Still Missing the Point

I was frustrated to see yesterday afternoon that some people – some very important people – continue to miss the point of the Foodie Backlash article I wrote last year for work. I’m more frustrated, frankly, that they continue to bring it up at all, their confused, wrong-headed vitriol only further muddying the initial point. If I don’t understand something, I either let it go or hash it out with someone until I do understand it.

To that point, I wrote this post initially for the Houston Press, then decided that it wasn’t entirely appropriate for the more casual tone of the blog and it went unpublished. But after yesterday, I chose to resurrect it. So here it is: my further explanation of the initial Foodie Backlash article, in hopes that I’ll at least be hated for my actual point instead of any wrongly perceived points.

The Pursuit of Self Via Food: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

maslow-hierachy-of-needs-minConsidering the wave of “foodie backlash” articles lately — and the rising tide of articles quick to leap to foodies’ defense — very little has been said about the reasons why foodie-ism has gained so much momentum in the last few years.

In the Atlantic two weeks ago, B.R. Myers wrote in his piece titled “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” that “it has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.”

And in that brief statement, Myers encapsulates the dark heart of the “foodie issue” as it were: using food as a status symbol in the same way that people use tools like fashion or music to separate themselves from the masses.

In a 2003 conference paper from the American Sociological Association, author Samantha Kwan put forth the idea that food is “no longer regarded as merely the satisfaction of a physiological need low on Maslow’s hierarchy. Rather, food consumption provides individuals a means for the conscious manipulation and display of self.”

More specifically, she states, “ethnic food consumption constitutes ‘identity work.'”

Eight years later, it would be easy to go one step further and add to her theory that conspicuous consumption of the latest food trends constitutes identity work of its own, just as much as shoving your love of Ethiopian food in someone’s face does.

And this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Pursuing a hobby out of love for, say, Ethiopian food is one thing. Pursuing it purely for selfish reasons is another.

Quick crash course on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: “Identity work” is based on the idea that once you’ve satisfied all of your basic needs — the need for food and water, shelter, employment, friends and family and, finally, more elevated concepts like self-esteem and respect — you’ll seek to satisfy that ultimate goal: individuality, whether it’s expressed through clothing or cooking.

Recreation of a Roman triclinium.

This is, by no means, the first time in history that large groups of people have sought to separate themselves from the masses through appreciation of fine or exotic foods.

More than 2,300 years ago, wealthy Romans were reclining on lecti triclinaris in elaborately appointed triclinia as they indulged in multi-course meals that included everything from foie gras and rabbit to charcuterie and raw seafood. Not quite the Trimalchian feast of ancient satire, but close. Sound familiar?

In his book The Upside of Down, author Thomas Homer Dixon argues that the downfall of Rome can be attributed in part to a scarcity of food resources that eventually led to food crises throughout the empire. All the while, well-to-do Romans were still attempting to one-up each other via elaborate feasts as the general populace grew more and more unhappy with this widening gap — both in terms of wealth and attitude — between the rich and the poor.

And it is this crucial point in B.R. Myers’s article that may have been missed among all the vitriol and viciousness.

“Food writing has long specialized in the barefaced inversion of common sense, common language. Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for money,” he writes, pointing to the difficult-to-ignore issue that it’s hard to be a “foodie” in a climate where so many go without and when we’re in the midst of a global economic crisis that some consider the worst since the Great Depression.

Myers continues, “And in a time when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese, to Vietnam to sample pho? They’re not joking about that either.” Kwan, for her part, views these kinds of frenzied flights as no more than “white elites…assert[ing] a specific sense of self.”

Photo illustration by The State
Attempting to self-actualize and express your individuality through food can quickly lead to insufferable “poseur” behavior, as demonstrated here.

“These individuals are lured to ‘authentic’ ethnic food,” she continues, “because it allows them to consume literally a symbolic embodiment of the ethnic ‘Other.’ Simply, this consumption is an attempt to align oneself with the ethnic Other and to realize the ‘Authentic Self.'”

Is this attempt to locate one’s “Authentic Self” in another culture’s food — or in multi-course, hours-long tasting menus — necessarily a bad thing? Kwan thinks so: “The consumption of ethnic food separates cultural symbols from the culture that creates them” and, in the process, “dangerously absolves elites from real dialogue with the Other.”

And the same can be said for the continued game of oneupmanship that many foodies find themselves playing with each other.

That pursuit food of as a mere carnal pleasure or as a status symbol can lead to a dangerous separation from real, crucial food issues at hand — serious issues like health and sustainabliity. If all that we, as foodies, concentrate on is the new hot chef in town or the ultra-expensive kaiseki dinner we ate in Tokyo, we’re missing the risotto for the rice.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t continue to express themselves via food. After all, it’s as much a valid art form as sculpture, painting or poetry. But would it kill us to be less pretentious about it?


