The food snob's days are limited

Watch your back Nigella, the jig is almost up.

Watch your back Nigella, the jig is almost up. Photo: Matt Holyoak

Exhibit A: Lunch, a fashionable cafe, a man is eating with his son at a nearby table. The kid is four-ish, maybe five. There’s mozzarella on a plate in front of them. “This,” says the guy (and I’m interested in what he has to say because he looks a bit like Ryan Gosling but with long hair) “is from a buffalo, not a cow. You know what a buffalo is? It's like a giant cow.” I take a second look. He doesn’t look so much like Ryan Gosling after all. I think he’s going on to explain to the poor little sod how to tell the difference between coriander and continental parsley or some such but by now I’m in a Munch-like pose, hands on ears, face contorted, appalled by this new form of child abuse.

Exhibit B: A friend, a self-confessed “washed-up old hag from the ’80s”, signs up for a wine course. She finds herself in a room full of prim, earnest young fogeys. “They didn’t finish their glasses,” she tells me later in some distress. “That’s a $125 bottle of chardonnay ... why are they saying ‘no thank you’?! What’s wrong with them? They should be rolling out of clubs, they should be groaning in bed with hangovers...”

And there’s more, so much more: listen in to the conversations, on buses, in post office queues (since when did you go to a post office to pick up Bill Granger or Donna Hay’s latest?), at the local pool, over the office water cooler. It’s all quinoa this and pulled pork that and “we’re thinking of building a smokehouse in the backyard” and “for Christmas I got a digital probe meat thermometer”.

And the celebrity chefs and the celebrity chefs endorsing supermarkets and cars and credit cards, and the celebrity chefs with personal stylists endorsing supermarkets and cars and credit cards. And they’re in the social pages and on the food festival circuit and they’re air-kissing and talking about their passion for food and their product ranges (thy name is verjuice) and signing autographs. And the festivals and the cooking demonstrations and the guest chef appearances and the farmers markets where a small piece of cheese can cost more than the minimum wage and the banging on about the artisanal and the seasonal and the organic and the biodynamic and the local. And now, almost at the beginning of the television year, it’s impossible to find a station not re-running Nigella or Jamie or touting a forthcoming season of some permutation of MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules or The Great Australian Bake Off or The Taste or Recipe to Riches or someone’s Spice Safari and another’s Gourmet Discovery.

Enough! Take a long hard look at yourself, get the anorak off and then pop yourself into a cold shower! Quick, do it now before we become a nation of food bores! … And then read this piece by American writer William Deresiewicz. It includes a line I rate as the best written about food in the past year: “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.”

The man who was brave enough to reveal risotto’s limitations, to suggest that our food battiness might have passed the point of reasonableness, is not a food writer. Why, there’s no evidence that Deresiewicz even knows how to cook a good risotto.

But perhaps that’s the thing; perhaps it took someone from outside the food world to have the courage to call it. In an opinion piece for The New York Times published in October, Deresiewicz lamented that Americans’ increasing food sophistication, their discovery of the sensual, had not led to any increased artistic sensibility. Food, he wrote, “now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life” — at the expense of art, ideas and culture. “Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls,” he concluded. (“Australia” might just as well sub in for “America” for the purposes of this story.)

Deresiewicz’s argument that food is not art (Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art”) can be dismantled, or not, another day. What’s more immediately interesting is that he’s not the only one to have rained on the food parade in the past few months.

A host of miserable spoilsports have emerged to insult and assault, satirise and lambast foodies, foodism, hipster-foodies, haute-foodies, the cult of food and the pedestal position it has reached in affluent, middle-class, generally English-speaking societies. The food backlash is in full flight. Bash a chef, kick a foodie while he’s down.

The comedians have had a go: Working Dog and the ABC gave us Audrey’s Kitchen for a few, mercifully short episodes (“For me, dessert should be more than just the last course of a meal,” gushes Audrey. “It’s the culinary climax, a shuddering, palate-pounding explosion of taste and texture that leaves one both energised and alive yet with a hint of melancholic languor.”)

