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Delusion at the Gastropub

On the foodie devolution

It takes a lot of high-capitalist pixie dust to turn the basics of subsistence into coveted luxuries. The brazen marketing of designer water at $5 per bottle, flown in from Fiji or the Alps—or better yet, filled from a local municipal tap—may have been the first red flag, signaling the modern public’s staggering ability to suspend its disbelief, or simply to miss the central tenets of manufactured demand.

But if one trait characterizes Americans with lots of disposable income, it’s their tireless compulsion to dispose of that income in brand new ways. The more pedestrian the product in question, the greater its seeming potential to evoke untold volumes of feeling and meaning. A few centuries into the future, inhabitants of a ravaged globe may look back on this time as the crucial moment at which delusional fervor around unremarkable, overpriced things reached its apex.

Oh, there are lovingly itemized ideological whys-and-wherefores behind the so-called food revolution, to be sure. A long train of exposés and manifestos has shown in chilling detail the myriad ways our foodstuffs have been too long tainted by chemical manipulations, resource-intensive factory farming, overprocessing, and general tastelessness. The solution, from the consumer’s vantage, is to repair all this systemic damage with the homely remedy of better informed, more locally minded shopping. To combat the epidemic of fast food (and the kindred American plague of mounting obesity), we’ve been schooled in the virtues of “slow food,” a.k.a. “locavore” cuisine, a.k.a. organic and regional produce, meats, and dairy products.

All of which is plenty worthy and salubrious, so far as our individual food intake goes. We’re all likelier to lead healthy, slim, fulfilling, and flavorful lives when we nourish ourselves on farmers’ market fare—and to feel better about ourselves as agents of ethical change.

But as no end of other right-thinking crusades have shown, there’s a fine line between right conduct and smarmy self-righteousness. As we weather one discursive foodie sermon after another and choke down the aristocratic excesses of today’s foodie media complex, we may long for a sweet taste of silence. After all, there’s scant evidence that the vogue for artisanal cuisine has produced anything close to a more just, affordable, and robust food economy. If anything, it has driven our already class-segmented food system into still greater polarities, with privileged access to rabbit larb and Japanese uni at the upper end of the spectrum, and a wasteland of overprocessed, cheap, and empty slop at the other. To better grasp just how things got to be this way, let’s venture into the dark belly of the modern-day cult known as foodie-ism.

Food, Glorious Food

The glorification of food seems understandable enough, at first glance. Everybody’s got to eat. And as with any other animal urge or act of survival—masticate, copulate, procreate, repeat—it’s not exactly challenging to move this activity to the center of one’s value system. What upper-middle-class college student doesn’t emerge from six months abroad in Barcelona swearing fealty to the crown of jamón ibérico? What leisurely plutocrat with too much time on his hands isn’t tempted to throw his energies into some hobby with immediate built-in payoffs, like becoming an overnight expert on the expensive aged cheeses of the world? What better pastime for a wealthy faux-hippie housewife than raising egg-laying hens (they’re adorable!) or learning to pickle the organic vegetables her child is growing at his pricey progressive preschool?

Why not, in short, transform the rather self-indulgent habit of spending more than $200 on a single meal into an intellectual and cultural badge of honor—a chance to loudly matter in public as you remark on the bright or redolent or flavorful undertones of whatever anxiously plated concoction you’ve just overpaid to savor? The bourgeoisie will always find creative new ways to paint even their most decadent indulgences as highly enlightened, discriminating, and honorable—if not downright heroic. And those who provide such indulgences (and who are, in turn, rewarded handsomely for them) are more than happy to collude in this fantasy.

Of course, the fantasy itself grows more baroque and involuted as the foodie cult nets an ever-greater number of well-heeled recruits. In spite of the self-congratulatory earthiness that foodie culture tends to favor (“I just really love food,” earnest foodies will confess, never bothering to notice that most of humankind shares their passion), its overwrought quasi-religiosity picks up right where the rise of designer bottled water left off—i.e., with the world-conquering condescension of the enormously cultivated consumer.

“Food is everything!” foodies often declare, in a fervent yelp apparently aimed at shaking the rest of the populace out of its imagined hunger strike. Even so, simply purchasing a meal at Chez Panisse or Momofuku or Trois Mec is not enough. One must dine at all of Eater’s “essential” restaurants, and speak in an authoritative, Top Chef–tutored tongue on the importance of balancing sourness and sweetness and umami in every single bite. The solemnly important task of delivering “thoughtful” and “inventive” food to every semi-hip town in America has been accomplished, and food culture mavens have officially overshot their mark: eating out now means being served sweetmeats on a slab of brick while listening to the neighboring table grouse about the inadequate “acidity” of their last plate in the self-serious tones of CIA operatives on a top-secret mission.

