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Kill Your Darlings, No. 8

Sublime and Profane: Our Contemporary Obsession With Food

In a food court no one can stop me looking: two women, barely in their twenties, one of them dark-haired and holding the thing that beeps when your food is ready. Theirs is a wise order. The food, when it comes, looks fresh and good, its molecular structure seemingly intact, not destroyed by continuous re-freezing and re-heating. The young women eat, paying attention to what’s on their plates. It matters to them – not above all else; not above their conversation, which looks unforced, satisfying – but enough. You can tell.

We, my friend and I who have not ordered wisely but grabbed at stuff already made and on display – we who are like horses sticking heads in a trough, like children who failed the delayed gratification test – sit with our lumps of post-food staring back at us from plastic plates. The post-food looks like food, but it’s not really food. What is absent is not nutrients (this I can easily forgive) but a kind of matter. It is like greasy, coloured air that fills your insides and makes them swell: heavy, voluminous and devoid of substance. It is the continuation of void by culinary means.

After a while the young women get up. They didn’t eat much. The plate belonging to the blonde looks barely touched. It still has – but now in a scorned, jilted way – food spilling from it onto the table. Didn’t taste good? Wrong choice? Not hungry after all? Food waste is the basic currency of a food court. Yet I am surprised by how irritated this uneaten meal makes me feel.

A guy in his thirties – obviously hungry, obviously a new (illegal, I wonder?) migrant – is eyeing the plate from a distance. He holds a pizza box in both hands (someone must have left behind a slice or two), but how much more inviting all the rice, the vegetables, the bits of untouched meat on the plate across the aisle look. Still a touch warm too, I imagine.

The guy slips closer to the vacated table, glances around, takes a bite of the cold pizza which by now has become a decoy, then moves swiftly into a seat in front of the coveted plate while jamming more pizza in his mouth. We avert our eyes, pretend to be deep in conversation. Everyone deserves some privacy. He pounces. It’s a beautiful thing – a terrible thing, too – a hungry person eating well. And so what if it is off someone else’s plate, chewing fast, eyes on the prize, body balancing on the edge of a chair like a fugitive? So what? How this food must taste to him, how it must soothe his insides, how pleased he must feel for a moment with his brilliant catch. Desperation, humiliation, shameful inequity – they are all suspended in that moment. Let him eat, we can do the socio-economic analysis later.

Sit in any of the larger food courts long enough and you’ll begin to see that food can be both sublime and profane in the same mouthful. You’ll begin to wonder, too, how it is that in our culture food is simultaneously elevated into something much more than a basic physiological necessity and denigrated into something utterly extraneous to the continuation and blossoming of human life.

In our world, food is everywhere. By ‘everywhere’ I don’t mean just that it is on TV all the time – TV, and the media as such, are neither everywhere nor, really, anywhere – I mean that an increasing number of people take gastrotours, write gastromemoirs, decry (or get off on) gastroporn, engage in gastrocriticism, cook and eat as part of hybrid art performances. I mean that our famous chefs of today are more famous than our famous rock musicians. Leading British primatologist Richard Wrangham has called us ‘cooking apes’. A growing number of historians have come to believe that nothing is more central to the evolution of human society and behaviour than food. One of them, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, says: ‘Culture began when the raw got cooked.’

Yet to the hungry man finishing a stranger’s meal, our pre-occupation with food, together with food’s manic abundance – for the time being, at least – and its endemic waste must seem like something of a paradox, incongruous perhaps, even monstrous; or, more likely still, just incomprehensibly alien.

*

A declaration: I love food. I am a mediocre cook but I delight in food cooked by others. When I eat good food I feel less afraid of death. Of life, as well. Some of my closest friends cook in ways that seem essential to who they are and how they love the people in their life. It makes perfect sense. Sharing a meal, when done right, is the essence of sociability, a fundamental and irreplaceable way of being with others. There is dignity in food. Spiritual consolation. Beauty. Power. Art. Sex.

I am not a foodophobe.

But when I walk the streets of my city and sometimes not a single bookshop comes my way and instead I encounter – and this easily in the space of one walk – maybe 30 cafes and eateries, one after another, filled with people in what appears to be the perfect representation of the supply-and-demand model, and my eyes fall on tables that cannot possibly have any more stuff on them, and above those tables are jaws moving fast, waiters moving faster still, full plates in, empty plates out; what is my dizzy head meant to think? And when the empty shops across the country vacated by failed businesses are taken over, almost without exception, by places that make or sell food, as if there is nothing else in this world that has a hope of succeeding, what am I to make of it? And when I half-heartedly buy the degraded Saturday broadsheet and have to fight my way through food articles and restaurant reviews to get to the thin sliver of literary pages, with what should I console myself?

