A new obsession

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," the 19-century gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, famously said. If that is indeed true, then the wild obsession with food and cooking that has gripped America is very revealing.


12 de agosto de 2012 | 01h00

For about the past ten years, every aspect of food consumption has been hyper-rationalized. There are dozens of reality shows having to do with aspiring chefs competing with each other, celebrity chefs swooping in to a failing restaurant in order to save it, a celebrity chef opening a cooking school and putting students through their paces.There is"Cake Boss," which follows the daily life of a family that owns a bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey. There is something called "The Chew," in which the contestant who does the most perfect impersonation of Julia Child wins.

Then there are the books. Hundreds of books. There are books telling you how to eat healthy, how to eat fancy, how to cook very variety of fish, how to bake bread, how to cook for your lover, how to cook if you are an athlete, how cook if you are single, how to cook dinner in 20 minutes… There are memoirs in the form of cookbooks: How I Learned to Stop Loving Badly and Start Eating Well, How I Cooked For 25 Different Boyfriends, How I Cooked French Food While Learning About Impressionist Painting. (All my own invention, but you get the idea.) There are books teaching you how to grow your own food, books exposing the food industry's inhumane and unhygienic practices, books classifying every type of known eatable substance as healthy or not.

And there is the organic food movement. It started out as a conscientious style of healthy eating, in which food was grown according to strict criteria that ruled out pesticides and herbicides. It still is that, but it has also been assimilated by giant food corporations that plaster the label "organic" on everything, even where the category of organic makes no sense, as in "organic potato chips." At the same time, the food corporations are introducing more and more artificial elements into the organic category. They are able to do this because the government agency that oversees food production---the Food and Drug Administration-hasn't yet precisely determined what "organic" really means. But in grocery stores, and supermarkets, and farmer's markets throughout the country, the search for the perfect food goes on.

There are two national trends that the obsession with food embodies. The first is the transformation of leisure into just another form of competition. What could be more pleasant and gratifying than a beautiful meal? The kitchen has always been the center of family life. The dining room has always been the center of social life. Now cooking, eating and serving food has been dragged into the same competitive realm as making a career and earning money. You used to come home from work and lose yourself in the kitchen. Now you come home from work to another type of work, as celebrity chefs, and food writers, and health gurus all look over your shoulder while you cook.

The point of making cooking an art was always to turn necessity into pleasure; to emphasize the pleasurable side of our animal nature, rather than the harsh survivalist side. But, now, in America, the leisure of cooking and of eating well has been turned back into the Darwinian struggle to prevail: to be the "best" cook, to eat the "best" food, to have the "best" physique, and so forth. I cannot count the times I have sat at dinner in a restaurant in New York as my dining companion displayed his physical robustness to me by eating every fat-soaked item on the menu.

The other national trend is control. Whether because people feel less and less in control of their own lives, or because magical new technology has encouraged them to feel that management of their enviroment is within reach, Americans seem to harbor the illusion of total control. Much of this is manifested, as I have written before, in the urge to micro-manage our children's lives, and also in the prevalence of sociobiological writing, which promises to apply a proactive formula to existence. But eating has now been brought into the control-obsession, too. It is as if by rationalizing every aspect of the consumption of food, we can start tinkering with mortality itself. After all, no leisurely activity is as connected to the sources of life as eating.

Comparison between America and ancient Rome has been made for years now, in the way America conducts its foreign affairs, in the rise of a plutocratic caste, in the decadence of the culture. But it seems to me that the analogy is all wrong. As their empire expanded to the breaking point and then started to crumble, the Romans abandoned themselves to pleasure. Americans are abandoning pleasure to work, as every aspect of life becomes rationalized and turned into a type of competition. Never mind what you eat. Tell me how you think about eating, and I will tell you whether you are healthy or not.

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