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You Are What You Buy
An academic book about the evolution of restaurants sheds new light on the moral bankruptcy of foodie-ism.
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.
Today, no self-respecting chef would dream of putting “Grenouille Provençale” or “Sole Anglaise” on his menu without also telling you how those frogs were pampered and where that sole was line-caught. Contemporary diners demand refinement not via cooking method but via pedigree. Produce must emerge from the soil—the right kind of soil, on the right farm, run by the right kind of people—in a state of perfection. Pearlman favorably recalls a meal at Tom Colicchio’s Craft in New York, a James Beard Foundation Award winner, so minimalist that a side dish of heirloom tomato salad “consisted of only tomatoes in a light, colorless vinaigrette.” Salads on Craft’s current dinner menu run between $14 and $18. Appearing just to the left of the salad list on the menu is a who’s-who of suppliers, introduced by way of the following: “Please enjoy some of the great ingredients grown, raised and caught by our friends that share our commitment to serving great food.”
It used to be that human ingenuity was valued in the kitchen. Now, what matters more is chefs’ knowing the right producers and buying the right products. Culinary excellence can no longer be achieved simply by learning the right technique; it can be acquired only by knowing the right things to buy—and by, it needs hardly be said, shelling out however much money it takes to buy them. In this way, modern foodies’ materialistic definition of refinement is more exclusive than that of yesteryear’s dogmatic French cooking. What appears to be a celebration of the natural and the simple is in fact more constrictive and less attainable, because it depends not on talent but on means and access. (In this way, the evolution of culinary refinement reminds me of the concurrent evolution of women’s fashions, which used to let women hide imperfections by wearing girdles but now require women to maintain lithe frames without any artifice—an even more oppressive requirement.)
Materialism and agricultural name-dropping have not snuffed out all appreciation for skill—indeed, as Pearlman chronicles, the ascendance of ingredient worship has paralleled a polar-opposite trend, that of modernist cuisine. Born in Ferran Adria’s elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, and raised in American outposts like WD-50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago, modernism utilizes laboratory chemicals and equipment to give foods surprising appearances and textures. Modernists chefs are often hailed as avant-gardists, but the pieces Pearlman highlights in Smart Casual reveal a troublingly reactionary attitude. Deconstructed, disguised, minimized reinterpretations of Heath bars, doughnuts, cheesesteaks, and burgers simultaneously mock anyone unhip enough to prefer the original version and applaud their eater’s advanced palate and dainty appetite. On the topic of these self-congratulatory simulacra of populist favorites, Pearlman is far too forgiving. Of a modernist bite-sized dessert that is made to look exactly like a tiny McDonald’s cheeseburger, she writes:
"However good the illusion, would anyone really mistake Moto’s BURGER with cheese for the fast-food familiar? No more than one would confuse an Andy Warhol silk screen of Campbell’s soup cans with Campbell’s soup."
But it is not 1962, a petit four is not a silk screen, and McDonald’s burgers are not merely a symbol of commercialism. In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.
The food movement ran into trouble when it began insisting that good taste was also capital-G good: Food that is good for the environment, for animals, for workers, for community-building, and for health will also taste the best. The argument is seductive but specious—what tastes good to one person won’t taste good to another—and dangerous. In the final section of her book, Pearlman notes that food-focused publications have increasingly covered issues related to environmentalism, labor, and politics over the last decade—but only “as problems to be solved not by collective political action but by individual shopping choices—in other words, consumption.” If consumption is virtuous, only those with the economic means to consume discriminately can have virtue. Which is how restaurant menus became infected with the elite farm brand-names and modernist amuse-bouches that proclaim how much less accessible they are than the food of the masses. The less accessible, the better.
That’s an ungenerous characterization of foodie motivations. But even assuming the best of intentions, contemporary restaurant cuisine is exclusive for the sake of exclusivity and ironic for the sake of irony. Which brings us back to hipsters, that other supremely irksome taxonomic group of rich white people. Everyone has the good sense to deny being a hipster, knowing the shallowness that term conveys. Yet many people, proud of their own good taste and righteousness, happily self-describe as “foodies.” Smart Casual shows why they shouldn’t.
Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America by Alison Pearlman. University of Chicago Press.
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