On Twitter and in the satirical guide Comfort Me With Offal, @RuthBourdain pokes magnificent fun at food legend Ruth Reichl. Compare and contrast: “Cold salty raw steak. Tangerines, peeled and smoked all night, fruit left to crisp. Juice ejaculates, sweet, out of each tiny section” (@RuthBourdain). “Cold salty rare steak on a cold white morning. Tangerines, peeled at night and left to crisp. Juice jolts, sweet, out of each tiny section” (@ruthreichl).

In The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a mockumentary-style restaurant reviewing expedition through the north of England: After a waiter describes scallops as “resting” on a sauce, Brydon comments: “Rather optimistic to say they're ‘resting’. Their days of resting have been and gone. They are dead.”

English writer Stephen Poole uses the line to illustrate a point in his book You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, published in September. We are crowded and harangued by people of evident thoughtfulness who are infatuated with food when they could be doing so much more with their time and creative energy, were they not alternately salivating like excited dogs and sluggard-brained with the viscous blood flow of over-challenged digestion,” says Poole. He goes on to have some very lovely fun with the modern hunger to accord food ‘meaning’”; “gastrolinguistic engineering” that sees menus include dishes such as “carrot sacks with brawn and juniper, fried cake and cress” and “baby” this and that (“it is an interesting question … why the word ‘baby’ in menu descriptions does not disgust us,” writes Poole. “Surely the last things we want to eat are babies.”); and the much-touted link between food and sex — “One might almost suspect that this is because, bloated and obsessed with food, they aren’t actually getting all that much physical love, even if they are always committed to swallowing.”

Former Times restaurant reviewer Jonathan Meades, in a brilliant Guardian review, described the book as a “bloody, brutal and necessary sacred cow hunt”. (Meades’s review heralds a new genre of humour writing — extreme chef bashing: “The sheer bollocks that chefs spout is startling. This is a caste drained of all irony, all wit. The chef Anthony Bourdain writes of the chef Thomas Keller: ‘You haven't seen how he handles fish, gently laying it down on the board and caressing it, approaching it warily, respectfully, as if communicating with an old friend.’ The old friend, should we not have noticed, is dead. Are we to suppose that Keller is a medium? Or is he a necrophiliac fish-fiddler, a Jimmy Savile of the deep?”)

Sydney writer John Newton is another who thinks it’s time to call a halt to this madness. It was a press release for elephant turd coffee and an article that described a Mexican tortilla press as an “essential” kitchen item that did it for him. (Nevertheless, Newton is not a fan of Poole’s book: “What Poole has done, rather than taking a long overdue swipe at ‘foodie  pretensions’ is to assemble a list of all the food topics currently in the ether and smash them to pieces with a very large heavy hammer – like looking for coffee beans in an elephant turd with a bulldozer.”)

And here’s another one ready to take up arms: English author and journalist Will Self, in a post-Christmas piece for the BBC, suggests the need for some serious New Year’s resolutions: “For what I think we require, as a society, is some sort of collective vomitorium. … No, what I think we should all do is throw up our very obsession with food itself, and enter the new year purged and able to forge a new relationship with whatever we happen to find on our plates.”

Beyond his collective vomitorium, I think some confessions, some self-reflection, is required: I too have sinned. About food, I have gushed and used adjectives in an almost criminal fashion. Yes, I have ascribed meaning to food. Yes, I have drawn a link between food and sex. Yes, there are times I’ve been a bit over-excited (don’t get me started, for example, about Movida’s “Artisan Cantabrian Anchovy on Crouton with Smoked Tomato Sorbet” or their “Smoked Eel and Horseradish Croquettes”). But I’m doing my best to tone it down. I’m trying to cultivate a more dispassionate sort of Frenchish-Italianish relationship with what’s on my plate. And I certainly won’t ever be caught hectoring innocent children about the milk sources for mozzarella.

22 comments

  • Totally agree! I have a friend who confidently describes herself as a "foodie" simply because she eats in fine dining restaurants twice weekly when taking out clients. Work pays for it. Then she happily shares her recipe for bog standard minestrone or bastardised bolognese, because she that's all she can actually cook. And until a few years ago, refused to eat green vegetables!

    Commenter
    MJ
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 10, 2013, 11:58AM
    • I loved that line about the scallops resting from The Trip, totally agree with all the above, nothing is more annoying than people going on about their passion for food (ridiculous when you think of the hunger in the world) except maybe their passion for their food journey.

