Friday, February 16, 2007

Nihilism Via Culinary Anthropology

I just finished The Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner, a book which is definitely a worthwhile read for people interesting in thinking about food. It's certainly not the first book dedicated to overturning food myths; Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma being one of its most recent predecessors. However, Gospel is unique in that it ventures beyond the usual exposés to talk about cultural food myths as well. As a whole the book is well-reasoned, but I have a couple bones to pick regarding specific topics.

First I'd like to comment on a couple of aspects of the discussion of "authenticity" and the search for "authentic" food experiences. Let me preface this item by saying that that section of the book asks the appropriate questions regarding the construction of "authentic" food and food experiences. That being said, I don't think he gives enough credit to Chowhound. His analysis of Chowhound amounts to "why trust a bunch of random dopes when there's educated food critics you can turn to instead?". This is true, up to a point, but I'll counter by saying that there are a lot more random dopes that there are trained food critics, which means that they can cover a whole lot more ground.

Case in point: I was in Orange County, CA, not so long ago when I developed a craving for katsudon. I was able to search the posts at Chowhound and find Goro which, as advertised, was quite good. I'm not sure that's there's a way to solicit the collective wisdom of the anointed critics regarding such a specific topic as "where can I get katsudon near John Wayne?". So Chowhound definitely has its place.

Regarding the authenticity of particular restaurants, Mr. Glassner seems dubious of the idea that there's such a thing as "more authentic" and "less authentic". Again, I'll offer an example by way of illustration. When I was in college I frequently ate at a Thai place called Sanam Luang which, on reflection, I feel was quite authentic for at least some definition of the word. In writing this I tried to figure out whether I was just being nostalgic or whether there really was something substantively different about the restaurant. I think that it has to do, in some measure, with the breadth of the menu.

Mr. Glassner is right in noting that Americans have expectations regarding Thai restaurants; you have to look hard to find a Thai restaurant that doesn't serve pad thai and satay. At the same time, however, the "standard Thai menu" only represents a small sampling of the breadth of Thai cuisine. I'm always happy when I find a Thai place that serves larb and, though I know that they're out there somewhere, I've yet to dine at a Thai restaurant besides Sanam Luang that serves kanom pak kard. For those of you who haven't had that last dish before, its sort of like radish french fries with bean sprouts and egg. Sounds odd, but its really quite tasty.

So it seems to me that the notion of "authenticity" does have some objective basis. A restaurant which accurately portrays the range of a given cuisine can be said to be more authentic than a restaurant which presents only a handful of well-known dishes. I feel well-grounded in saying that an Italian restaurant is less authentic if it only serves variations of past with red sauce and cheese. Conversely, if a Spanish restaurant serves oxtail stew I'm going to call it more authentic.

Unfortunately, though I really wished he would at least mention the topic, he didn't talk at all about food and ennui. Culinary adventurers looking for the most authentic dishes they can find are driven by more than a desire to amaze their friends and amass cultural capital. Ultimately they're turning to food as one of the last great distractions.

I wrote a paper on this a long time ago for a food class I was taking, spurred on in part by the rise of El Bulli and its ilk. Casual sex is out, drugs are out, ecstatic religion is, to a large extent, out. The pursuit of exotic foodstuffs remains one of the few socially-sanctioned ways to obtain new sensual experiences. Its why people will pay $250 to eat lard-covered cherries, hoping as they do that they'll encounter some sensation that they haven't experience before. They're the modern day equivalent of Heliogabalus, eating peacocks' tongues and flamingos' brains for the sheer thrill of doing something new.

Lastly, and this is less of a criticism and more of an observation, Mr. Glassner makes very few positive statements throughout the course of the book. I expected him to end on some sort of vanilla summary note, something akin to Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.", but he declines to do even that. I approve of the relentless questioning, the constant debunking and tearing down of myths surrounding food, but what does it mean that Mr. Glassner chooses to erect no structure, no matter how modest, in their place?

I think that, perhaps, Mr. Glassner walked to the very edge of the abyss, peered over, and then decided that it was best not to mention what he'd seen therein. The discussions of nutrition and authenticity both come perilously close to outright nihilism. With the respect to the question of what constitutes an appropriate diet he essentially says that the problem is too hard and, even if we could solve it from a factual standpoint, would that really mean anything? He then questions the very notion of authenticity, revealing a gaping chasm where minutes before there was presumably firm ground. The whole book, from the subtitle ("Everything you think you know about food is wrong") onwards feels like he's trying to bring himself to come out and say "we don't know shit, go have another pint of ice cream if it makes you feel good". He just doesn't quite get there.

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