First aired on The Current (16/11/12)
The British writer Steven Poole is getting really tired of the stuff foodies say. In his new book, You Aren't What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, he argues that we are living in an age of gluttony, where food has become our religion and celebrity chefs are deified. And he thinks it's time for a backlash of sorts.
"A new gastro pub opened near me, and I don't understand half the things on the menu," he said to The Current guest host Jim Brown. "There's Machiavelli eggs with smoked watermelon, and there's wild salmon in rotten mango juice and there are several dishes that feature blow-torched lettuce. "
Poole said he's amazed by "the concentration of food in our media, in our culture," pointing out that cookbooks dominate shelf space in bookstores, and an entire TV channel is devoted to cooking shows. There's even a course in learning how to take photos of food with your iPhone. "I think there's a general idea that food culture is the only culture you'll ever need," he said. "And it also seems to me an extraordinary obsession with conspicuous consumption in a very literal sense."
Poole insists that he has nothing against people enjoying food, or devoting themselves to the finer points of cooking because they're pursuing it as a hobby or a profession. "But where it strikes me as dismaying is when it takes on this moralistic tone," he said, adding that many of the foodists, as he calls them, "seem to be implying that if everyone else is not as interested in food as they are, then there's something wrong with them."
Does it really matter if so much of our cultural space is taken up with food? "I just think there's less space in bookshops for more exciting literature, there's less space on the TV," Poole said. He sees it as similar to following trends in fashion. "Food has become the equivalent of the kind of Gucci handbag by which you demonstrate your superior discrimination, your superior powers of taste."
Part of Poole's research involved looking at cookbooks from earlier eras, when the attitude toward food and cooking was quite different. He cited popular cookbook author Irma Rombaugh. "She just tells you how to cook. She doesn't make inflated claims for food, which a lot of people do nowadays: food as an art form, food as a kind of spirituality, food as a philosophy," he noted. Cooking shows used to be more straightforward too. "Why should eating, which we all have to do to stay alive, become this kind of competitive sport?"
Marc Thuet, a celebrity chef who starred in the reality TV show Conviction Kitchen, was asked what he thought of Poole's comments. He believes that cultural differences have a part to play in how we regard food. He grew up in France, but has worked in Britain, and he was shocked when he went to London and discovered that there weren't many great restaurants there. "I was brought up in a different country, where food is a very important thing," he said.
He also felt that some trends, such as shopping at farmers' markets and trying to eat local produce, should be honoured, not disparaged.
Poole admitted that in the past, British cooking deserved its bad reputation. "Actually, in a way we probably needed to fetishize food and cooking in the way that we did to kind of kick-start an interest in food in this country," Poole said. He pointed to 1950s Britain, when "olive oil was only available at the chemist's [pharmacy] and labelled 'for external use only.' I just think that fetish kind of took hold and now won't let go, and it's become a bit ridiculous."