“Western industrial civilization,” says the British critic Steven Poole, “is eating itself stupid.” Poole’s recent polemic against food culture, You Aren’t What You Eat, has had a sympathetic reception. Apparently Poole isn’t the only person who’s had a gutful of the food craze. Indeed, putting the boot into foodies is rapidly becoming a craze in its own right. Over Christmas, the novelist Will Self chimed in with an article urging Britons to make a New Year’s resolution to “throw up our very obsession with food itself.” Foodies have had a good run for a while now. But one detects signs that the great feast might be coming to an end. The critics are circling the table like waiters who want you gone. They’re clearing away chairs with increasing impertinence. One senses it might be time to call for the bill.
So far, Poole’s book stands as the leading work of the anti-food backlash. It is brisk, well-written, and entertaining. It’s also, I think, mostly out of order. Of course, a polemicist is not obliged to be even-handed: only provocative and lively. Poole is certainly both of those things. But one is entitled to disagree with his findings. Indeed, one is more or less obliged to, if one thinks the food revolution has delivered benefits worth preserving. I do. Does that make me a foodie? If so, I reluctantly accept the label. There are far worse things to have crazes about than food. Yes, there have been excesses. But let’s not throw out the dashi with the dishwater.
According to Poole, our food obsession has entered a decadent phase. Consider Heston Blumenthal’s “Chicken Testicle Jelly Beans.” Consider the website that, in homage to the repugnant horror film The Human Centipede, furnishes a recipe for “10 roast piglets, stitched together nose to tail, each stuffed with a turkey, in turn stuffed with a duck, then a chicken, a Cornish Hen and a quail …” Like Britain’s property market, the nation’s food culture has become an absurdly bloated bubble. Poole wants to stick a fork in it.
Poole is at his best when lampooning the self-indulgence of the food movement’s zany fringe. When he points to the “authoritarianism” of Heston’s multi-course conceptual feasts, he is surely on to something. “What if your ideal of eating a meal at a restaurant is to think and talk about something other than food …? “ It’s a fair question. Unfortunately it has a fair answer, as Poole immediately concedes. Just don’t go to Heston’s restaurant. Nobody’s holding a brûlée torch to your head.
It’s one thing to diss Heston. Heston’s asking for it, with his food lab, his pigs’- nipple scratchings, his 24-hour sous-vide steaks. It’s quite another thing to sink the slipper into the eminently practical Jamie Oliver, who embodies everything that’s best about the food fad. Jamie is enthusiastic, inclusive, a superb communicator of basic principles. When Poole goes after Jamie, he crosses the Rubicon. He declares his willingness to attack the food culture at its decent, unpretentious heart.
But nothing Poole throws at Jamie really sticks. The kid is Teflon. Poole’s brusque dismissal of Jamie’s “book-shaped products” sounds like a good joke, unless you’ve ever troubled to open one of them. The truth is that Jamie’s cookbooks are ornaments to the genre. Yes, he’s probably published a few too many; but one is under no obligation to buy them all, or indeed any of them. I’ve got two, and they’ve had a crucial influence on my evolution from pie-warming journeyman into pestle-wielding near-genius. It bothers Poole that Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals “became the fastest-selling non-fiction book ever published in the UK.” But unlike many another bestseller, Jamie’s book is a high-quality, enduringly useful artefact, written by a man at the peak of his profession. In cooking culture, the popular stuff is also the good stuff.
If Poole had been in a reflective mood, he might have pursued that interesting point. But he is out to excoriate, not to analyse. He scoffs at the claim, advanced by the creator of the original British version of MasterChef, that the show is about the “democratisation of food.” But unless the British MasterChef differs radically from its Australian counterpart, Poole has no call to be haughty about it. In its Australian incarnation, MasterChef has consistently been the best reality show on TV. And the fact that it’s about food is, I would suggest, fundamental to its excellence. In other departments of our culture – in the field of climate science, let’s say – it’s become quite okay for laypeople to scorn the authority of the trained “expert.” In food culture, the idea of objective standards is alive and well, probably because most of us can detect slapdash cooking just by looking at it. On MasterChef, wide-eyed aspirants sit and take notes while internationally revered professionals show them how things should be done. If all TV had a similar respect for expertise, our culture would be in considerably better shape. I wish there was a show called ProseMaster, in which Philip Roth would get flown in from Connecticut to teach aspiring novelists how to construct a sex scene. There isn’t, yet. But having a show like that about food is a good start.
Poole, though, finds food an inherently dumb subject, “a universal solvent of the intellect.” Food obsessives, he says, “could be doing so much else with their time and creative energy.” He is oddly unwilling to believe that cooking can be a deeply creative act. He quotes people who swear that it is, for them; but he refuses to take them at their word. The poet (and home cook) Maya Angelou gets a serve from Poole for suggesting that “writing and cookery are just two different means of communication.” Poole won’t have it. “You cannot,” he says, “’communicate’ ideas through cookery.”
Yes, but if life consisted of nothing but the exchange of ideas, it would scarcely be worth living. Perhaps Angelou chose her words poorly, but you can see what she means. Cooking for other people is a way of connecting with them. If Poole genuinely cannot grasp that, he is missing out on a lot.
If the current anti-foodie trend keeps going, we’ll need to monitor it for signs of neo-puritanism and intellectual snobbery. These vices are far more deplorable than an excessive love of food, and Poole indulges in them freely. He doesn’t seem to like the sight of his intellectual inferiors enjoying themselves. The masses, he feels, should lift their game. They should stop indulging their bodies and start pursuing the life of the mind.
