The most widely read takedown of foodie-ism is probably B.R. Myers’ “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” which was published in the Atlantic a little over two years ago. Myers’ essay is an entertaining, even thrilling, bit of rhetoric: He cherry-picks several tone-deaf, unwittingly callous exaltations of overeating and indifference to suffering from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Jeffrey Steingarten and then minces each citation into pulp with a well-tuned food processor of moral outrage. The scope of Myers’ argument against foodies is fairly narrow—he abhors their glorification of butchering and eating meat—but it’s little wonder his piece found an audience beyond vegans. The foodie—like his ubiquitous but hard-to-define cultural cousin, the hipster—is a figure many love to hate. But whereas hipsters irritate because they’re seen as being politically apathetic, devoid of any values to speak of, foodies are annoying for their air of moral superiority.
Alison Pearlman’s new book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, is Myers’ stylistic opposite: dry, academic, factual, judicious. As such, it’s unlikely to find half the readership of Myers’ Atlantic piece. But the conclusions Pearlman draws in Smart Casual, bolstered by painstaking research, make it a much harsher commentary on foodie culture than Myers’ tour de force.
At first glance, Smart Casual is a limited, lopsided little book, just four chapters and 145 pages long. Pearlman’s self-appointed task is to examine the rise of omnivorous taste in fine dining—“omnivorous,” in this case, referring to the consumption of both traditionally highbrow and traditionally lowbrow culture. Just 50 years ago, fancy restaurants adhered to a strict formula: white tablecloths, French food (described on French-language menus), maître d’s who built careful reputations on their ability to cater to the right kind of people. Today, chefs are celebrated rather than maître d’s, and they build reputations on their creativity, not their adherence to tradition. What’s more, though chandeliers and complicated place settings persist in certain upscale eateries, expensive restaurants are characterized as often as not by eclectic interior design or even aggressively casual atmospheres. (Think of Mission Chinese Food’s original outpost in San Francisco, sharing a seating area with a dive-y Chinese takeout joint.) Pearlman, an art historian at Cal Poly Pomona, seeks to tease apart the causes and meanings of this sea change in the way the gourmet set eats.
She accomplishes this in a rather roundabout way. After a thorough and somewhat tedious history of omnivorous restaurants, beginning with Chez Panisse in 1975, Pearlman examines the broader societal changes that have encouraged fancy restaurants to abandon the formal structures of la grande cuisine and to prize individuality and multiculturalism. Finally, she does close-readings of two specific restaurant trends: first, exhibition kitchens (i.e., restaurant design that allows diners to watch chefs prepare their food), and second, “chefs creating gourmet versions of commonplace dishes.”
Pearlman supports her findings with sometimes ludicrously detailed observations (she counts four distinct categories of exhibition kitchen and devotes about 100 words to describing each), wraps them tightly in careful qualifiers, and sometimes reports them obliquely in academese. They are nonetheless a damning indictment of bourgeois dining habits.
For instance, about those exhibition kitchens: Pearlman gently exposes the irony inherent in what she dubs “the theater of manual labor.” Well-heeled patrons have begun paying a premium for seating arrangements that give them a view of their food as it’s cooked. But the “work” they witness is a sanitized, aestheticized version of the labor actually required to keep a restaurant kitchen running—the live-action equivalent of food-porn programs like Barefoot Contessa. (Many restaurants with open kitchens relegate menial labor and ugly industrial equipment to enormous prep kitchens behind closed doors.) What makes this trend particularly galling is that it coincides with a spate of chef memoirs (like Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential) that detail the demeaning demands, unpleasant working conditions, and disruptive hours of professional kitchen jobs. Foodies hypothetically know better—they know restaurants are built on the backs of grunts—but they pay extra not to help improve kitchen labor conditions, but to induce chefs to play-act a fantasy of leisurely, creative cooking. So much for foodie solidarity with the people who produce their food.
Foodie culture demands a similar self-serving fantasy when it comes to chefs’ combinations of world cuisines—what used to be known as “fusion” food, before that term lost its cachet. Pearlman observes that “comfort food,” a term that entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1997, has gradually grown to absorb all manner of world cuisines—she points to cookbook titles like Hip Asian Comfort Food and Italian Comfort Food. Pearlman argues that taking “a metacultural position, embracing cultural pluralism while also advocating the search for common ground,” is in itself an expression of one’s progressivism—“a badge of urban-elite status.” She refrains from describing this phenomenon in a less flattering but perhaps more accurate term: cultural appropriation. The pattern she describes is one in which privileged, mostly white people elide and hijack cultural differences in order to soothe their own anxieties about social change. Comfort food, indeed.
Pearlman brings up comfort food by means of discussing two simultaneous yet polarized trends in haute cuisine: that of transforming commoditized fast food into upscale fare and that of glorifying simple, traditional preparations. As she breezed through related concepts—including modernist cuisine’s winking redefinitions of familiar food items, and menus that painstakingly catalog where each ingredient comes from—I wished she would take a step back and define her argument in more detail. It is this section of Smart Casual that feels the most rushed and disjointed, but along the way Pearlman hints at the ultimate irony of the sea change in fine dining in America over the past half-century: While gourmet food appears to be undergoing a process of democratization, it is in fact becoming more exclusive than ever.
Prior to the 1960s, food was refined because of what a chef did with it:
"The aesthetics of la grande cuisine depend on high degrees of transformation in the form and texture of raw ingredients. Such refinement, which is both literal and figurative, relies on multistepped, labor-intensive processes that, through techniques such as sauce making and straining, tend to remove coarseness—literally, the unrefined nature of raw ingredients."
The importance of technique was emphasized on menus from that era: A 1956 menu from New York’s famed Le Pavilion, for instance, included “Grenouille Provençale” and “Sole Anglaise”—dish titles that tell you the style in which the frogs and sole are cooked.