November 12, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—November 13, 2007

According to Wikipedia, food politics “are the political aspects of the production, control, regulation, inspection, and distribution of food.” In other words, the politics of food are rooted in disagreements over what can ethically be done to an animal, how to define a “hygienic cooking environment,” whether ketchup is a vegetable, and so on. You don’t really hit the food politics, then, until you get a step away from the food— when you get to the level of abstraction where you’re thinking about how to police restaurants, farms, and so on.

Certainly, these are all important aspects of food politics, but I think it’s a crying shame that so few people seem to notice the whole spectrum of food politics that this sort of definition ignores. Food politics are also the politics of food criticism, of attitudes towards food, of food heritages. The choices people make about what they eat, and what degree of responsibility for food culture they want to take, are political. They shape our lived experience, and they are very important.

People are constantly making political judgments of food or trying to present themselves as a certain sort of a person based on what they eat. It’s as sad to me that people don’t consider these judgments more seriously, I think, as it is to serious students of the visual arts that Americans watch such poor-quality films these days. You can’t escape eating, and you can’t escape the food culture you inhabit. If you want to live better, you need to eat better —whatever that means to you.

I hate it, for instance, when I meet someone who thinks that all that matters about food is how many milligrams of vitamin who-gives-a-damn you’ve had today. Yes, one’s health is an important concern, and choices made with regards to food consumption affect it, but to disregard the spiritual side of the question, the question of textures and flavors and aromas, is to deny a capacity that is one of the primary differences between a person and a cow.

If you enjoy a certain flavor, then that flavor is worth something to you. You value that flavor. It is perfectly reasonable to sacrifice some of your health for some of that flavor, if you like that bit of flavor marginally more than the marginal bit of health you must give up for it. In fact, it’s laudable, adventurous, and human to do so! The health concern is only half the question.

It’s more palatable, I think, to make a “lifestyle choice” like veganism or vegetarianism, where health may be a concern, but the question of eating has been taken up more seriously and thoughtfully. I personally was a vegetarian for a couple of years, and though I would never go back, I did have some very tasty meals, particularly of the Greek and Middle Eastern variety. You don’t have to dismiss the aesthetics of eating as a vegetarian out of hand, although some people do.

Vegetarianism can be a sort of culinary minimalism, a decision to forgo the more ethically complex and texturally inconsistent world of flesh-food, in the interest of brightness and cleanness. Good vegetarian food is full of sharp acidity, soft purées, and heart-warming, bland, grainy crunch. As a culinary-political statement, it says “I care what my food was, and where it came from, as well as where it’s going. The impact of my eating on the world is important, and the flavors I prefer are clean and wholesome, reflective of my choice.” It’s a bit too puritanical for me, but I have a healthy respect for its practitioners.

The “artisanal” folks, people who are fanatical about particular farms or cheese makers or charcuteries, kind of throw me for a loop. On the one hand, it’s true that those sorts of foods are an important component of an aesthetically well-balanced diet, and it is a shame that they almost disappeared from American eating for a few decades. On the other hand, the artisanal types are still taking a very passive approach to their food. They’re going to shops, buying stuff, taking it home, and consuming it, without every applying any heat or making any use of their knives. While it’s true that the consumption choices they make support good cooking, they’re not really doing any, and as such I think they’re still abdicating some of their responsibility to the culinary arts. People should have to make food choices, not just selections, I think. But maybe I’m just not po-mo enough for it.

There’s also the very heavy issue of high-brow versus low-brow cooking. I am, personally, a solid advocate of quality at any price-level; Al’s Italian beef, to me, is much better cooking than, say, Chant. An Al’s Italian beef sandwich tastes exactly the way an Italian beef sandwich should. It typifies the Italian beef medium, it exalts the genre of the hot submarine sandwich. Chant’s “gourmet comfort food” (a meaningless, lazy phrase that I earnestly detest) sacrifices textures for flavors, and ends up a rather empty experience. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

I understand, though, that my refusal to dismiss the importance of greasy, low-brow foods stems somewhat from my socio-economic background: Having grown up in the East Village of New York City, the New Jersey Shore and Jersey City, I’ve been to a lot of good delis and diners in my time. As music critics so often explain about punk rock, of course it all sounds/tastes the same when you know nothing of the genre. So maybe if I’d been properly reared with only the right sorts of flavors, I would know better. But I don’t—thank God.