Food For Thinkers: Does Not Butter Ennoble Enough?

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This post is a part of Food for Thinkers, a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD’s newly-launched Food hubWhat does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today? Check out the conversation in full at GOOD.is/food.

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at the risk of sounding glib, i’m inclined to say that food writing should continue meaning and being more or less what it has been for the past, oh, to play it safe, let’s say 200 years. which is to say, at its best, just as diverse and interesting and inspired as i think this Food For Thinkers project promises to be; and at its worst, boring, offensive and forgettable. i mean, Sturgeon’s Law, what are you going to do?

 

we are at a moment, arguably, when food has seized the cultural and commercial imagination to a remarkable degree, and one can only hope that some of this renewed interest in both the ethic and ethics of eating, in sustainable, organic, locally sourced, ‘politically responsible’ production and consumption, have a more rhizomatic* effect than just becoming another lifestyle activism laminate. it is in this respect that i think there are myriad important reasons to think and write about food, and i am happy to live in a time when food as an object of serious geographical, political, architectural, etc. inquiry is being taken up by so many very bright and talented people.

 

i am also happy to live at a time when such free rein has been given to the frivolous, fetishistic, pretentious, and perverse (i’d be hard pressed to convince anyone, but i really tried to avoid that alliteration) treatments of food. it is a tension that i believe to be productive. i mean, i have to, because it is very much those latter that run through my own writing. i write about food for primarily the same reason that i eat the stuff – pleasure. not sickening and dying is a welcome, albeit by no means guaranteed side-effect. this used to and probably sometimes still does bother me a little, indulging in such a vanity project as a blog that is more than anything gastronomical trivia, miscellany, and navel-gazing, but it happily requires less rigour than i feel would be necessary to write about some of the more important dimensions of food and feeding. “less rigour” being what i have in profusion, i have come to good terms with the situation. seriousness and frivolity revenge themselves endlessly upon each other, and i like to think that it can be an amicable sort of game.

 

i do not much care for the term ‘foodie,’ but to claim that my political analysis is greater than my aesthetic distaste for it would be disingenuous; i just think there’s something both precious and pernicious about the marketing logic that transforms a love for food and the eating thereof into a conspicuously subcultural marker. i don’t mean to startle anyone, but such folk have always been among us, some notorious epicures, gourmets and gourmands; others perhaps recognizable only to those of like mind, the goinfres, goulus, or plain old great eatersthose, in any case, devoted in their own ways to the pleasurable embellishments and stylistic flourishes of the art of self-preservation (especially the pickles, confits and ferments thereof).

 

so when we ask “whither food writing?” it is important also to have a sense of “from whence?” for while the foodie may be recently speciated, food writing has a long and laureled history, particularly when we expand (as we are doing now) ‘food writing’ into ‘writing about food.’ to cobble together a list, even off the cuff, of writers whose forays into food – be they musings or primum movens - kick a not inconsiderable amount of ass: MFK Fisher, Waverley Root, Mark Kurlansky, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, AJ Liebling, George Orwell, Harold McGee, Peter Singer, Julia Child, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Kingsley Amis, Nicolas Freeling; it is to this lineage that we may hold ourselves accountable.

 

in The Gastronomical Me (1943), MFK Fisher writes:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest way to answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot think straightly of one without the others. So when it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one.

 

these are fine and moving thoughts, and i am of course glad she shared them. however, there is also a part of me that wishes she had stopped at “I am hungry,” and allowed her accusers to, as it were, fill up on the aroma. because to ask “why food?” elides another question, that i find the more troubling. why does food need to be ennobled or justified? it is a question that can only be posed in ignorance of the reality that it is by a great strength (or weakness) of will that one can really think about food for any period of time without arriving quickly in some other place, at some other time. one needs only follow the food itself in one or the other direction – you can’t but end up at the farm, the factory, or in the sewer (or, in between, still within the body, whose inner reaches offer up their mysteries at or to our great peril or comic effect) each with their own host of considerations; they neither ennoble nor justify, but are very much of and about food, as are we. “All the delicacies of the table may be traced back to the shambles and the dunghill,” right?

 

and so, to do more than merely eat is to be pulled this way and that, imposed upon by history, by memory, by contemporaneities and possibilities, realities and virtualities, that repel or entrance, or merely interest. my interest is less in food as a lens for looking at the world, but in the paradoxical simplicity of food itself – and when we look at food, what is it that we see?

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* i say ‘rhizomatic,’ as opposed to ‘take root’ not just because Deleuze Is The New Black (or was, like, five years ago), but because i think there is an argument to be made (mycological more than deleuzian) about the effects of rhizomatic networks on the landscapes they permeate, the widespread and tremendous interdependencies and symbioses with other life systems that they develop, that are not adequately captured by the substrate/superstructure, vertically organized idiom of putting down/taking root(s).

 

 

 

4 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this, particularly the mention of Sturgeon’s Law. And rhizomes!

    • thanks! i’ll have to get your advice if i’m ever in madison!

  2. […] We Don't Need Anonymous Critics" (Alissa Walker at GOOD) "Does Not Butter Ennoble Enough?" (Jonah Campbell at Still Crapulent) "A Lunch Manifesto" (Yen Ha and Michi […]

  3. […] i was asked about my disinclination to identify as a ‘foodie’ (that i touch upon here, but get into in a little more detail in the book itself), to which i gave a garbled but passable […]

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