Food—you know that stuff you put in your mouth, chew and swallow to stay alive?—has officially jumped the shark.
I’m not exactly sure when it happened. Was it the molecular gastronomy craze of a few years ago, when chefs squirted popcorn and gumdrop foam over your duck breast, and suddenly preparing a meal became a science experiment?
Or was it the proliferation of celebrity cooking and food travel shows, wherein Anthony Bourdain and a crack team of Navy Seals went undercover in Bangkok to bring back a rare mangosteen, then kept it alive in captivity back in his New York City walk-in cooler. (Slight exaggeration, but not so far from the truth.)
Perhaps the moment came when they began charging $16 for cocktails at my local watering hole. I watched as the bartender dripped some magical, homemade bitters or tincture involving foraged dandelion root or possibly unicorn tears into a tumbler, took a sage leaf, actually spanked it between his palms to “release the fragrance,” and proceeded to mash it with a weapon, or light it afire, or both, before shaking but not stirring it into my organic, sustainably-raised gin.
Given the price, I half expected an actual shark fin to be swimming on top. But of course, as a well-schooled PC foodie, I well know that shark fins are to be avoided at all costs. We are trained to pick our artisanal vices carefully.
Folks, I’m not against good food. And I’m not against consumers buying from smaller, local farms and producers. No argument there.
I say, let’s ramp down this notion of food as fetish, food as porn, food as adventure, food as performance, and get back to basics: Food as food, as something we eat.
People relentlessly posting photos of their latest culinary adventure on Facebook is part of the problem. It’s not your baby, it’s a hearty winter stew. An Esquire article made the case for why restaurants should forbid patrons from taking pictures of their meals. In short: food photography distracts eaters from the reason why they are there—to eat.
Worse case in point: This amusing Tumblr called “Pictures Of Hipsters Taking Pictures Of Food.” People who obsessively post pictures their meals may even have psychological or medical problems with food, says one obesity researcher.
We used to order a cup of joe. Now coffee bag labels read like entries from Wine Spectator.
Allegro’s Sumatra Aeknauli Micro Lot promises a brew with undertones of grapefruit, mushroom, and fresh sage.
Reading a menu can require an advanced degree in linguistics or botany, or both. Mangalitsa cotechino? Chickpea vacherin? Labne, triticale berries, vegetable mignardises? To be or not to be, a Cara Cara orange—or whether ’tis nobler for the fruit to suffer as an ordinary “orange.” That is the question posed by a dessert entitled “Chocolate and Earl Grey Tea Cremeaux for Two: Cara Cara Orange, Oat Biscotti, Homemade Sea Salt” at one local restaurant.
For once, I’d love to see a bistro menu without any fancy “heirloom beans” or “Scituate lobster.” Resisting the temptation to detail an entree’s provenance as if it was some American Kennel Club purebred, the chef might simply—but bravely—admit, “Diners, this is an ordinary chicken breast from God knows where.”
Food-themed reality TV shows further exacerbate this escalation of food. Programs such as “Iron Chef” and its many offspring—from “Amazing Wedding Cakes” to “World’s Weirdest Restaurants”—promote the idea of cooking as competition, as something to be quantified and judged, as something that you win and lose at, akin to a sports match or spelling bee.
Meanwhile, easy-on-the-eyes chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, and others further elevate the craft of cooking to sexy and stratospheric, not earthbound, levels. And programs like “The Deadliest Catch” and “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” make food hunting and gathering seem like an extreme sport. How can my snowy trek to Shaw’s possibly compete?
Then there’s the trend of DIY food-making and husbandry, from urban rooftop tomato patches to backyard chicken-keeping and the explosion of artisan everything. Again, I’m down with people getting excited about making their food. But this whole bacon-infused vodka and bacon-studded chocolate strikes me as just plain silly.
For a real laugh, head to your local Whole Foods, where you can get coop-grown, free-trade, ethically-treated hot dogs, quinoa and kale. Seriously, a recent post at Brokelyn, a website devoted to life in Brooklyn, NY, chronicled “The most absurd items at the new Brooklyn Whole Foods.” Among its finds: “Air-chilled snow water poultry,” which surely is better for you than air-chilled tap water chicken, and “‘Slow dried’ locally made whole-wheat dinosaur pasta,” for the most discriminating Zaks and Zoes who will throw a fit if their mac ‘n’ cheese is made from fast-drying pasta sourced from, say, New Jersey.
Can’t we just buy a piece of fish, pot of honey or a bag of sweet potatoes without them being farm-raised, line-caught and solstice-harvested?
Things have changed since Julia Child simply showed us how to cook, slowly, methodically, in real time. (Except for where she pulled the finished soufflé out of the oven. I always loved that magic trick.) How well would Julia fare in an amped up, timer-ticking, food smackdown versus her arch rival, whoever that might have been? Probably not so well.
Rather, Child, one of our earliest food ambassadors, had more down-to-earth ideas about cooking and food. “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces,” she once said, “just good food from fresh ingredients.”
It’s 4 p.m. and I’m getting snacky. This Cheese and Cracker plate, with accompanying Can of Cheap Beer, looks amazing. So appetizing, in fact, I just might take snap a photo and post it.
[A version of this originally appeared on WBUR's Cognoscenti]
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.