October 1, 2012


Let's start the foodie backlash : Food is the new sex, drugs and religion. Cookery dominates the bestseller lists and TV schedules. Celebrity chefs have become lifestyle gurus and cooking is referred to as a high art. Steven Poole has had his fill of foodism (Steven Poole, 9/29/12, The Guardian)

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 AdriĆ 's restaurant elBulli, in Spain, "made me cry". It is, rather, the mark of a Yahoo not to be able and ready at any social gathering to converse in excruciating detail and at interminable length about food. Food is not only a safe "passion" (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of "passion" that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one. The unexamined meal, as a pair of pioneer modern "foodies" wrote in the 1980s, is not worth eating. Most cannily, the department of philosophy at the University of North Texas announced in 2011 its "Philosophy of Food Project", no doubt having noticed which way the wind was blowing, and presumably hoping that it would be able to trick food-obsessives into hard thinking about other topics. One can of course think philosophically about food, as about anything at all, but that is not what is going on in our mainstream gastroculture.

Where will it all end? Is there any communication or entertainment or social format that has not yet been commandeered by the ravenous gastrimarge for his own gluttonous purpose? Does our cultural "food madness", as the New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggests, tip into "food psychosis"? Might it not, after all, be a good idea to worry more about what we put into our minds than what we put into our mouths?

People with an overweening interest in food have been calling themselves "foodies" since a Harper's & Queen article entitled "Cuisine Poseur" in 1982, one of whose editors then co-wrote the semi-satirical The Official Foodie Handbook of 1984. The OED's very first citation of "foodie" is from 1980, an oozing New York Times magazine celebration of the mistress of a Parisian restaurant and her "devotees, serious foodies". "Foodie" has now pretty much everywhere replaced "gourmet", perhaps because the latter more strongly evokes privilege and a snobbish claim to uncommon sensory discrimination - even though those qualities are rampant among the "foodies" themselves. The word "foodie", it is true, lays claim to a kind of cloying, infantile cuteness which is in a way appropriate to its subject; but one should not allow them the rhetorical claim of harmless innocence implied. The Official Foodie Handbook spoke of the "foodism" worldview; I propose to call its adherents foodists.

The term "foodist" is actually much older, used from the late 19th century for hucksters selling fad diets (which is quite apt); and as late as 1987 one New York Times writer proposed it semi-seriously as a positive description, to replace the unlovely "gastronaut": "In the tradition of nudist, philanthropist and Buddhist, may I suggest 'foodist', one who is enthusiastic about good eating?" The writer's joking offer of "nudist" as an analogy is telling. I like "foodist" precisely for its taint of an -ism. Like a racist or a sexist, a foodist operates under the prejudices of a governing ideology, viewing the whole world through the grease-smeared lenses of a militant eater.

Everywhere in the ideology of foodism we see a yearning for food to be able to fill a spiritual void. Food is about "spirituality" and "expressing our identity", claims modern food-knight Michael Pollan. His celebrated catechism of modern foodism, The Omnivore's Dilemma, speaks of eating with a "full consciousness", and claims that every meal has its "karmic price"; it ends with the declaration that "what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world". And so chewing on pork products becomes a sublime union of self with planet, a Gaian eucharist.

Note, too, how many manuals of eating are termed "bibles": in the cult of "nutritionism" we have Patrick Holford's Optimum Nutrition Bible and Gillian McKeith's Food Bible, and there also exist a Baby Food Bible, a Whole Food Bible, a Gluten-Free Bible, a Party Food Bible, a Spicy Food Lover's Bible, and so on ad nauseam or perhaps ad astra. If you don't want the Judeo-Christian overtones that come with biblical foodism, you can instead attain communion with the druids, a possibility noted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the late 1990s: "I suspect the fact that wild mushrooms (and the pursuit of them) have become popular alongside the burgeoning interest in New Age spiritualism may not be entirely coincidental."

Food, then, is considered the appropriate sustenance for all kinds of spiritual snackishness. But to suppose that eating can nourish the spirit looks like a category mistake: just the sort of category mistake that led the early church to define "gluttony" as a sin. (Man does not live by bread alone.) Gluttony, on the original understanding, wasn't necessarily a matter of eating too much; it was the problem of being excessively interested in food, whatever one's actual intake of it. Gluttony was, as Francine Prose (author of a pert monograph, Gluttony) puts it, all about the "inordinate desire" for food, which makes us "depart from the path of reason". (That diagnoses the figure of "loathsome Gluttony" in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, "Whose mind in meat and drinke was drowned so".) And the theologian Thomas Aquinas agreed with Pope Gregory that gluttony can be committed in five different ways, among which are seeking more "sumptuous foods" or wanting foods that are "prepared more meticulously". In this sense (whether we agree with it or not), all modern foodists, as the Atlantic writer BR Myers argues in his incisive "Moral Crusade Against Foodies", are certainly gluttons.

Posted by at October 1, 2012 5:02 AM

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