11 thoughts on “Still Missing the Point”

  1. I don’t know what you’re railing against, but I don’t think it’s foodies. Perhaps the bourgeoisie. The foodies I know are as likely to be found at an expensive dinner as they are getting tacos at Taconmadre, and they’re largely *more concerned* about issues of health and sustainability in food than their less food-focused counterparts. They shop at a farmer’s market because they understand the value of a local food economy. They eat ethnic foods because they like tasting things they haven’t tasted before, not because it makes them better than other people.

  2. Kyle, I’m afraid you might be taking this as an ad hominem attack on the local food groups here in Houston, just as it was initially perceived. I’m not talking about those people at all, nor was I ever. That was part of the entire problem when the first Foodie Backlash piece came out – people only saw the argument as it applied to them. I’m referring to a much broader audience than just Houston here.

  3. I read “foodie backlash” when it came out last year and I read the follow up article that your collegue wrote shortly there after. This post is more of the same with some nice Veblen on top to make us feel bad about enjoying food. Are we really debating luxury here? This argument (circa 1750) was raging long before Veblen wrote his satire of the leisure class. You should read Mandeville because his argument is exactly the opposite. How is anyone to know whether a diner eats Ethiopian food because they enjoy it or because they want to have the status of enjoying it? The Mandevillian notion would be this…as long as people are buying Ethiopian food, people can make a living selling it. Think about how many “ethnic” (I won’t even bother arguing that defining that term is problematic) establishments have been kept in business thanks to becoming the latest trends. When you begrudge the consumption you’re not hurting the consumer your hurting the craftsman. Your argument against foodies is the classic “conformist/nonconformist” conundrum. Even nonconformists conform to the standards of non-conformism. I don’t buy your conspicuous consumption argument with regards to chefs and restaurants either. The restaurants who are causing the most damage are not the most expensive ones but the chains who buy from Tyson, Sysco, etc. The best products are bought from local farmers and purveyors, they cost more, and they taste better. From this perspective, pleasure seeking through food consumtion should actually help sustainability and encourage the growth of cleaner and more humane practices in the food industry. As a line cook I feel that you need people who are willing to dine outside of the chicken fried steak box (it’s a good box, I know) in order to stay on the edge of your field. Your argument, whatever your intention, comes across as an attempt at some weird dissociative marketing experiment. “Well I don’t want to be a douche so I guess I won’t go to such and such, cause the chef there is really popular and has a great reputation…and if I do, I definately won’t take any pictures or tweet about it cause the Houston Press lady says that’s pretentious…maybe I’ll just go to landry’s cause that’s not pretentious right?” Your argument doesnt help Houston food, it hinders it, it doesn’t go anywhere. Just admit that the “foodie backlash” article was a attempt to jump on a bandwagon of food fan re-classification (Alton Brown), that wasn’t planned out very well and Houston called you on it.

    1. Nooj,

      You raise some good points, and ones I’d like to discuss further. In full honesty, I’m sick as hell at the moment, so this may not be as articulate as in my head. Further, while Twitter certainly isn’t the forum for long-form discussion, one can argue that comment threads aren’t as well. Ping me for my email address if you (or anyone else reading) would like to continue.

      What you read as an attack (“This post is more of the same with some nice Veblen on top to make us feel bad about enjoying food. Are we really debating luxury here?”), I read as a sort of call to arms (“That pursuit food of as a mere carnal pleasure or as a status symbol can lead to a dangerous separation from real, crucial food issues at hand — serious issues like health and sustainabliity.”). It’s entirely possible to lose an understanding of supporting local economies and fresh, healthy food by only caring about the trend and not the substance.

      Take food out of the analogy for a moment. I’ve heard more than a few complaints from friends about the crowds at live music shows. People go to see live music, then talk through the entire show, ignoring the band on stage and sometimes creating so much noise that the rest of the fans who came for the music can’t hear.

      Are these talking-over-the-band fans good for the band or not? By your argument, sure – they paid for their ticket, money in the craftsman’s pocket, everybody wins. However – and this is where this analogy breaks down a bit, I admit – if these fans only showed up to say they were there, and don’t care about the activist message in the band’s lyrics, then they’re missing the substance of the experience.

      Back to food. First, I certainly don’t begrudge and indeed support the argument that going after customers and pushing food awareness is good for the industry. It puts butts at tables, enables chefs and cooks to push the boundaries farther, and everybody benefits. Totally agree. And I also agree that restaurants have some … obligation(?) to be a part of the local economic ecosystem and make use of locally sourced products over mega-corporate compromised foods.

