Shut Up and Eat — Why Food Matters More Than It Should
I remember things through what I eat. Tastes, textures and smells are embedded in my memories. I learn to know a place by tasting and touching and smelling. I begin to associate my memories of places and people with the taste of sharp cheddar and heirloom tomatoes, the aroma of lemongrass in broth.
To me, preparing food and feeding people brings nourishment to our bodies and spirits. Feeding people is a hands on way of loving someone, in the same way that feeding ourselves is a way of honoring where we come from and our own createdness.
We are living in a bizarre time right now, when people are building grade A kitchens in their homes, and if you walk into a cooking store or go to a farmer’s market, you feel like you need to spend exorbitant amounts on kitchen gadgets and organically grown ingredients to make a simple meal. Simultaneously, people are living completely on take-out and energy bars. Simply putting it, there is a middle ground we need to find between these two extremes. Food is about tricks and fanfare, no longer about feeding ourselves and the people we love with our hands.
Food is one of the ways we acknowledge our humanity and our need for nourishment. There are many elements that make up the American attitude towards food, but it seems that there is always an unending satisfaction with food. We constantly need to improve it.
To better understand this new attitude towards food, I read different articles on food trends and how they have changed the way we eat and experience food. Through my sources, I was able to better understand how food has become less about where we come from, and more about who we identify as.
Bosker, Bianca. The New Yorker. 30 Apr. 2015.
Imagine this: you are about to enjoy a dessert inspired by the Pop Rocks candy. As you begin to take your first bite, Amon Tobin’s “Piece of Paper,” a electronic composition that evokes sounds of metal hand mixers clanging against stainless-steel bowls, begins to play. The crackling of the Pop Rocks is immediately enhanced, and you become acutely aware of every flavor and sense.
For a handful of evenings a week through the month of June, sixteen people will be allowed to dine at Kitchen Theory, an “experimental kitchen” for a hundred-dollar tasting menu prepared by a molecular gastronomist, chef Jozef Youssef.
What sets this menu apart from the other expensive multi-course meals is the collaborators: psychologists from Oxford University, and experts in synthesis, a rare condition in which the stimulation of one sense sparks a vivid response in another.
Though seen by some as another “gastronomic gimmick,” these meals credit the truth about the mind: the senses do not work alone, but together.
The growing amount of research on multisensory perception has inspired chefs like Youssef to think about everything from napkins to wallpaper. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal uses an audio of crashing waves to heighten the flavor of an oyster dish.
As Bianca Bosker writes, “even if multisensory gastronomy fails to save the world, at the very least it could rescue your next dinner party. Over-salt the salad? Just cue up some sour songs.”
“Multi-sensory gastronomy” embraces the idea that food, in some cases, can save us from ourselves. It describes a process of sensory manipulation. Different companies and chefs can cut fat and sugars out of food without affecting the flavor, by simply changing the way food is served.
Goldfield, Hannah. The New Yorker. 13 Oct. 2014.
Yelp is a multinational corporation that develops, hosts and markets Yelp.com and the Yelp mobile app, which publish crowd sourced reviews about local businesses. The ability to write reviews about a restaurant’s products or services has influenced and changed the roles of professional critics and directly affected the culinary world.
In the article “Yelp vs. Food Critics”, Hannah Goldfield discusses the complicated relationship Yelp has with businesses, and its accusations of manipulating reviews based on participation in its advertising program. Business owners claim that Yelp offers to remove negative reviews if they agree to purchase advertising. This affects the credibility of the chefs, as well as the success of their restaurant.
Yelp reviewers are often unsophisticated and lack the background that would allow them to properly review a dining experience. The main problem with Yelp reviewers is that they are mainly concerned with the trivial details of the restaurant experience. It is an outlet for people to write their biased and often times negative thoughts without any prior knowledge on the culinary arts.
A respected New York chef writes that his favorite Yelp review of all time was someone referring to Maldon sea salt and calling it “big ass salt chunks. Another time, someone said that the oysters were too salty — and they don’t even put salt on them. “This lady ate a raw oyster, and was like, “This is too salty, it’s disgusting.” I think we told her that she should be mad at God, and not at us.”
Yelp reviewers also tend to offer unimaginative, useless notes like “The location is great, service is superb, and food is epic.” The consumer reads the Yelp review, and then makes a decision based on very little information.
The difference between Yelp “critics” and restaurant critics in the Times or other respected publications is that you trust them in the way you trust art and film critics. They don’t try and tell you what you will experience, but they entertain you. They often visit a restaurant multiple times before leaving a review and they provide carefully researched context that relates back to the purpose and cultural experience of their meal. They write thoughtfully and with distinction.
Chefs live on the receiving end of a constant stream of commentary and criticism, of ill-intentioned Yelping. The worst part is that it is from people that know far less about their craft than they do.
Goldfield, Hannah. The New Yorker. 2 May 2014.
In “The Trend is Toast,” Hannah Goldfield discusses how food trends are taking over our identities. They are either overhyped (cronuts), or they overstay their welcome (cupcakes and kale). The new trend is “artisanal toast,” an elevated version of a simple breakfast food.
