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A Matter of Taste?

By WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ for the NYTimes

Foodism the new religion of the turn of the 21st.Century

How food replaced art  as a high culture


 
   

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A Matter of Taste?

By WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ

Foodism the new religion of the turn of the 21st.Century. How food replaced art as High culture.  Click to read article in NYTimes

I used to think, back when all the foodie stuff was gathering steam (this would have been about 1994, when everyone was eating arugula and going on about, I don’t know, first-press organic broccoli rabe) that our newfound taste for food would lead, in time, to a taste for art.

Americans were discovering their senses — learning to value pleasure, distinguish subtle differences, and make fine judgments — and sensual responsiveness is the basis of artistic sensibility. Maybe we were finally on our way to Old World sophistication.

Today tapenade, tomorrow Tintoretto.

But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.

It took me some effort to explain to a former student recently that no, my peers did not talk about food all the time when we were her age, unless she meant which diner we were going to for breakfast. “But food is everything!” she said.

Like art, food is also a genuine passion that people like to share with their friends. Many try their hands at it as amateurs — the weekend chef is what the Sunday painter used to be — while avowing their respect for the professionals and their veneration for the geniuses. It has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride, while maintaining, as culture did in the old days, a sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched at a later stage, in both cases, by a globally minded eclecticism.

Just as aestheticism, the religion of art, inherited the position of Christianity among the progressive classes around the turn of the 20th century, so has foodism taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st. Now we read the gospel according, not to Joyce or Proust, but to Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.

“Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first. Nor do they have to. Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.

A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

Yes, food centers life in France and Italy, too, but not to the disadvantage of art, which still occupies the supreme place in both cultures. Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.

WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ is an essayist and critic and the author of “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.”


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