And every bit as vital as the digestion of precious food is the copious chronicling of the eating experience. If eating is a deeply private and emotional activity, laced with personal meaning and nostalgia, then the Yelp restaurant review corpus is a mass community diary, documenting with a hopelessly public, community-focused slant the turmoil of a food revolution. Here, each determined diarist struggles mightily to mimic the hauteur of the practiced establishment food critic. Take this review of a hot Italian restaurant in Silver Lake:

We ordered the chicken liver crostone, the octopus, and the chopped salad “amigliorata” to start. The chicken liver was ludicrous—airy and creamy in texture, and absolutely rich with flavor. It came with thick crusty hunks of grilled bread and a tart black plum mostarda, a thoughtful accompaniment to the decadent liver. The octopus was tender and toothsome, served over a bed of black barley, roasted carrots, and red onion—a nice, earthy dish with some balancing brightness.

Or how about this one, for a ramen joint nearby:

Everything in the Ozu pork ramen was on point, except for the broth. The pork was tender and flavorful, the ajitsuke egg was cooked to perfection, and I liked the tangy flavor added by the mizuna on top. The broth was on the lighter side—not to my liking (I like the fattier broths of Santouka Ramen)—but what made it fail for me was the lack of depth. Even lighter broths need that umami flavor to be good, and Ozu’s broth fell flat on its face on this dimension. . . . I will not come back to Ozu East Kitchen until they add a richer, fattier pork broth.

Both (entirely representative) reviews brandish the standard adjectives of food critics and food blogs and food everything—ludicrous, decadent, earthy, brightness, umami—all mixed and matched in an invocation of transcendent morsel-adoring delight that resembles nothing so much as the old Latin Mass. And as with the Mass, and other elite cultures of metaphysical self-congratulation, the obscurantism of the relevant content is itself a mark of chosenness.

This same sense of ethereal chosenness is what rhetorically elevates a mundane consumer choice to the level of a noble stand against . . . a ramen joint with a pork broth this expert deems inadequate? As these legions of pompous reviews unfold, the customer emerges not as an audience member, bystander, or faceless nobody holding a wallet, but someone central to the entire production, the star of the show, even. This incoherence of self goes straight to the heart of what makes foodie culture such a vibrant manifestation of high-capitalist bewilderment. Lured into a world of luxe commodities by their taste buds, their nostalgia, and a growing sense of their own insignificance (even with all of this money, I am no one!), high-end consumers do much more than simply misjudge a basic exchange of lucre for product. They come, very intimately, to identify with the embrace or rejection of said product (I like the fattier broths of Santouka Ramen!), beyond reason, as if the world turns on such appraisals, and awaits each of their Yelp verdicts with bated breath.

Here is also the point of transubstantiation: the moment when the foodie’s identity, so completely cobbled together from various deeply felt products (the broths of Santouka! the roasted chickens of Waxman’s!), intersects with the precious precepts of foodie-ism as political activism. Just as the food-chewing subject has been alchemized into an all-knowing, all-savoring telos for the preparation of ritzy grub, so is that subject mystically charged with the power to save the Earth—and its poor, overweight, undernourished people from themselves—with one effortless bite of a really good foie-gras-smeared, grass-fed burger. After all, a rich sense of entitlement has always paired nicely with empty self-righteousness. The stone soup, drizzled in an unctuous snake oil, is eventually mistaken for stone tablets, bearing the word of God.

Of Flummery and Yummery

For a sampling of today’s flavor profiles, look no further than the pages of A Taste of Generation Yum by Eve Turow Paul (2015). Paul explains, from a conveniently ahistorical perch, that the food revolution began when millennials surveyed their parents’ very bad food choices and demanded something better. Yes, these millennial foodies, whom Paul and others refer to as “Yummers,” are single-handedly driving the foodie movement with their hard-earned dollars. Or not so hard-earned, actually, because, as Paul herself admits, 38 percent of young adults were unemployed in 2013. These valiant Yummers are spending their Boomer parents’ dough.

But as the well-born well understand, the ultimate source of the family money is never so important as the simple fact of it. In fact, Paul asserts, there are “roughly 80 million millennials in America” and “the majority of U.S. millennials (nearly six in ten) grew up in upper-middle-class or wealthy families.” Who knew more than half of all millennials grew up wealthy? Looks like Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders are going to have an easier time closing that income gap than they thought!

