuisine Poseur” in 1982. Whatever its origins may be, Foodie now seems to have supplanted gourmet everywhere. The latter tem has snobbish connotations. But foodies also claim to have superior powers of discrimination. Poole actually prefers the more pejorative term foodist, which invokes the idea of fanaticism.
Poole takes aim at locavores and organic farming. I have already covered many of the points Poole makes in previous posts. I have no problem with it but for me there is no intrinsic virtue in buying local. If a product can be made cheaper and/or better somewhere else, I think we all benefit from the deal. The concept of food miles is applied very simplistically Transport represents is only one component, less than 10%, of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. I am also sceptical about organic. I think organic foods are a con. What’s more they are most definitely not the solution for feeding seven billion people.
We also have the rise of celebrity chefs, especially in the USA and the UK. They are in many ways today’s rock stars. Jamie Oliver makes a fascinating case study. He seems to inspire love and hate in equal measure. I am more inclined to the former. He does have an evangelical passion for food. But there are times when it can be cringe-inducing. I thought that his campaign to reform school dinners was a noble one; I was shocked at what kids were being given to eat. If I were to criticise any aspect, it would be that he tried to change too much with the subsequent backlash from some parents. Matters came to a head in Rotherham, where parents started taking lunchtime fast food orders to pupils at RawmarshCommunitySchool. Who can forget the pictures of parents pushing fast food orders through school railings? Maybe ratatouille pancakes were just a bit too exotic. Oliver has been described as a serial glutton for punishment; he actually went back to the Yorkshire city to make his Ministry of Food. He was not given a warm welcome by everyone. When he spoke to 5,000 fans at Rotherham United football club they drowned him out with chants of “Who ate all the pies?” His attempts to convert Americans to healthy met with similar hostility.
What really irks Poole is food snobbery. There is a notion that if you don’t care about food as they do, there is something wrong with you. I think there are so many other fascinating things in the world. There is an air of moral superiority. The masses are eating badly and we, the experts, must somehow educate them or force them into what we think they should eat and they should be prevented from eating what is bad for them. This kind of snobbery is faithful reflection of the human character. We enjoy engaging in this kind of one-upmanship: I am more organic than year. I buy all my goods from farmers’ markets. I have tried more exotic foods than you. I am a more ethical eater than you. While sex has gone in the other direction, food is now marked by a whole series of taboos. We are much less tolerant of people’s food choices than we used to be.
I do disagree with Poole in some aspects. I think that we know more about food than ever before. We have become very cosmopolitan in our tastes. The variety of food you can see is breathtaking. There has never been a better period to experience quality and innovative food dishes. However, at the same time there is a lot of rubbish out there. And then we have the problems of obesity and hunger co-existing in the world.
In this debate about foodies I also see a parallel with linguistic snobbery. I love language, and I hope I have been able to reflect this sentiment in this blog. Language should be celebrated for its beauty and diversity. But I do not see it as weapon with which to demonstrate some kind of social superiority. I feel the same about food. Perhaps Poole has the wrong term – we should be really talking about food pedants. I think it s great when people are passionate about something. However, there can be thin line between passion and pedantry.