The Mill is a café and bakery near the Alamo Square neighborhood of San Francisco, that is selling toast for an outrageous price of four dollars a slice. The Mill uses inch-and-a-half-thick slabs of thick doughy bread and toast them on high with local butters and jams.
John Gravois is a food critic from California. His skepticism of the trend itself went beyond finding it overrated. The first line of his article describes the toast-making process as: “All the guy was doing was slicing inch-thick pieces of bread, putting them in a toaster, and spreading stuff on them.” Later, he writes, “I rolled my eyes. How silly; how twee; how perfectly San Francisco, this toast,” and quotes the manager of the café where he first noticed it: “Tip of the hipster spear.”
There are now toast menus, toast bars, and toasts of the day. Avocado toast for example, has become extremely popular because it overlaps with another potent trend: “clean living.” It is healthy, yet indulgent. And, it looks good on Instagram.
Artisanal toast is hardly the first indication of our food obsession, or even necessarily the most shocking, but it’s become a scapegoat for a growing, broader cultural backlash. Food is beginning to matter more than it should.
Kohn, David. The New Yorker. 22 May 2014.
When it comes to food, we are in a period of discord, where people are more engaged, and also more confused. The gluten-free trend exemplifies how complicated food has become, and the anxiety it evokes among Americans.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related products that helps dough rise, keep its shape, and makes it chewy. The gluten-free trend has demonized this protein, saying it causes all kinds of symptoms. This is true if you have celiac disease, an immune disease in which eating gluten damages the small intestine. However, only one percent of the actual population has it.
David Kohn supports the argument of there being a “health halo” surrounding food, meaning people think they are doing something healthier by eating gluten-free. The growing attention to gluten shows the merging of awareness of health and the environment, and of the celebration of cuisine and pleasure.
Until recently, the other ninety-nine per cent of Americans did not give gluten much thought. But, led by people such as William Davis, the author of “Wheat Belly,” an empire was founded based on the idea that gluten was a poison and a culinary villain.
The appeal of cutting out gluten from your diet is the reduction of side effects people think they are getting from gluten, which include, bloating, abdominal discomfort, headaches, bad acne, fatigue, and bone or joint pain. This is what the gluten-free lifestyle is selling to the public.
Sales of gluten-free products will exceed fifteen billion dollars by 2016, twice the amount of five years earlier. Nearly twenty million people claim that they often experience stress and anxiety after eating products that contain gluten, and a third of American adults say that they are trying to eliminate it from their diets.
For many people, avoiding gluten has become a cultural choice, and has offered an opening to a whole new way of life. There are travel agents that help plan gluten-free vacations and wedding planners that offer gluten-free wedding receptions. At my church, there is now even a gluten-free option offered at communion.
The appeal and success of a gluten-free diet is not difficult to understand, especially for people with actual stomach ailments. Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their intake of high calorie foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating. But eliminating gluten is complicated, inconvenient, and expensive, and data suggests that most people don’t live gluten-free for long.
Kummer, Corby. Vanity Fair. 18 May 2015.
In “Is It Time to Table Farm-to-Table?” Corby Kummer discusses the “farm-to-table” movement and its negative impact on the culinary world. Restaurants everywhere provide “exhausting pedigrees for every morsel”. Where food comes from matters more than it tastes.
Kummer begins with explaining the idea of farm-to-table, and how it originally started with good intentions. Chef Alice Waters wanted to establish a connection between the seasons of the year and the food she served. Chefs picked up on the idea, and it became a trend for each chef to outdo each other by sharing the most amount of information about where their food came from: “Treviso grown by Warren Weber in Bolinas in the third row of the radicchio plot at Star Route Farms.”
The farm-to-table trend also made people more aware of farmer’s markets, and they began to access locally-grown ingredients that once gave chef’s their competitive advantage when it came to cuisine.
Loretta Keller, a chef at Stars during the heyday of California cuisine and owner of successful San Francisco restaurants writes, “Those goddamned markets. When the public got access to what only we could get before, we lost our bragging rights. We had to compete for products that made us special.”
Even worse, the idea of farm-to-table has been adopted by companies that the movement was an alternative to. McDonald’s for example, started a “What We’re Made Of” campaign to make customers “feel good about the high-quality ingredients that go into our menu.” Two years later, it ran a “farm-to-fork” campaign that featured potato, beef, and lettuce farmers displaying products that actually grew in (or on) the ground.
Farm-to-table has become tainted by capitalistic restaurateurs that use the term for a marketing ploy. The future of farm-to-table should be food that speaks for itself, not an overused business tactic.
Kummer, Corby. Vanity Fair. 04 Jan. 2013.
“The reservation is nearly impossible to get. The meal will cost several hundred dollars. But in the era of the four-hour, forty-course tasting menu, one key ingredient is missing: any interest in what (or how much) the customer wants to eat.”
Corby Kummer shares his commentary on the extensive and elaborate take-what-I-give-you meals that have built a cult following among the American public. The diner is essentially glued to their chair as they endure multiple course that last two to five hours. They have no choice, preference, or ability to change anything. They are completely under the chef’s control.