And even though so many of the millennials Paul describes don’t have jobs and are living off their parents’ money, they’re special because their “tastes are limitless.” They’re not just spending most of their money on fussily plated calf tongue; they’re eschewing straight jobs so they can pursue their dreams of “harvesting clams or milking goats or tilling the land.”

All of which clearly indicates that millennials care more deeply about food than anyone else ever has. “Young people are actively, purposefully integrating food into their lives and giving it daily attention—and value—in a different proportion than any previous generation,” Paul writes. Members of certain agrarian societies—not to mention a Boomer army of Julia Child and Joy of Cooking fanatics—would surely beg to differ, but hey, why not let these kids nurse their delusions while they can? Millennials are not the first generation to declare themselves the driving force behind a movement that started fifty years before they were born, and they won’t be the last.

Still, some basic historical context should be noted here, lest these powerful and influential millennials wind up dispatching the rest of us to barren, windswept refugee camps catered exclusively by Taco Bell and KFC. As David Kamp makes clear in The United States of Arugula: The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution (2006), the rapid developments that characterize today’s foodscape began with the rise of fine dining and French cuisine in the states after World War II, helped along by James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne, who popularized fresh-baked bread and the art of fine home cooking at a time when women’s magazines encouraged housewives to embed canned mandarin oranges in lime Jell-O. What some view as a food revolution today is actually the product of a long, slow evolution of tastes that’s taken place over the course of seventy-odd years, with new restaurant and food trends arising like clockwork every few years to replace the previous batch. Or as Nora Ephron succinctly put it in 2006’s “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” “This was right around the time that arugula was discovered, which was followed by endive, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisée, which was followed by the three M’s—mesclun, mâche, and microgreens—and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the past forty years from the point of view of lettuce.”

Reducing what might otherwise be viewed as a “revolution” to simple trends of taste does put a serious damper on the enormous quantity of cash in play, though. No wonder the preferred view—advanced by those with a stake in food’s “revolutionary” status—is far more portentous than either Kamp’s or Ephron’s.

Big Cheeses

Admittedly, it’s tough to argue against a movement that delivered really good coffee and prosciutto-wrapped figs to the recklessly indebted masses. A few minutes in a pricey cheese shop, speaking to a smart person who spends all her time thinking and talking about cheese, has a way of encouraging the belief that high-quality cheese is one of the primary pleasures of life, worthy of any price, particularly if your dollars go into the hands of smart enthusiasts and the gorgeous, enlightened, loving dairy farmers of your vivid imagination. Such seduction is a big piece of foodie culture’s appeal: we aren’t just shoving tasty stuff into our faces, we’re embracing and supporting some down-to-earth farmer we might count as a kind of a neighbor—if we wanted to live in a place with only a Pizza Hut and an Australian-themed steakhouse within twenty square miles, that is. It’s all so sexy and sensual and honorable: we care about our bodies and we care about the Earth and its products, unlike those corn-syrup-swilling slobs next to us on the train, ignorantly gorging on the nutrient-free products of industrialized monoculture. This is the ugly class subtext of our deeply earnest adoration of that Humboldt Fog chevre wheel with a layer of “edible vegetable ash.” Our hard-won locavore connoisseurship satisfies our senses and bestows upon us, via its $25-a-pound price tag, a feeling we’ve paid tithes to the church of gourmet eating. But more than that, it separates us from the less sainted, the less antioxidized, the less wealthy among us.

This separation is savored privately, like a slice of eighteen-month-aged Manchego unloosed from a stainless steel double-wide fridge at midnight. But it’s also distinctly social. As William Deresiewicz wrote in the New York Times in 2012, foodie culture

is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.