      However, if I as a diner were to eat out at whatever restaurants got top reviews in the Press/Chron this week all the time, and never got into the discussion of where the food on that plate came from or how Atkinson farms is about 15 minutes’ drive from where I live, then I am missing out. I can support local growers when I eat out but I ignore it in the rest of my day-to-day life. I haven’t changed my behaviors, I’m not talking with my friends about how fresh farm eggs really do taste better than the ones at the supermarket, et cetera. And that, I believe, is the heart of what Katherine’s articles are getting at.

      Now, do I believe they do so effectively? There’s room here. The tone in both articles is antagonistic, without acknowledging the flip side of the “poseur” argument – that those who are so passionate about fresh, local foods and sustainability can fall into an “elitist” trap. Neither the zealots of sustainable food nor those ignorant of it should be allowed to let the conversation falter.

      Furthermore, unlike the band audience argument above, there’s no obvious way to know where someone falls without spending real time with them. We all can spot the kid who’s trying too hard to be the thug-punk stakeboarder without the skills to back it at the skate park. We all can spot the people talking loudly over the band. Unfortunately, nobody sucks at eating, so there aren’t any visible cues. Plus, how can you tell somebody who ignores the substance from someone who is just early in their learning curve? It can’t be done.

      And that’s the part where I think the approach in the articles fails the most. There isn’t an either-or obvious distinction to be made here, but a really smeared continuum of people who go out for the status, who go out because a critic said to, who go out because they’re looking for good food with friends, who go out because they want to put as much back into the local food economy as possible, and (raising my hand) who kind of suck about going out because I’d rather put my energy and focus into learning to do it myself at home.

      1. Mike, thank you. For both understanding what I was trying to say and for adding some constructive criticism to the discussion. You’re right that neither post is a fully-formed argument or thesis, and you’re right that my writing can come across as antagonistic. It’s a shame, because I don’t mean for it to — in my head, it’s written with a wink and a nod, but that doesn’t always translate on paper/on the screen. I definitely need to work on that.

  4. *facepalm*

    Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what I said above: Enjoying food on a purely aesthetic level can sometimes inadvertently cause you to remove yourself from a larger dialogue on the subject.

    That’s it. How any of that has anything to do with non-conformism or class angst or a dissociative marketing experiment, I don’t know. I give up.

  5. I like your piece here and totally get it, at least I think I do. Anything eventually becomes problematic when it enters the consumer/marketing/trend culture of the market – and that includes things like farmers markets, eating whole foods, appreciating ethnic foods, yadda yadda. The more noble or even moral reasons for choosing certain foods over others yield to the less-than-noble reasons having to do with posturing, showing oneself as better or more “conscious” than others, or whatever. As I read it, your piece simply points this out. I’m not sure why people take such issue with it, other than perhaps it hits a little close to the bone. Nice job.

  6. I think you’re the one still missing the point. In a paper aimed at the everyday people of Houston, you try to shame those who identify as Foodies (which is a LOT of people) for being pretentious by buying into the whole foodie culture of $100 lunches, flying to Paris for cheese, or eating ethnic food for the selfish purpose of finding our identity in THIS ECONOMY.

    Do you really think most “foodies” are doing these things? You really think everyday foodies are wasting all this money in an effort to one-up EVERYONE ELSE WHO CLAIMS TO LOVE FOOD?

    You don’t understand why you have offended people, but you have accused many people of doing something that only a very small minority do, and then accuse us of being too dense to grasp your meaning to boot.

    1. I never directly accused any one particular person of engaging in these activities, so I’m confused as to how you (or anyone else) can be offended. Disagree? Absolutely. But be personally offended? ……..yeah. I don’t get that at all. I mean, unless – like Jill said above – something I said hits a little too close to the bone.

  7. Well said, Katharine. I think you raise an important point, and I share the distaste that many have voiced for these foodies that perhaps should be more accurately labeled as food snobs.

    In every avocation that has consumption as a large part of it, some participants will be snobs. Foodies who look down their noses at popular places. Music lovers who hate acts once they get popular. Fashonistas who could never be seen in something that can be conveniently bought at the mall.

    Perhaps it’s up to those of us who aren’t snobs to hold our heads high, make some noise, and rejoice in not only the rarefied but also the mundane… as long as the mundane is well executed. You do this in your Houston Press reviews, and I think the food community in Houston benefits.

    Because after all, isn’t it all about enjoying a great meal, no matter if it consists of lobster and foie gras or ground beef and American cheese?

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