Don’t Throw Out the Kale with the Flavored Foam

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So here’s a new one.

There’s an argument I’m used to hearing from the smarter set on the Religious Right, which goes something like this: the underlying idea of modernity is unfettered choice, the ability to be whoever and whatever you want to be. Nature, tradition: these things have no standing in modern ethics. Instead, the individual will rules the day. It’s the argument behind the argument in the Catholic Right’s writings on gay marriage, or contraception, or transgenderism, or any other element of sexual modernity that gives them the willies.

It’s the central tenet of Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay (which, yes, I’m still reviewing; thanks again for your patience!), and it’s the premise Damon Linker swallows in a recent series of posts about “sexual libertarianism” that have just about driven me up a wall.

I’m not used to seeing that argument, or at even echoes of it, in the New Yorker. Recently, the magazine did a food issue and, in it, food critic John Lanchester wrote a call for foodies to, well, turn down. Turn down the faddishness, turn down the hype, turn down all the noise and flash that surrounds contemporary food culture. The piece was titled, “Shut Up and Eat: A Foodie Repents.

Lanchester starts out by writing of how his mom left the religious life and threw herself into cooking as means of self-invention. “It was part,” he writes, “of being someone different from the person she had been.” Raised on a farm in rural Ireland, after leaving the convent and marrying, Lanchester’s mother started hosting dinner and cocktails parties. She served “fancy foreign dishes” that she learned to cook the way a cosmopolitan New Yorker might learn Portuguese or Hindi.  Lanchester says that this is the way all of us cook now, and he contrasts it to traditional cooking: “If you live and cook the same way your grandmother did, you’ll probably never open a cookbook.”

Lanchester drives the point home:

Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. Some aspects of this are ridiculous: the pickle craze, the báhn-mi boom, the ramps revolution, compulsory kale. Is northern Thai still hot? Has offal gone away yet? Is Copenhagen over? The intersection of food and fashion is silly, just as the intersection of fashion and anything else is silly. Underlying it, however, is the sense of food as an expression of an identity that’s defined, in some crucial sense, by conscious choice. For most people throughout history, that wasn’t true. The apparent silliness and superficiality of food fashions and trends touches on something deep: our ability to choose who we want to be.

You hear what I’m hearing there? Compare that to this Pope Benedict quote on modernity, from Reilly’s book:

The idea that ‘nature’ has something to say is no longer admissible; man is to have the liberty to remodel himself at will. He is to be free from all of the prior givens of his essence. He makes of himself what he wants, and only in this way is he really ‘free’ and liberated.

Of course, Reilly then applies that idea to his argument against gay marriage.

Just as the argument doesn’t resonate with me when applied to sex, it doesn’t work for me when we’re talking about food culture, either. I don’t live in the world Lanchester describes, and neither do most of the people I know. I mean, yes, we watch cooking TV, and yes, some of us brag on Facebook when we eat at a great restaurant. Yes, we cook dishes our great-grandmothers couldn’t have pronounced. But I feel like I live in a world where most people cherish the recipes that come to them from their families, and where most people love the food traditions of their homes, where most people know that a simple meal with friends beats the performance of a great meal at a trendy restaurant. I know that just about any out-of-town visitor to Austin gets treated not to Uchi or Qui, but to a barbecue and/or Tex-Mex joint. It seems to me that food is still very much about where we’re from.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Or maybe it’s a question of perspective. As a food critic, Lanchester has a different relationship to the food world than I do. He lives in the middle of it and can’t turn it off. I know, for instance, that I feel differently about society when I’m walking through Houston’s Galleria than I do when I’m hanging around my kitchen, talking to family and friends. If I were perpetually trapped in the Galleria, I’d probably have a dourer opinion of culture than I do.

But even though I disagree with him, I like the way Lanchester writes.

After all, the Galleria exists, and so does the silly seriousness that Lanchester thinks has taken over the way we eat. Both are fair targets for criticism, as long as we all agree that there’s a right way to go about it. Like, for example, we can criticize faddishness while still recognizing that the objects of those fads aren’t always bad; we can celebrate specific innovations without endorsing an ethic of innovation-at-all-costs.

Put differently, we don’t need to throw out the kale with the flavored foam.

Looking back at my list of essays that stuck with me in 2014, they all show an ability to critique parts of the modern world without forcing those critiques onto subjects that won’t bear them.

Lanchester has the same ability. He doesn’t caricature foodies (too much); instead, he gives his own mother as an example of someone who used food as a form of self-invention. Nor does he reify the past. He acknowledges the good things that the “foodie revolution” has brought us: “There is no downside to this,” he writes of food developments of the past twenty years. “We’re cooking and eating much better than we used to, and that’s great.”

And Lanchester recognizes that change is a constant, and not something necessarily to be avoided at all costs. That’s one lesson of his narrative: the spaghetti bolognese recipe he says he says he’s making that night represents family for him where once it represented reinvention for his mother. He writes: “My kids will love it; they always do. Cooking it will remind me of my mother; it always does.”

Again, I disagree with the guy on a main point. But I love this piece. Conversely, I agree with a lot of what the Catholic Right says—even that ridiculous interview between Cardinal Burke and the “New Emangelization” website contained a good point about the consumer mentality and overscheduled childhoods. But because Catholic Right authors too often can’t resist villainizing their opponents, over-generalizing and over-simplifying, and throwing out the good with the bad, their writings become damn near unreadable. The good points get lost.

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