      Commenter
      rosemadder
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 1:27PM
      • Seems like a harmless obsession to me. Just doesnt feel as exciting now that everyone is into it. Like travel, the glamour has diminished now that it is no longer exclusive.

        Commenter
        Brufo
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 10, 2013, 2:14PM
        • When I (finally) left home at the age of 23 I had to learn to cook. Mum gave me some of her old cookbooks and I still had my book from "Domestic Science" at school. Initially it was the boring English food I was brought up on but I soon discovered the joys of spices and herbs. Time passed and I married. Wife could not cook! No problem; I elevated self to another level by cooking food "properly" so the Brussels Sprouts were not bitter and the steak was still a bit red in the middle. From then on it has been about making the same basic ingredients taste and look a bit different without spending too much time or money in the kitchen. Of course the wine has escalated the cost of a good meal significantly since Ben Ean, Mateus, Cold Duck and Blue Nun became passé.

          Commenter
          Albervin
          Location
          Wollongong
          Date and time
          January 10, 2013, 5:44PM
          • Have to disagree with Deresiewicz, how can you have art ideas and culture advancing of you are stuck eating meat pies or bangers and mash. The amount I have learnt about other cultures through food is massive as well. The second most common phrase in Chinese is "Chi fan le ma" or "have you eaten yet?". You can't separate food, culture and art!

            Although it drives me crazy how a tiny packet of za'atar will cost a fortune in Carlton, but drive 2 minutes to Brunswick and you buy it by the kilo! The trend of turning good food into a 'organic free range in a fancy packet' type of deli is a little worrying.

            Commenter
            cap'n crunch
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            January 11, 2013, 9:19AM
            • The problem with today's society is that it is so far removed from its source of food. By all means don't get mixed up up with the whole food lust craze, but to suggest educating a child on the origins of their food is a bad thing is absolutely terrible.

              Food knowledge is the key to solving the obesity problem, and whilst you could argue a good knowledge of nutrition and knowing the difference between cheeses is a very separate thing, a healthy interest and understanding of food from a young age is a great place to start.

              Commenter
              DeanTV
              Date and time
              January 11, 2013, 9:34AM
              • I read this article and had a smile on my face the whole time. I do like little flourishes when eating out but really, sometimes I feel like screaming when I hear words including 'sand', 'smear', 'micro herbs' and 'foam' (ala George Calombaris who goes too far!). And I would personally prefer my food be handled as little as possible rather than being placed vegetable by vegetable by hand onto my plate!

                Commenter
                Nicole K
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                January 11, 2013, 9:42AM
                • i used to think it was all a bit much too/ but ive changed my mind/ since separating after a 20 year marriage where my wife was 'in charge of the kitchen'- she was a foodie and worked in hospitality/catering industry and i only very rarely was able to exercise my desire to cook. everything was set up for her-. i am now on my own- in my own kitchen,i been exploring my family heritage Regional Italian food in earnest over the last year/ my elderly mum has pased on a few ( i mean .. many) recipes and im making stuff i dont see in cookbooks or on Tv .. Italian secret food business passed down over generations.. i love it / i like to talk about it, use interesting ingredients and so on/ its a beautiful thing/ Its been going on in my family for generations / its not a 'phase' / a lot of people do it to impress others / i think thats the gist of the article/ they are not authentic (fair dinkum) and it shows..

                  Commenter
                  what it is
                  Location
                  Byron Bay
                  Date and time
                  January 11, 2013, 10:12AM
                  • Why is this article illustrated with a picture of an untrained cook who's always been lauded for cooking familiar ingredients in an accessible domestic setting?

                    Commenter
                    DisDis
                    Date and time
                    January 11, 2013, 10:14AM
                    • I was thinking exactly the same thing! One thing Nigella is definitely not is a food snob. I mean, on her show the woman usually eats the final dish she makes straight out of the pot! That's not a food snob.

                      I've really warmed up to her. I love the fact she always uses stuff out of jars or packets. On last night's ep of her show that's on ABC1, she was waving around several boxes of pasta. And then she got her capers (mmmm... capers) out of a jar.

                      Commenter
                      lauren
                      Date and time
                      January 11, 2013, 12:22PM

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