Dispatches: It’s Only Food

After my piece about the arrival of Whole Foods on the Lower East Side, a friend asked me, “Why is food so important?”  Having thought about the question, I realized that wasn’t quite the right question: that piece wasn’t really about food.  Instead, the arrival of a giant organic supermarket is about the dilution of the pleasures of urban life.  Such retailers represent a descent into a cosseted, unvarying lifestyle of convenience.  They are also a form of false diversity: just as the rows upon rows of gas-station fridges filled with hundreds of varieties of soft drinks, all made by Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Co, are a false diversity.  The potential loss is very real: they offered to buy out a friend’s nearby wine shop to eliminate their competition.  So it’s not food, exactly, but the suburbanization of New York City that was the issue: Whole Foods is just a big symptom of that.  But I want to make a different argument here: that the reason we gravitate towards “corporate parents,” as Jayasree said so nicely in the comments, is that we live in a state of induced hysteria about food. 

I once had the opportunity to have coffee with Andros Epanimondas, who had been the assistant to one of my greatest heroes, Stanley Kubrick.  Reminiscing, he mentioned that, over dinner, he once saw Kubrick hurriedly alternating bites of his main course and bites of a chocolate cake.  He asked why.  Kubrick, busy preparing for his greatest project to date, the unrealized Napolean, simply responded, “Andros, it’s only food!”  It may sound funny, but I think that’s a healthy attitude, especially in today’s heated food culture, where Ed Levine can talk up the pizzeria DiFara’s and suddenly people are waiting in line for an hour (on Avenue J!) for a slice of pizza.  Or where New York Times food critic Frank Bruni has become an Old Testament deity, capricious and capable of unleashing plagues on your Jeffrey Chodorow’s and your Keith McNally’s in retribution for the mortal sin of hubris.  (For the record, I too agree with the opinion of David Chang, the current darling of New York chefs, on Chodorow: he’s the anti-Christ.)  Food has become an at times unhealthy obsession.

The last decade’s avalanche of information about food, where to get it, what’s in it, and how it’s made has been mostly a very good thing: the industrialized food system that wallows in corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, and boneless, skinless chicken breasts is finally being recognized as unhealthy for both individuals and society, as well as the very soil.  American culture is in the gradual process of rediscovering the pre-industrial food system, and recovering some of the benefits that many other countries have yet to lose: seasonality of fruits and vegetables, the higher quality of meats produced by smaller-scale production, etc.

This gradual rediscovery of pre-industrial food production shows especially in a current trends that I want to discuss.  This is the anxiety about ever “safer” foods – a trend that is obviously mostly positive in that it means people are thinking about what they eat.  On the other hand, labels are often a shortcut for thinking: the mania for organic food, whether trucked from a farm ten miles away or flown from ten thousand, is an example.  Another is the degree to which the problems of contamination of anti-resistant bacteria associated with giant feedlots and factory farms have led advertisers to provoke and exploit the public’s fear of illness, to the point where people don’t trust things to be safe unless labeled.

This leads to increasingly circular solutions, such as the irradiation of ground beef as a response to the potential dangers of gargantuan meatpacking plant that have consolidated most of the country’s meats.  What’s worse, it discourages people from seeing foodstuffs as natural products and encourages a kind of magical thinking about the world as a harbor of dangerous bacteria that can only be banished by the application of chemicals.  It is anti-holistic and tends towards seeing complex, industrial things like a Big Mac as more real, more understandable, and safer than a raw piece of cow’s flesh.  It takes time and effort to undo the digust that has been incited in us by commercial propaganda, effort that usually only leisured people have the opportunity to make.  That’s why sophistication about food is another way to announce your social position. 

Germ-phobia cleverly incited by Proctor and Gamble lies underneath lots of this: we live in a culture that is pathologically afraid of pathogens.  Why is it that raw-milk, unpasteurized cheese is not permitted in this country, which basically means that great cheese is outlawed?  Fear of germs.  The great irony of this squeamishness is that fast food is the single most dangerous source of anti-resistant strains of bacteria that have evolved in our feedlots.  Even though, most people would pick a spicy chicken sandwich over a raw oyster picked up off the beach, which serves ConAgra very well, thank you.  And it’s only the very lucky among us who are ever in a situation to stroll a beach with wild oysters on it anyway – it happened to me once and I still marvel at it over the chicken cutlet sandwich from my deli.

A word about the spiciness of the chicken: when the quality of a foodstuff is low, the easiest single way to disguise it is to hide it’s flavor.  I think you can correlate the rise of a taste for hot sauces over the last thirty years to the increasingly dismal flavor of chicken breasts.  Not that I dislike spicy food – I love it – but the food at Taco Bell simply uses capsacin to anaesthetize some pretty awful ground beef.  The overloading of ingredients is a similar tendency: when the quality of something simple is really good, it’s usually delicious with a squeeze of lemon and buttered bread.

A show like Alton Brown’s “Good Eats,” as informative as it is, is possibly the apotheosis of magical thinking about food.  Brown is so meticulous about preparation, so sterilized is his every surface, that you forget that most of the food he makes and supposedly improves (cakes, macaroni and cheese, tomato sauce) were developed by humble kitchen staffs and home cooks, and should not be hard to make.  He has a mania for visiting the local big-box retailer to find the perfect culinary appliance.  Only Brown with his intensely overeager, overthought approach can make you feel like cooking is best approached by amateur chemists.  (I wonder what Harold McGee thinks of him.)  Brown makes eating seem like a pretext for a hobbyist to invent pulley systems for lowering turkeys into hot oil.  Food is dangerous, food can easily come out badly, you must be extremely anal to make food safely and well.  But for all his geekery, who would you rather eat a meal cooked by, Brown or the comparatively simple Jacques Pepin?

I feel a little strange, as someone who loves eating as much as I do, saying this, but shouldn’t we be more interested in who we’re eating with than what we’re eating?  Isn’t it a measure of how abstracted our eating habits have become that we pay such hysterical attention to them?  Is it a compensatory overreaction to the lack of a grounded, seasonal national cuisine of the kind many other nations have?  Finally, isn’t it sad that we are so rarely in a position to eat food whose history is knowable – you caught this fish, you picked these nettles – that gleaning food has become a kind of luxury hobby only available to the rich?  The most characteristic desire in urban foodie culture now is to raise your own chickens and dine on the eggs.  What does that say about how much we value our individual taste experiences and how little we trust others in our society to provide for us?

My other Dispatches.