Thoughts on the Possibilities of Food

While Graeme and I love cooking, eating, and talking about food, we have always been resistant to terms like “foodie”. I know a lot of people have called out the rise of “foodie” culture as exclusionary and elitist, which is a critique for which I unsurprisingly have a lot of sympathy. But I also have another problem with it. I worry about the ways in which “foodie” as a category of people who have made a hobby out of food has made the whole project of loving cooking and eating about its fetishization; about working with and consuming things that are rare, or difficult, or special, or, yes, expensive. What especially bothers me is when we talk about loving food with no context; when the conversation becomes only about food as a means and as an end in and of itself. To me, a huge part of why I am someone passionate about food is its social context. Food brings us together, helps us learn about each other, helps us learn about our pasts, and makes us feel cared for and loved. Food is a form of communication. Talking about food outside of its social importance strikes me as, more than anything else, really quite dull.

Obviously I do not mean to suggest that anyone who uses the term “foodie” is subscribing to the strange way of seeing food that I am problematizing above. Of course not. These terms take off and take on lives of their own that can mean a million different things. But I do feel, in my reading of food books, magazines, blogs, etc.–and I read about food quite a lot–that that fetishizing and decontextualizating is a pretty recurring feature in the current landscape where food is the new rock’n’roll, so to speak. I think the trendiness of food right now can be really promising–amazing new restaurants open every week and grocery stores increasingly stock more and more diverse ingredients–but again, when it is divorced from any sort of deeper meaning (why do I care that I can buy eight thousand different kinds of chiles now?) it falls kind of flat for me.

I am thinking about this this morning as I laze around on the couch in an attempt to recover from the last few days. When not cooking or eating, I am an academic, and I just finished organizing the most ambitious conference that I have been involved in to date. When my co-organizer and I first started conceptualizing the conference, about a year ago, we thought about the previous academic events we had attended, and how much hospitality had played into our experiences of those events; not just in terms of how much we “enjoyed” them, but also how being treated well, and feeling cared for, opened up spaces for conversation and allowed us to deepen the academic conversations we were having and build stronger connections to each other. Academics have often been criticized for wasting money on wining and dining, which is kind of nuts because if you’ve ever been on the other end of these things, your budget, and how you are allowed to spend it, tends to be so restricted (as a way of preventing accusations of excessive wining and dining), that it becomes very difficult to spoil people who have travelled very far to attend your conference, at all. This plays into a larger politics and discourse of seeing what academics do as being lazy and self-indulgent, but that’s a post for another time (and really another blog).

I joke a lot about being a crazy child of immigrants who is obsessive about hosting and feeding people, bu beyond the self-deprecating humour, I am constantly thinking about how such a focus affects my life and my social world beyond just keeping everybody well fed. And this conference that I am currently recovering from is an amazing example. My colleague and I, in planning it, explicitly prioritized making sure that people felt hosted and cared for. We did not do anything fancy at all; we are in the humanities, where there is never money for any kind of upscale dining or anything remotely luxurious. We mostly ordered inexpensive foods from local restaurants that we loved, and made sure there was plenty of it. We made sure that there were ample opportunities for us to all eat together, as these are the spaces in which the formal conversations that occur in conference sessions are deepened, and in which collaborations are begun. And the results were incredible; despite the fact that we didn’t really do that much to create these socially welcoming spaces, people could not stop commenting on how well cared for they felt (also a testament to how few academic events will do even this much). And the resulting conversations, and academic work that happened, were a result of that warm and fuzzy feeling. People are not robots; how well they think and work has everything to do with the circumstances in which they do so. Treated well, people felt like they wanted to give back what they had been given; their contributions to the conference were generous and engaged. There was a general sense of good will and desire to work across our disagreements and find common ground. We had all eaten together so we were all in it together. Eating together creates a sense of collaboration that changes how people relate to each other personally and professionally. It allows conversations to ripen and to go places where they would not and could not in more formal settings. Simply put: many of the best discussions that happened simply would not have happened had we not created an intimate and collaborative space through, among other things, food.

That is what loving food is about to me; I love the spaces that food creates. I do not love food as a status symbol, but rather as something that can create social intimacy. When I obsess over the perfect corn bread recipe or where in this godforsaken city I can find a decent taco, what I am searching for is not just an especially transcendent combination of flavours and textures (although obviously that’s part of it). I am also looking for the way a food makes you feel, such that it opens up possibilities. This is something that I want to keep in mind as we build this blog–that it is not merely about this recipe and that restaurant, but also about how food and drink make us feel, and especially how they help us relate to each other. I think it is important to talk explicitly about food as something that can create social intimacy in a world where food is so pathologized–we tend to talk about food as this dangerous thing that can only do us harm if we dare to enjoy it too much–what about the power of food beyond physical health? What about what it does for us socially, and even politically? That is some powerful stuff that is far more interesting to me than truffle oil or whatever the next trendy ingredient is.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Possibilities of Food

  1. I had to keep this post in my reader to mull it over for a while. I really like it, but I needed to think on it. I think I have the same relationship with food.

    I like ingredients, and I like to cook good things, and I enjoy putting effort in to recipes every now and then. I also see food as a hug, as a way to show my care for people. I’m lucky that C also sees food this way, that he loves to have a home full of warmth and light, that food/music/beer/intelligent conversation/family/friends are all intertwined.

  2. I’ve always liked making, thinking and writing about food. (I did a big honking dissertation on why people drank booze together in the seventeenth century. I now can’t emancipate my mind.)

    That being said, I’ve often wondered at how obscene the rise of “foodie” culture in an epidemically obese, rich society will come across in a hundred years. To what extent will food blogs and food fascination be the new awkward, vaguely imperialistic cabinet of curiosity? People often wear their encyclopaedic knowledge of, as you mentioned, a eight hundred different types of chilis, on their sleeves as proof of their worldliness and cultured minds/palates – whether they realize it or not. But that knowledge is also proof that they’re benefactors of a globalised system that routinely gives 95% of the world the rotten end of the stick. It can be indulgent.

    But I still like it.

    And I think that we can get back to the root of our deep relationships with food by taking a closer look at why we eat, what we eat, and why it is so important, why it defines not only very full-stomached societies but also the less fortunate. I like food writing best when it takes on that kind of introspection.

  3. cottlefish, yes yes yes. I love this: “To what extent will food blogs and food fascination be the new awkward, vaguely imperialistic cabinet of curiosity?”

    I have nothing insightful to add as my thoughts on this precarious balance are totally undevelopped but I hope that this is a conversation that can continue on here.

  4. Pingback: On Fancy Comfort Food. | Braising Hell

  5. Pingback: In Praise of Small Beer | Braising Hell

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