Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food is Culture, Part MCCXXII

This is a topical post, in response to the recent Newsweek cover story (* & **) about the increasing class divide as it plays out in the diets of various sets of people loosely identifiable by their incomes and the types of education and jobs that they have. I 'eat up' these kinds of stories because, as in many areas of life, I superficially have some of the characteristics of the most desirable group--here those who put the most thought and effort into putting the best possible food, ethics-wise, health-wise, and taste-wise, into their bodies, on every occasion--but am ever aware that I am lacking some vital quality, which, even if I tried much harder than I do to imitate and make one of the select, will never enable me to do so.

Of all the markers which have sprung up like so many single family housing developments over the last few decades to enable the various tribes of the middle and formerly middle classes to distinguish themselves ever more finely from the sorts of people they don't want to be identified with, food militancy is perhaps the one I was least prepared for, and it has always struck me as one of the cruelest as a basis for social rejection, though I know most people would vehemently deny that they consider the matter in this light at all. Do not imagine that I do not like many developments of the food consciousness revolution. It is one of the modest thrills of my existence to go to Brattleboro or Portsmouth or Cambridge or one of the other oases of enlightenment in my general neighborhood and partake of fresh and palatable versions of familiar foods amongst the kinds of people I do not necessarily want to be identified with but still crave acceptance by. I also still like greasy pizza parlors and diners however (though I accept that others do not), and find most of the people who go to them decent enough as well. It is the evident revulsion the foodies harbor not only towards the food itself that they don't like but the actual people who eat it that saddens me. To me there are enough issues in personal relations that making another barrier out of others' diets, assuming these to be within bounds that would traditionally be considered reasonable, strikes me as ungenerous at the very least.

When I was at college there were a lot of people--especially people from New York--who devoted a great deal of energy to bitching about the poor quality of the food, not only at the school itself, but of that available in the town generally. This always bothered me, not because I was madly in love with the food myself, though I found it perfectly acceptable, but because I came out of an environment, I guess, where the idea of an 18 year old complaining about the food available to him would have been regarded as an ungrateful snot who needed to have some age-appropriate humility knocked into him. No one seems to think this way anymore however. This is an area where my pitiful socialist tendencies really come out strongly too. Because I saw these students, many of whom were highly intelligent, interesting and attractive people whose company I should have liked to have partaken of more often, as abandoning the common table out of exalted notions of diet, I frequently fantasized about a return to rationing or other compulsory controls on extravagance of taste to force them back nearer my orbit, though happily of course no one rational would ever advocate imposing such measures on our better classes of people, and even I deep down would not want them to, for then they should just be very angry and resentful, and not take the thing at all in the spirit intended.

Unlike the generations that will follow me (most likely), I at least had the good fortune in my mid-20s to be able to spend an idyll in a land where people still experienced food the way Americans did circa 1958--heavy, meaty and largely devoid of alternatives even in the imaginations of cool and extremely good-looking people. To culinary sophisticates from the global elite it was a misfortune, a horror even. Some poor souls were reduced so far as to literally weep after a few weeks of deprivation from what they regarded as decent meals. For me--although even I at times grew tired of the limitations of the Bohemian diet, there only being about 5 regular dishes, and 3 or 4 sides--it was practically nirvana. To attend parties and go on excursions where plates heaped with sausages and potatoes are routinely dished out and distributed to everyone, even the prettiest girls, and no one complains or expects anything different, but simply eats and goes on talking about music or communist theory or how to learn languages or whatever that is far more interesting than hearing about their private food fetishes--this was a quite wonderful arrangement. Needless to say I am sure in the 13 intervening years it has completely broken down and the people's diets readjusted to their places in the social hierarchy.

*There is a photo gallery which accompanies the online presentation of this article. I am more than a little dismayed however that of the various contents-of-refrigerator shots shown in this gallery the one that most resembles mine is that of the black single mother whose situation and family the reader is invited to feel the deepest concern about the likely unpleasant future of in the article. I even eat real butter and not Country Crock, which I believe officially makes mine worse, although my wife, who is going to live to be 95 years old at least, is adamant that anything real must be better for you than anything artificial that is trying to imitate it, and I believe her.

**The husband of the locavore-committed Park Slope family is evidently hitting Wendy's on the sly, because he looks to be in even worse shape than I am. When my first thought on seeing your picture is, Christ, I could take out that guy with one hand tied behind my back, you are not a good advertisement for anything. My wife and children look better and more robust than that family's too (Goddammit!)

Some say that nothing good can come of allowing your wife to watch Mad Men (i.e., don't expect her to thank you for being comparatively enlightened--the credit lies elsewhere than with you personally) but mine became inspired to make rib-eye in a pan with butter after one of the episodes, so there is some hope there

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