You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture
Union Books, 208pp, £12.99
I am someone who likes his food, some would say to the point of obsession. I frequent farmers’ markets, seek out new restaurants and occasionally read recipe books in bed. According to Steven Poole, this makes me a “foodist”, one of a burgeoning army of blowtorch-wielding saddos who seek to enliven their dull existences by continually stuffing their faces.
Poole’s use of the term “foodist” is not accidental. Whereas the “foodie” is a faintly ridiculous but harmless figure, a “foodist” sounds at once pretentious and perverted. (You wouldn’t trust one with your teenage daughter: he’d introduce her to liquid nitrogen before whisking her off to a pop-up.) And the author’s two main charges in this polemic are indeed that, on one hand, “foodists” talk a lot of rubbish and, on the other, that an overweening interest in food is a new, specifically western type of deviance.
When it comes to the first accusation, Poole has a point. The way food is talked about in our culture is often comically absurd, from menus boasting of “heirloom” ingredients to chefs declaring grandiosely that “preparing tripe” is a “transcendental act” (Thomas Keller). Poole convincingly argues that much of the rhetoric surrounding food has become grossly inflated. Nowadays, it often isn’t enough for food to be just food; its virtues have to spill over into other areas. We learn about history by staging mock- Tudor banquets, demonstrate our trendiness through our cured meat preferences and express concern for the planet by eating “locally sourced” products. (Poole is particularly good on the muddled arguments of “ethical” eaters.)
Some people invest food with greater significance still. Poole quotes the pop-star-turnedcheese- maker Alex James, who hilariously told the Sun: “I used to think music was a universal language. But if you go to Africa and play a Blur song, someone might have to translate. Give them cheese, though, and they can instantly taste it and react.”
That Poole is a skilled dissector of all manner of food-related guff is hardly surprising: his last book, Unspeak, was a probing study of the contortions of political rhetoric. However, he finds himself on flimsier ground when it comes to the second (and more substantive) plank of his argument, the idea that “foodism” is a corrosive force spreading through western culture. Poole believes that countries such as Britain are in thrall to a generalised food mania. “We are living,” he writes, “in the Age of Food.” He cites as proof the glut of cookbooks, TV food shows, magazine profiles of chefs, and so on.
The problem with lavishing so much attention on cooking and eating, he suggests, is that they are inherently trivial activities, undeserving of serious attention. Our fascination with food “represents a kind of perversity or decadence, an inward-turning dissipation of psychic and intellectual resources”. Time spent thinking about food, in other words, is time wasted. Instead of salivating about our next meal, we should be reading philosophy.
While it may be the case that food isn’t as profound as philosophy, I find both Poole’s initial assumption (we are obsessed by it) and his follow-up claim (this is necessarily a bad thing) deeply questionable. Modern-day Britain doesn’t strike me as a country obsessed by food. A fast-growing minority of people, it’s true, take cooking and eating extremely seriously, perhaps to the point of overkill. Yet what this group has to do with the millions who tune into Gordon Ramsay’s or Jamie Oliver’s latest TV show, I don’t know.
That food has become a branch of mass entertainment says more about the oddity of our media, which turns all sorts of things into mind-numbing trash, than it does about the rise of “foodism”. The truth is that the large majority of people still eat pretty badly and don’t spend enough of their lives thinking about food (by actually cooking the stuff). If growing numbers are taking more care over what they put in their stomachs, I can’t see why this is a bad thing.
Poole gives his argument a spurious coherence by bringing together all sorts of disparate groups under the “foodist” banner. Yet do those obsessed by losing weight really have much in common with those concerned by the ethics of eating, as he suggests? And are the hordes who attend MasterChef Live, a megafood exhibition in London’s Olympia, really “foodists” in the same sense as those who frequent Michelin three-starred restaurants?
Because Poole starts from the assumption that those who think food is important are in thrall to a dangerous, misguided ideology, he makes no effort to distinguish between serious and trivial approaches to cooking and eating. His book, in essence, is one long sneer and he bolsters his position by unfairly denigrating the motives of those he mocks, suggesting, for instance, that those who buy “rare breed” meat must be doing so because it is fashionable, not because they think it tastes better.
Poole’s book is largely free of cross-cultural analysis or any consideration of individual nations’ culinary histories. This strikes me as no accident, because it would have forced him to consider some awkward questions. How, for example, do France and Italy, both countries with long histories of taking food seriously, fit into his thesis? Are their cultures deficient as a result? Or are the many French and Italian people who delight in good food and who cook at home every day not “foodists” in the sense that Poole is talking about?
What about Britain? We are an odd case, in that we have gone in a few decades from having no food culture to speak of to having one that, in certain respects, is flourishing. Aren’t many of the shrill, hysterical aspects of that culture – the things that Poole is attacking – products of this transition, the anxiety engendered by being a country newly fond of food but with no real traditions to draw on? Poole, naturally, doesn’t consider such a possibility.
Because he doesn’t deal with such questions, he can avoid what, in my opinion, is the single most powerful objection to his thesis. For all that may be annoying about the “foodists” (whoever they are), it remains the case that, thanks to them and their ilk, the quality of food available in Britain (or at least in parts of it) has improved dramatically in the past few decades. I am extremely grateful for this. I believe my quality of life is much higher because I am living at a time when it is possible to eat really well and not 40 years ago, when it was a struggle.
If the cost of this progress is having to put up with a certain amount of pretentiousness, that doesn’t seem such a terrible sacrifice. Poole evidently wouldn’t care if the clock were turned back to that golden time when, free of the obligation to think about food, we all scoffed corned beef and feasted on great philosophical insights. But I suspect most people wouldn’t agree.