Culinary Hypocrisy

I was reminded this morning of an essay I read six years ago that made me pause and reflect on my fascination with food. The essayist, William Deresiewicz, asserts that food replaced art as the embodiment of high culture. Deresiewicz says the “foodie” movement, which he says began somewhere around the mid 1990s (I think it started much earlier, but I can’t claim my opinion has more credibility than his), triggered a social movement in which the adoration of and appreciation for sophisticated flavors supplant the arts.  Referring to food, he says:

It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression.

That is the paragraph that gave me pause. Had I allowed myself to unknowingly (or, even worse, knowingly and secretly) latch on to food as a symbol of my sophistication? The question bothered me. But, after mulling it over for a while, I decided I was not (and am not) guilty. Yet I think Deresiewicz was on to something. I’ve read and heard comments that give credence to his argument. I know of people who use their knowledge of scarce ingredients and their ability to distinguish between esoteric flavors as cultural cudgels against those who do not share their high sophistication. I find that level of arrogance deeply disturbing, yet I wonder whether, when I mock that undeserved snobbery, other people think I’m serious. And that, too, gave me pause. Perhaps, even in my mockery, I am lending credence to the idea that a ‘sophisticated palate’ differentiates between commoners and the cream of the cultural crop…and that I belong to the latter cohort. And that bothers me, too. Am I guilty of culinary hypocrisy?

I suppose the answers to my questions remain elusive; I do not know whether, subconsciously, I lend credibility to the notion that knowledge of and appreciation for food is a cultural milepost on the way to supremacy. I hope not. I hope, instead, that my fascination with food is simply this: a fascination with flavors and textures and colors that, collectively, satisfy my palate and please my senses. I hope my passion for food exists only to the extent that food is fun; not that it defines my value as a person. When I encounter recipes that call for obscenely expensive ingredients, I question whether anyone would even consider spending the money to buy them; it’s only food, after all. But affordability is relative, isn’t it? Perhaps if I’d climbed higher on the status ladder and had achieve greater wealth, I would be willing to spend the money. Again, I hope not. But who’s to know? Would a true food snob seek out cheap dives in search of a perfectly prepared chicken fried steak? I tell myself ‘no,’ but I wonder if that’s precisely the behavior one might expect from a snob.

So, I can’t answer my own questions with any degree of certainty. But I can endeavor to avoid being a food snob, while maintaining my interest in trying new foods and experimenting with flavors and learning more about them. And I can continue to smirk at and mock food-snob behavior, all the while looking in the mirror in an effort to avoid mocking myself.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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