Are you embarrassed for me? Did you read that and cringe a little? I review restaurants, so I guess I'm supposed to have better taste than this. But even if I didn't claim any professional dealings with food, I am expected to know better. And so are you. Food snobbery has infiltrated modern life so thoroughly that what once was a hobby of the moneyed and well-traveled (and, some might argue, otherwise talentless) is now a class marker of a different kind. You wouldn't bring a box of Frosted Flakes to your desk, as your Whole Foods-shopping, Fage-eating coworkers would wonder what was wrong with you. You must be well-versed in the works of Bourdain and Morimoto, properly snide about Rachael Ray (so NOT the real deal), and you must dine out at least twice a week in restaurants featuring pastry chefs, “mixologists,” or even head chefs who happen to receive high and extremely recent praise in the press. You must know the differences among USDA-certified organic and all other imposters. You support your belief in sustainability through your CSA membership and your refusal to eat corn syrup (obesity), trans fats (heart disease), meat and dairy (antibiotics), and soy, rice, corn, and produce (high risk of genetic modifications). You must know something about wine besides its color and region—and for God's sake, no one drinks merlot anymore.
How did we reach this point? In his excellent collection Choice Cuts, Mark Kurlansky writes that the word “gourmet” comes from “gourmand”—a glutton. Among the lower classes, a gourmet's knowledge served no purpose at all. They were not aspirational figures. Even among those who could afford more expensive cuisines, the gourmet often embodied the pinnacle of sloth and selfishness. After all, they produced nothing through their pursuits—they left behind no artifacts to be admired—rather, their aim was consumption. Further, as Kurlansky exhibits in a later essay about a French blowhard's love for formage d'Philadelphia, the role of gourmet is so subjective that anyone with the funds and opinions can play it.
A narcissistic, consumption-based exercise—I won't belabor the reasons behind its appeal to our particular culture. But like a favorite underground band suddenly signed to a major label, food is losing its power through sheer cultural saturation. We always ate, but never in quite this way, with this focus on fashion and personal image. Before, food meant family gatherings, shared histories, or simply survival. I love the story of my father's family, who ate steak every Saturday night no matter how much they struggled to pay the bills. An expensive meal, marinated for hours, shows hope for the future, and dignity in the present. That's the power of food. The person who munches on organic cacao bars in the afternoon before dashing off to a factory-farmed, butter-laden four-star restaurant meal reduces food to fashionable hypocrisy. More interestingly, they are deluded enough to think that they are making the world a better place. They may choose free-range meats after reading Pollan or buy more local produce after reading Marion Nestle, but the national food obsession fails to grasp the real point of global eating—many of us will kill ourselves by eating poorly, many of us will struggle to eat enough, and our lives are structured in such a way that we will never improve those first two points without drastic action.
Contrary to popular trend, drastic action cannot be taken by buying a product. In Grub, Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry make the most plaintive exhortation to total lifestyle change in a what-to-eat book in recent memory by simply suggesting that people cook most of their meals themselves. They cite their own meals with family as evidence that the reader eventually will see cooking as less of a time-consuming chore and more of a fun way of life. That they would have to plead the case, in a book that is one-half recipes, scratches the surface of the truth about the food obsession: no one is really in it for the food. If we were, we would slow down and eat meals at a table, instead of in cars, at desks, and between errands. We would lobby for better-quality produce and staples in low-income supermarkets. We would demand simple and straightforward labeling from companies. We would cease to equate food with guilt, sin, cheating, or any other negative action, or conversely, as a way to win social standing. We would eat when we are hungry, and we would work to ensure that others may always do the same.
In other words, we would do as gourmets or gourmands or gluttons have always done—we would love food for its own sake, for the joys and comforts that it contains. Now excuse me, my macaroni is ready.