The original model of these tasting menus were restaurants in the French countryside. These chefs were champions of cuisine, and were gifted in classical cooking techniques that utilized seasonal and local ingredients. The restaurants offered four to five modest courses.
American chefs have turned this quaint celebration of cuisine into an entrepreneurial enterprise. If French chefs were offering four courses, why not offer twelve? These new American chefs push their techniques to the extreme, and took classic cooking to the next level.
The “new” American chef is a self-promoter, looking for fame. The idea of a reality TV chef with erratic meltdowns and heated explosions, has spilled into restaurants and is something the diner wants a taste of. This totalitarian style has become the new norm among many restaurants.
The intent of these restaurant experiences is to dazzle the diner. Instead, the tedious and seemingly neverending meals end up feeling like torture. The food is exquisite- roasted lamb with delicate green almonds and cauliflower cream, or the sweet tart flavor of gooseberry sorbet with elderberry foam over a toasted corn cake. But exquisite is different from transporting and astounding.
A guest raised partly in Paris was offended by the number of courses at Per Se, a restaurant in New York City: “How is it possible,” she asked before the numerous dessert courses arrived, “to eat this much without feeling … heavy?” Seen through French eyes, “what began as an earnest re-creation of a French model looked like it had passed through Disney World with a stop at Mount Rushmore”.
Lanchester, John. The New Yorker. 27 Mar. 2014.
In his article for The New Yorker, John Lancaster discusses how food has become more about where we want to go. Food has always been an expression of our culture and identity, but now those identities change over time and respond to different fads and crazes: the cronut craze, the ramps revolution, the bahn-mi boom, the new obsession with kale. The seemingly silliness and superficiality of food trends touches on something deep: the ability to choose who we want to be.
Lancaster focuses on the transformation of our relationship with food. He acknowledges the fluidity and flexibility of it, and its response to different societal pressures. He writes, “by the end of the twentieth century, it seemed that more or less the entire developed world was shopping and cooking and dining out in a way that was given over to self-definition and self-expression and identity-creation and trend-catching and hype and buzz and the new new thing, which sometimes had to do with newness (foams! gels! spherification!) and sometimes with new ways of being old (slow food! farm-to-table! country ham!).”
There is a contemporary fascination with food, with chefs, celebrity chefs, TV chefs, with every aspect of everything to do with ingredients and cooking and eating and what we feed ourselves and our children and where we eat out and how we define ourselves through cuisine.
Food as an expression of one’s identity was not a part of our history. The endless choices of self-expression that food allows us means that there are numerous ways we can go wrong. People feel judged by their food choices, and they are. People follow new food trends because we are more aware of what we are putting into our bodies. Our society has created a mindset that our personal choices can change the world.
Ruiz, Michelle. Bon Appetit. 03 Apr. 2016.
In her article “Instagram Feeding Frenzy,” Michelle Ruiz discusses how “influencers” are changing the food scene. Influencer is the term for social media prodigies that take their feed and make it into a media empire. The new increasing trend is food.
Food Instagram accounts offer a cultivated mix of food, drinks, kitchen design, and props. These professional food Instagrammers are courted by restaurants for their six-figure followings and stylish, sometimes over-the-top photography. Some have turned their accounts into full- or part-time professions, earning up to three hundred and fifty dollars for posting a flattering image, while others use their social media success for free meals and public relations jobs.
These food accounts are redefining where we eat and what is deemed “popular”. A wave of Instagram posts about the milkshakes at Black Tap Burgers in New York’s Soho, heaping “all-you-can-eat candy stores in a glass” led to a Buzzfeed story with more than two million views, hours-long lines, and a feature on ABC’s The Chew.
Restaurants and bars are giving influencers a seat at the industry table and hosting events especially for them, offering ladders and special lighting. The diners take countless pictures from various angles as their food sits getting cold.
This is something that “never would have happened, even two years ago,” according to Jetty-Jane Connor, an associate vice-president of marketing, branding and public relations at The Door, the New York-based PR-firm whose clients include the highly-Instagrammable Black Seed Bagels, Melt Shop, and Sprinkles cupcakes.
Instagram is replacing food coverage by acclaimed critics and publications. Social media is “more honest” than a traditional media story: people can track the likes and comments on an Instagram post about a restaurant in real time.
Social media is affecting our social skills and interaction with one another. Instagram is taking away from the experience of food, and the intimacy of sitting down and simply enjoying each other’s company No longer are people really noticing each bite, each conversation, and each meal.
Not so long ago, food was just food. It was the way we acknowledged our humanness and our appetite. It was a reminder that even though life is fast and chaotic, we’re not machines. In the food world today however, it is much more than that. Everyone’s a critic, and today the constant judgment is even harder to ignore. Food isn’t just sustenance anymore. It is politics and ethics and science. Every single choice and decision we make about food matters. It is not just what we eat but how we eat it, where we eat and when we eat it.
The most successful food trends reflect what is going on within our society. We believe that every meal is important, every dish should be celebrated and broadcasted. Eating should be a cultural and sophisticated experience. We are willing to spend more time and energy on food than ever before, because as a culture, we truly believe that we are what we eat.