Talk about food should skip the bulldust
Being criticised ... food-as-art. Photo: Glenn Campbell
Foodie. Hipster. Wanker. The words just go together like air-drizzled peas and poached flounder toes.
Eroticised food is all over Twitter, Facebook, blogs: centrefold spreads of underdressed entrees, snaps of dirty dessert weekends in gastropubs.
The Guardian writer Steven Poole recently tossed a large fly into the rustic soup of the foodie movement. He charged foodies with superficiality, faddishness and what he called a ''category mistake'': treating food as a remedy for "spiritual snackishness".
Poole's target is not the ordinary lover of food. Instead, it's the industry and consumers of food-as-art or food-as-religion. He's particularly critical of wanky food descriptions; what might be called ''gastronanism'', from the Greek for stomach and Onan, the famous biblical masturbator. Poole argues foodie verbiage actually changes diners' perceptions. Not by broadening their palate, but by fooling it. Victims of what he calls "gastrolinguistic engineering", they are tasting the menu, not the meal.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying language, and its rhythms and moods. And some menus are a little like surrealist art: windows into the mind of the chef's weirdness. But stream-of-consciousness poetry is a poor guide to lunch. The problem is confusing the language of feelings with the feelings themselves. The diner believes he is savouring ''shallot-tickled bull pizzle in a pool of olio and aqua'', but he is actually eating mediocre offal, and salivating over sentences.
The point is not to give up on tasting and describing food. The point is to be more clear about what we're sensing and what we're inventing. We never perceive the world raw, but we certainly can perceive it more sensitively, and recognise our own responses to it. This sometimes requires we turf the menu altogether, and give our own words: "The pizzle was like soft, tasteless gristle. It was in no hurry to reach my stomach. I felt very sorry for the bull, because this meat meant much more to him than to me."
This more mindful approach helps pitchfork out the bulldust. We cannot swim in the syrup of irrelevant, imprecise jargon - we have to be specific about the food's characteristics, and how they relate to our experience. It is, in other words, not just a matter of taste. While not a science, the language of food is partly concerned with demonstrable stuff ''out there'' in the world. Why else talk about it?
For this reason, food is closer to art than Poole might like. Not simply because they can both be faddish or overpriced. Not simply because both can be tiny drops of colour on oversized white backgrounds. It is because food and art require a combination of sensation, receptivity and awareness of each. Both have a strong ''aesthetic'' dimension, from the Greek aesthesis, meaning sense perception. And both require we distinguish objects from how we feel about them.
There is also the problem, common to art and food, that pleasure becomes a secular religion. Chefs can become priests in floury vestments, channelling supernatural truths. "The cook is in tune with the terroir,'' writes Poole, ''an interpreter of Gaia for our lip-smacking pleasure and spiritual improvement." They have their lavishly illustrated cookery bibles, anointed with truffle oil. ("A sure wankerdom sign," says food blogger Ed Charles.)
This leads to a double mistake from the gastronanist. First, thinking is ditched for oversimplified ''authenticity''. Who needs to reflect on ethics and politics when one's gut contains a digested heirloom potato? Second, churchy incantations and arcane rites replace actual congress with the physical world. Taste is turned into fetishism. Even if it's eaten in a middle-class townhouse by an otherwise-brutal advertising executive, the potato is invested with all kinds of arcane powers and ancient histories.
Like so many religions, what's ultimately worshipped in the foodie church is not some actual thing, person or process, but an idealised version of the eater's mind. We bow to our own palate, and celebrate our own high taste.This isn't a criticism of ethical eating or food security. What I'm talking about is divorced from these concerns. It's about stuffing dry turkey with fantasy instead of herbs, and expecting everyone to swallow it and smile.
We need a backlash, not simply against religious foodies, but against all mysticism that turns the world into a mirror for our own self-pleasuring.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His book, Philosophy in the Garden, is out now.