And no, I don’t see eating and reading (or for that matter writing) as being inherently opposed to or disconnected from each other. When some people – Peter Robb, for instance – write about food (and it’s never just about food with Robb), they make the world feel bigger. But then there’s this: ‘Is any other subculture,’ asks B.R. Myers in the Atlantic, ‘reported on so exclusively by its own members? Or with a frequency and an extensiveness that bear so little relation to its size?’ Fair point. I am all for food being treated with the respect afforded to matters cultural. But it’s appropriate, I think, to be puzzled by one cultural form taking over so much of our public space, sucking that much oxygen out of our world.

In Australia last year the top-selling book by an Australian writer was 2009 MasterChef winner Julie Goodwin’s Our Family Table. I don’t know anyone who was remotely surprised by this.

*

Martha, the chef of an upmarket Hamburg restaurant in the 2001 German movie Mostly Martha (the barely tolerable Hollywood remake is called No Reservations) visits her eight-year-old niece Lina in hospital. Lina’s mother, Martha’s sister, has been killed in a car accident. Motherless Lina, alone now – of her father, she knows only his name and that he lives in Italy – is on a bed, numbed by pain, her eyes looking inwards, her body trying not to wake up. Sisterless Martha – also alone; her sister was all the family she had – is on a chair, her back straight, her eyes peering into the silence between her and her niece. Not much to say. They breathe. Then, with a certain elegant automatism, Martha starts plucking food out of her bag. It is thoughtfully, ergonomically packed. Around food, Martha is never careless or rushed.

‘I am not hungry,’ the niece says.

Martha hides her hurt, packs up. Back home, the first meal she cooks for Lina looks brilliant. It’s restaurant quality. Martha serves it with precision and care. But – there is a little smudge on Lina’s plate. Martha wipes it up. Now it’s perfect. ‘Bon appétit!’

Lina stares at the plate. ‘I don’t want to eat.’

Martha puts down the cutlery. She inhales. ‘Would you rather have something else?’

‘No.’

‘Aren’t you hungry at all?’

‘May I go back to my room now, please?’

You can see it on Martha’s face: how will she reach her niece if Lina is refusing to eat her food? How will she take care of Lina if she cannot cook for her? What hope is there for the two of them, two monosyllabic orphans, if you take food out of the equation?

Of course, the movie then does what movies do: it makes characters develop, learn lessons, find redemption. But I am haunted by those earlier scenes, by Martha, and her peculiar muteness, her compulsively resorting to the language of food.

Is our culture like Martha? Does it cook and eat when it cannot speak? Is it similarly convinced that you can say most things with food, fill most black holes with it, that a shared meal is never meaningless; that food can, at least in the moment, transcend everything, including acute grief? Is our culture similarly incredulous when faced with situations we cannot cook or eat our way out of?

We know that cultures and religions have always communicated through food. All the bread-breaking. All the communal meals in imitation of the Last Supper. All the travellers and pilgrims knocking on strangers’ doors and being offered a meal and a bed for the night, and the assorted other rituals around times and sites of shared meals. Sacred foods. Taboo foods. Healing foods. Aphrodisiacs. The forbidden apple. A thousand culinary metaphors – ‘Her argument was half-baked’; ‘The prosecutor wouldn’t swallow it’; ‘She got grilled’ – and the vital threads running between food, power and desire.

But this moment feels different to me.

Conversation in my head (the voices are all mine):

Psychoanalyst – ‘As a culture we are suffering from a serious oral fixation. The mouth remains our primary organ as we seek out both psychological safety and meaningful connections with others.’

Marxist economist (unreformed) – ‘Frankly, the cult of food in the West is nothing less than the triumph of consumerism and conspicuous consumption, the petit-bourgeois paradise.’

Historian – ‘Surely this rising interest in food ties in with our deep cultural memory of famines and food shortages?’

Feminist scholar – ‘Make no mistake, the obsession we have with food is fundamentally about control over women’s bodies.’

Religious scholar – ‘Food is about our human need for ritualised behaviour; with the decline of institutionalised religion, rituals around food are becoming even more important.’

Public-health expert – ‘Look at the epidemic of eating disorders and ask yourself why?’

Artist – ‘Can you feel something pre-apocalyptic in the air? Are we feasting to ward off our mortality?’

Sociologist – ‘Food is one thing we cannot do online. (Sex – no worries.)’

 

Me, I don’t believe any of this. Or, rather, I believe all of it, and all at the same time, but only to an extent.

*

Conversation between Anthony Bourdain (chef, author, TV personality), A.A. Gill (restaurant and TV critic) and Tony Bilson (chef, hall-of-fame restaurateur, session chair) at 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival:

Bilson: ‘Tonight, I am going to presume the audience knows that there is a great difference between dining and eating and that these two guys have had some incredible experiences around the world, so rather than…’

Gill (interjecting): ‘I am sorry but…’ (Locks eyes with Bilson.) ‘But what is the difference between dining and eating?’

Bilson: ‘Well, I think one is a formality and one is a necessity.’

Gill (curtly): ‘Which?’

Bilson: ‘The first.’

(Laughter from the audience.)

Gill: ‘Which was the first?,

Bilson: ‘Eating.’

Gill (incredulous): ‘Eating is a formality?’

