Why Americans are Fascinated by Food

by Dwight Furrow

Beautiful foodFor much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.

How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.

Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called “gig” economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of “contacts” where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our “brand”—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.

Food comes to the rescue. It is no accident that the food revolution is informed by the Slow Food movement, the celebration of local tastes and local ingredients, and an anti-corporate undercurrent that resists this colonization of private life by the values of the workplace. Through the exploration of taste, people seek to preserve areas in life where creative playfulness and a sense of community take center stage. For a variety of reasons, food is the logical choice for this rebirth of private creativity. We seek to recapture a sense of agency though preoccupation with our own sense of taste. The food revolution is fundamentally an aesthetic revolution driven by a felt need to stop the further encroachment of workplace demands on our private lives.

What is it about food that makes it the appropriate vehicle for this resistance?

The activities of producing and consuming food pervade all aspects of life. They shape family life, influence all variety of social relationships, explain the texture of community life, and help shape our personal identities as well. But more importantly, the pleasures of food have a kind of intrinsic value that, when taken seriously, provide a rewarding, edifying outlook on life that puts pleasure before production, geniality before greed, and care before commerce. The pleasures of food, because they are ubiquitous, are ideally situated to restore our sense that there are features of everyday life that should not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. The genuine appreciation of food requires that we slow down, experience the present in all its richness, and tap into our creative potential as we attend to the needs of others, a form of resistance to a sped-up work life that all of us can exercise.

Thus, food has taken on a variety of meanings it never had in the past—it is a modern art form concerned with the expression of heritage, personal creativity, individual autonomy and the sanctification of everyday life.

Food is indeed “the New Rock”, a pleasurable medium though which we can begin to conceptualize a form of life that resists the encroachment of workplace values and imagine a more civilized existence. Whether it can succeed or not will depend on whether the slow rhythms, love of place and community, and commitment to quality over quantity can resonate throughout other areas of life while withstanding the predations of corporate plutocracy.

For more on the philosophy of food consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution or visit Edible Arts.