she eats.

Still Missing the Point

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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the Houston Press, then decided that it wasn’t entirely appropriate for the more casual tone of the blog and it went unpublished.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

Considering 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.

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.”

“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?

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