The so-called food revolution may include many Earth-friendly initiatives—the emphasis on organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free products; the local farm-to-table efforts; the transition to vegetarian, vegan, or just mostly plant-based diets; the crop rotation and sustainable, environmentally friendly practices of small farms; the efforts to reduce food waste, etc. But the broad impact of elevating food to a rarefied luxury good has wide-reaching negative consequences for the planet. Because for every local organic farm churning out hormone-free basil butters and heirloom beets, there are countless elite consumers feasting on a mélange of foods flown in from multiple spots around the globe. As Dan Barber points out in The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (2014), the second that those locally sourced lamb chops run out at the foodie farm-to-table restaurant of the aspirational classes’ fever dreams, the obliging restaurateur must secure a back-up source that’s perhaps less local and less blessed by the purist foodie gods. For the food revolution to save the Earth (or at least not hasten its demise), Barber argues, our whole way of thinking about food needs to shift. Instead of chasing fickle consumer tastes and allowing the gods of supply and demand to rape the Earth and dredge the seas until all of our ecosystems are utterly destroyed, we have to learn to appreciate foods that can be grown or raised sustainably, foods that support and enrich the environment. The next food “trends” need to be carefully selected by chefs who forgo the sorts of “luxury” foods that are leaving their habitats denuded and unbalanced for more pragmatic choices—eco-friendly farmed fish, say, or plants that filter toxins from the soil or replete the soil’s much-needed nitrogen. As easy as it is to be cynical about politically correct, pretentious menus that read more like essays, every single choice we make now as consumers will affect how we’re able to eat—not to mention survive—in the future.

Because if foodie culture wants to take credit for the rise of organic, sustainable, cruelty-free farming, it’s also going to have to take the blame for making us hunger for tasty slices of grass-fed venison and baby corn (a plate of food requiring an obscene and wanton waste of natural resources), or sushi rolls packed with four varieties of endangered fish, flown in from three different oceans. Devoted foodies may choose to believe that shoving pickled shishito peppers and chicken livers and herbed goat cheese into their gullets represents the most honorable and divine embrace of earth-bound pleasure known to humankind. But like most other bourgeois hobbies, this one carries considerable costs. Not only has the elevation of food to a luxury created absurd expectations around a dimension of survival that might best involve as few exotic elements as possible, but it’s also warped our understanding of how we exist on the Earth and how we coexist with our fellow earthlings, the cuddliest and cutest of which also tend to taste really good the younger and lazier and the more stuffed with non-GMO hazelnuts they are.

Stroll through the pricier areas of Brooklyn, or take a deep dive into those giant Blue Apron boxes filled with tiny plastic bags of purple basil and frozen slabs of minced lamb, and you’ll discover that mere commoners now hope to feast like kings and queens every single day of their lives. But at this late date on the planet Earth, humans shouldn’t be eating rare or exotic or far-flung foods. Not only shouldn’t we continue eating most of the animals we’ve overbred and forced into short, filthy, miserable lives, but we also, very specifically, shouldn’t be relishing the choicest cuts of lamb or just the tender centers of artichokes. Given the state of the globe, not even the aristocrats among us should be eating like aristocrats. We should all be eating like peasants.

As the world’s population sneaks up toward 11 billion, we can’t feed the world monkfish livers to let them know it’s Christmastime. Arguably, we need the super-sized yields of industrial farming for that—which means that even if we prefer small-batch goat cheese from a darling mom-and-pop dairy farm in Vermont, we still have to vehemently support curbing the environmental recklessness of industrial farms while we’re at it. As nice as it is to have organic free-range everything on your plate, imbuing that choice with deeper meaning and a larger sense of righteousness without addressing the bigger picture of how humanity feeds itself makes about as much sense as boarding a private jet, and then congratulating yourself on how quickly you learned to fly.

But beyond the fantastical idealism of foodie culture, there’s the simple fact that cooking a decent meal or dining at the right restaurant is an act of leisure-class consumption, not a heroic or courageous feat to build your entire identity around. As former food critic John Lanchester asserts in The New Yorker, our choices about food are nowhere near the most important political choices we make. “If these tiny acts of consumer choice are the most meaningful actions in our lives,” Lanchester writes, “perhaps we aren’t thinking and acting on a sufficiently big scale.” He takes it a step further. “Imagine that you die and go to Heaven and stand in front of a jury made up of Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Your task would be to compose yourself, look them in the eye, and say, ‘I was all about fresh, local, and seasonal.’”

Food is personal. It’s sensual, it’s nostalgic, it’s political. But contrary to the slogans of our officious foodie overlords, food is not everything. Viewing our foodie status as a badge of honor makes sense only if we’re prioritizing food advocacy—from promoting sustainable farming practices to reducing food waste to embracing and popularizing more sustainable crops to making healthy food more affordable to the poor—over our indulgence in wildly expensive plates of exotic fare. Before we dive into another dish of bluefin or veal brains or carrots with a 15.2 Brix reading, we should consider how we’ll look fifty years from now to the inhabitants of an overfished, polluted planet: decadent, callous, delusional, and above all, deeply unsavory.