Magazine article The American Prospect

Thought for Food

Magazine article The American Prospect

Thought for Food

Article excerpt

Several of my favorite and most tattered books are cookbooks, and when I visit a foreign country, one of my first purchases is usually a volume of recipes, which (if the book is good) provides a sort of sensory shortcut into the heart of the place and people in question. Some travelers rely on maps to orient them, others on their Michelin or Lonely Planet guides, but I did not feel I'd truly arrived in Turkey, for example, until I'd read up on the subtle but oh-so-important distinctions between the sweets known as Vizier's Fingers, Beauty's Lips, and Lady's Navel.

As one who considers cooking, eating, reading, and writing part of the same cultural continuum, I have, however, begun to despair in recent years. On the one hand, more words than ever are being generated on the subject of food, and food writers, so called, enjoy huge audiences and profits (next to books about catrearing, I have heard, cookbooks are the best-selling category in U.S. publishing today). On the other hand, the vast majority of these volumes are at best useless, at worst offensive in their view of the world as one enormous Dean & DeLuca's.

To pick up many modern American publications on the subject of food is to encounter a self-absorbed and shameless promotion for The Good Life. Hedonistic Tuscan vacations are recounted in the glowingly airbrushed detail of a travel agent's swankest brochure (the boar with blackberries in Caino is just heavenly, we are assured), while the wonders of the Vidalia onion are rhapsodized in a vocabulary that blends in bizarre--and to my mind, not especially mouthwatering--degree the language of the romance novelist, the ad man, and the nutritionist. Every dish is extolled as "simply divine," "a cinch to prepare," and (deadliest still) "chock full of potassium" or "packed with beta-carotene." In this context, simplicity itself becomes an affectation, and the most obvious assertions are offered up by their authors as somber statements of lofty principle, in the pious tones of gastronomically minded evangelicals convinced they are saving the world through their clever broiling technique.

The corollary to this literary Dionysianism might be described as the monastic-alarmist school of contemporary food writing, which consists in large part of dire warnings (often couched as pert housewifely tips) about the dangers of cholesterol, fat, genetically modified foods, British beef, or--fill in the life-threatening flavor of the month. While consciousness of one's health and the environment are obviously fine things to have in theory, in practice so much writing on the subject turns into a sort of humorless, guilt-inducing tract against enjoyment, against spontaneity in cooking and eating, against the forces and urges that make food more than mere sustenance.

Both of those approaches to food and food-writing--the indulgent and the apocalyptic--are a far cry from the worldly work of, say, Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher, two pioneering English-language writers on the pleasures and disappointments of the palate. Neither woman is alive today, but if they were, each would probably be, in her own skeptical, good-natured way, suspicious of this tendency to fetishize or quarantine food, to render it a privileged purview of the upwardly mobile and/or educated, and to cut it off from its roots as part of a charged and not necessarily photogenic web of historical, practical, personal, human interactions. (Tellingly, Fisher referred to her chosen subject not as "food" but as "hunger.")

While recently issued books like Spago Chocolate, D'Artagnan's Glorious Game Cookbook, or Alan Wong's New Wave Luau may sound like the antidote to the primly "correct" way of eating expounded in such righteous-sounding volumes as This Can't Be Tofu!, The Soy Zone, and the Good Morning America Cut the Calories Cookbook, I'd suggest that the two approaches are in fact flip sides of the very same coin: the removal of food from its larger social, cultural, economic, and emotional context. …

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