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.