Bilson: ‘Yes. No. Eating is a necessity. Dining is a formality. Is this not the difference…?’

Bourdain: ‘I would rather be an eater than a diner.’

Gill: ‘Always!’ (To Bilson) ‘You’re dining on your own … The most depressing term in all of gastronomy is “fine dining”.’

More laughter.

Bourdain: ‘“Foodie” is bad too.’

Gill: ‘It’s not about techniques … And it’s not about being clever or being fancy or sleight of hand and any of that stuff…’

Bourdain (jumping in): ‘Because if it was, it would suck.’

Gill: ‘It’s about the essence of why food is great.’

No matter how ridiculous and smug they may seem at times, celebrity chefs and food critics such as A.A. Gill and Anthony Bourdain are, in fact, engaged in serious philosophical work in public. They are articulating, in the language of food, the fundamental choices available to us about different ways of being in the world now. The difference between eating and dining, or, more obviously, between being an eater in the Gillian sense of the word and a thoughtless ingester of foodstuff – just like the difference, decades ago, between being a traveller and a tourist – represents an essential choice that is most accurately described as existential. It is a way of deciding what kind of person you are and what kind of life (not, please note, lifestyle) you wish to have. Choices that seem at their most coherent when attached to food – slow versus fast, organic versus pre-processed, traditional versus experimental, familiar versus exotic – are just as much to do with the deeper questions of selfhood and social solidarities. The culinary activism of someone like Jamie Oliver (with his school dinner campaigns) or Stephanie Alexander (sending children out into the kitchen garden) goes to the very heart of what constitutes public good. It makes total sense, in our world, that this should be so.

Food, apart from all the other things it is, is a cultural cipher. A kind of code. We tend to encounter new cultures first through their cuisine, which we sample, read about, attempt to recreate, travel to experience. Today, food is our main entry point into the otherness of culture. In a food-centric universe we are tacitly assured that difference can be tantalising, not terrifying; that otherness can be savoured; that, no matter what, we needn’t be afraid – of anything. What we don’t know, haven’t smelt and haven’t yet tasted can be thrilling, a source of enduring pleasure.

Deep inside the conversations that are conducted through food, we find an expression of hope that somehow the rise of fundamentalism and extremism on all sides of global politics – the kind that makes both an idealist and a practitioner of real politik alike despair – can, in time, be curtailed, even reversed. It is the hope that democracy shall survive the ideological polarisations of today’s world, the same way our global culinary culture has, absorbing and thriving on differences, producing triumphant fusions and hybrids. In a food-centric universe there is no Us and Them, no intransigence, no clash of civilisations. Cultures encounter each other, steal, borrow, imitate, get inspired, get bored, move on.

We use food to think about our bodies: what to do with them at this moment in time, when we seem to need them less than ever before. Food’s prominence means the human body remains firmly in the picture, as does physical labour, as do actual physical sites – restaurants, cafes, food courts – where we can smell each other’s skin and sit next to each other in a categorically embodied form.

We think with food. And we hope with food, too.

*

It’s one of the classic sequences of surrealist cinema: in Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, people gather for what at first looks like your typical upper-class dinner party. The maid collects everyone’s coats. The hostess introduces the guests to each other. She has given much thought to where everyone should be seated, and she places them evenly round a table, the better to facilitate conversation – about the population explosion, and a recent trip to Madrid, and the latest Tristan and Isolde production. And so they sit. On shiny white toilets.

‘Mama, I am hungry,’ Sophie says, the hostess’s young daughter. Mama reprimands Sophie for her bad table manners.

One of the guests flushes his toilet and momentarily excuses himself. ‘Where’s the dining room, please?’ he asks the maid ever so discreetly.

‘Last door on the right,’ the maid whispers back.

The man locks the door behind him and sits on a solitary chair in a tiny near-empty room, where he unfolds a small table and presses a button in the wall: out from the wall comes a pretty good-looking meal and a drink. In complete silence, he rips into the food, visibly relieved. A minute later there’s a knock: another guest, a young woman, eager to use the facilities.

‘It’s occupied!’ There is a whiff of annoyance in the hungry man’s voice.

‘Oh. I am sorry.’

Almost forty years later, the deadpan reversal enacted in that scene would scandalise no one. But it is still a lot of fun to watch. And the things Buñuel takes aim at – the fetishisation of food and meal occasions; the way privilege and pretence distort our relationship with food; the food wank – are still worthy targets. However rarefied the rituals we care to construct around mealtimes, the fundamentals stay the same: food goes in, and goes out. In the end, food may be one of the cornerstones of civilisation, and just about the most illuminating index of human culture we have; it may give us hope and a meaningful way of understanding difference and caring for others. But there is much about food that is plainly absurd, and in this, its very absurdity, it is rousingly universal. The last thing we should do is always take it seriously.

‘I went,’ the comedian Steven Wright said, ‘to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time”. So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.’

Maria Tumarkin is an author and cultural historian. Her most recent book is Otherland: A Journey with my Daughter (Vintage).

 

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