But the intellectual world is at least as well stocked with bores and over-rated mountebanks as the food world is. Speaking for myself, I’d sooner spend an evening cooking and eating a decent meal than waste it reading some of the authors endorsed by Poole. He peppers his text with quotes from the giants of cultural theory – Barthes, Derrida, Foucault – even when their mots look suspiciously like laboured and Frenchified statements of the obvious. Barthes, apparently, once wrote that “through his food the Frenchman experiences a certain national continuity.” If this rather lame sally had dropped from the lips of Heston Blumenthal, Poole would have been swift to identify it as a banality. Since it was penned by Barthes, Poole quotes it with reverence.
At another point it suits him to repeat an 800-year-old definition of gluttony hailing from the work of Thomas Aquinas. Apparently Aquinas endorsed Pope Gregory’s breakthrough discovery that anyone who wants food to be “prepared more meticulously” is a glutton. Having quoted that shaft of dark-ages fatuity, Poole adds: “In this sense (whether we agree with it or not), all modern foodists … are certainly gluttons.”
But hang on. Even Poole doesn’t seem to believe that Pope Gregory’s definition of gluttony remains valid or useful today. And who would, apart from a hairshirt-wearing crackpot? Why then are we compelled to follow the syllogism any further? Does Poole mean to imply that the age of MasterChef is more screwed up than the age of Thomas Aquinas?
Reluctant to believe that the foodist revolution has done our culture any good at all, Poole won’t even concede that it has raised the general standard of home cookery. He takes leave to doubt that people have actually been using all those million-selling cookbooks. According to him, such publications function as mere “comfort porn”. What is Poole’s evidence for this impudent claim? Strangely, it comes from one of his bêtes noires – the Spanish avant-gardist and known Heston-associate Ferran Adrià, who once asserted that “few people cook at home any more.” Mind you, Adrià said this without offering any proof himself. Moreover, he said it while plugging one of his own cookbooks. Still, it’s enough to let Poole carry on with his argument. “If Adrià is right, then the explosion of media foodism over the past few decades really has been about porn, or snobbery, or escapism …”
I’d prefer to trust the evidence of my senses, which inform me that Adrià and Poole are talking baloney. Most people I know cook at home all the time. And all of them, including me, are far better cooks than they were ten years ago. Why? Because good cooking has been in the air. Because experts like Jamie Oliver have been making no-nonsense instructional shows crammed with useful advice. Because exotic ingredients are now freely available in supermarkets, which presumably means lots of people are buying them. Poole would probably reply that the popularity of those ingredients doesn’t necessarily prove people are cooking with them. Maybe we’re just buying them for show, and binning them the moment we get home. At times Poole brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic – he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
If you find the taste of Poole’s text too sour, you can always spin the lazy Susan and sample some other book about food. For the moment, there are plenty of alternatives on offer. One is The Meat Fix, by John Nicholson. Nicholson’s funny but overlong book might as well have been entitled You Are What You Eat. Nicholson is a recovering vegetarian, who spent 26 years dodging meat. During that time he was plagued by headaches, tiredness, and unspeakable bowel issues. I’d call them unspeakable, anyway. Nicholson speaks about them at reprehensible length.
After consulting a variety of useless doctors, Nicholson decided to tackle his gastric problems by trying something radical. He cooked himself a piece of meat – specifically, an ox liver. Finding that he quite liked it, he proceeded to fry up a steak for his next meal. The next day he woke up more or less cured. “In fact, for the first time in literally years, I went to the toilet just once.”
These days Nicholson is reaping the health benefits of a meat-laden, low-carb, fat-rich diet that would scandalise any mainstream nutritionist. To give him his due, Nicholson doesn’t just argue from his own gut. He has done his research; he mounts a convincing case that the dietary values enshrined in the food pyramid do not work for everybody. “Don’t be afraid,” he writes, “to eat slices of butter as though it’s cheese …” If Nicholson is still alive in five years’ time, this might qualify as sound dietary advice. Until then I’ll stick to my current regimen, under the terms of which I don’t even eat cheese as though it’s cheese.
Love and Hunger, a book of reflections about food by the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood, is written with a generosity of spirit that offers a warm corrective to the chilly pedantry of Poole. In addition to being a charming and intelligent writer, Wood is an accomplished home cook. She writes persuasively about the social value of good food. She uses home-cooked dishes to welcome new neighbours, to cement relationships with friends, to ease the sufferings of the sick and the bereaved. She garnishes her text with some of her favourite recipes, one of which is for a mouth-watering lamb tagine sweetened with maple syrup. Committed to my critical duties, I felt bound to whip up this dish more or less immediately.
The passing-on of a personal recipe is a gift: provided you don’t botch the execution, you get to taste precisely what the recipe’s author has tasted. If I wanted to phrase the matter as Barthes might have, I would say that a recipe is a love-letter addressed to the taste-buds, by means of which one attains a meal-long intimacy with the distant other. One recent summer night, on a deck assailed by kamikaze Christmas beetles, I dished up Wood’s tagine to my family. It was off-the-charts delicious. There were instant demands for the recipe. There were verbally abusive squabbles over the leftovers – the ultimate salute to any home chef. I looked on, gratified, and knew that Steven Poole and his fellow anti-food crusaders have got things seriously wrong. There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.