2014 Food Writing, Putting 2015 In Perspective

My mother thought of food the way we all now do: as a means of self-definition. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL GILLETTE

My mother thought of food the way we all now do: as a means of self-definition. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL GILLETTE

When a writer of John Lanchester’s deep quality and broad diversity uses the word repent, we take note. This reflection on the current state of foodie-ism caught our attention a couple months ago as we were well into 51’s first season open, and preparing for the next opening, reminding us to keep it all real, in perspective. Below we excerpt what should be read from beginning to end, using the dangerous ellipsis as carefully as we can but hoping you will click over to the source:

…Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. Some aspects of this are ridiculous: the pickle craze, the báhn-mìboom, the ramps revolution, compulsory kale. Is northern Thai still hot? Has offal gone away yet? Is Copenhagen over? The intersection of food and fashion is silly, just as the intersection of fashion and anything else is silly. Underlying it, however, is that sense of food as an expression of an identity that’s defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice. For most people throughout history, that wasn’t true. The apparent silliness and superficiality of food fashions and trends touches on something deep: our ability to choose who we want to be.

By the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that more or less the entire developed world was shopping and cooking and dining out in a way that was given over to self-definition and self-expression and identity-creation and trend-catching and hype and buzz and the new new thing, which sometimes had to do with newness (foams! gels! spherification!) and sometimes with new ways of being old (slow food! farm-to-table! country ham!). My mother was thinking about food like that from the start of the nineteen-sixties. I have spent a fair part of my working life writing about food, and have often been asked how and why I got interested in it. I was never able to give a full answer, because the pattern became apparent to me only years afterward. By now, it’s clear that my interest in food came from growing up with someone to whom food mattered the way that, to a great many people, it matters now.

Most of the energy that we put into our thinking about food, I realized, isn’t about food; it’s about anxiety. Food makes us anxious. The infinite range of choices and possible self-expressions means that there are so many ways to go wrong. You can make people ill, and you can make yourself look absurd. People feel judged by their food choices, and they are right to feel that, because they are.

I’ve worked as a restaurant critic twice, from 1992 to 1995 for the London Observer, and from 2012 to 2013 for the Guardian. In the gap between these two stints (during which I spent a few years writing a food column for British Esquire), several big things changed. The first was that the food got a lot better, pretty much everywhere. There is no downside to this: we’re cooking and eating much better than we used to, and that’s great. (The exception, oddly enough, is France, but that’s another story.) A second thing that happened was that I became better known in the restaurant world, thanks largely to my first novel, “The Debt to Pleasure,” which came out in 1996, hit some best-seller lists, and had a crazy narrator who was obsessed with food. It won a Julia Child Cookbook Award—now there’s a prize named for someone who understood the importance of food in the process of self-invention. I got to know some people in the industry, and one of my most prized possessions is a photograph—taken at a colloquium in Finland that I was chairing—of me sitting on a sofa next to David Chang, René Redzepi, Massimo Bottura, and Magnus Nilsson. I mention this to establish my credentials for what I’m about to say…

You really should read what follows between that ellipsis and the next.

…If I had to put my feelings about what went wrong during the ensuing two decades into two words, they would be: too much. There’s just too much of everything. Too much hype, too much page space, too many programming hours, too many features and recipes and travel pieces and reviews and profiles and polemics, far, far, far too much online commentary and judgment and chatter. Chefs, who more than anyone benefit from the huge surge in attention, are, in my experience, mostly wary of it. I often joke that the Culinary Institute of America, alongside its courses in gastronomic history and kitchen skills, ought to have a special module called “Pretending Not to Hate Bloggers.” Chefs live on the receiving end of a constant fire hose of commentary and criticism, of ill-intentioned Yelping and TripAdvising, all of it—in their eyes—from people who know far less about their craft than they do.

Everyone’s a critic, they say, and that’s certainly true of the food world today. Of course, everyone has always been a critic, in the sense that customers have always made the most basic judgment of all: Do I want to come back to this joint? But there’s a contemporary development with respect to volume, in the dual sense of quantity and loudness. The volume of all this critical chatter is turned way up, and it’s harder than ever to ignore. Food is my favorite thing to talk about and to learn about, but an interest that is reasonable on a personal and an individual scale has grown out of all proportion in the wider culture. Imagine that you’re fascinated by model trains. You’re on fire with interest, you think about them all the time, they’re your consuming passion. But then, over about twenty years, the entire culture becomes obsessed with model trains. The model-train blogosphere grows exponentially. Model-train makers are plastered all over the covers of magazines, and stage train-building smackdowns on TV, and are treated as the new rock stars. Might you, in your private heart, think that maybe the whole model-train thing, still of tremendous interest to you, has somehow got a bit out of hand? That’s where I feel food is today…

Read the whole article here.

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