Food Fan or Foodie?
In San Francisco, it makes a difference.
As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I am tired of feeling guilty for considering food more fuel than art. And as someone who enjoys a seared scallop as much as the next person — but who is not obsessed with black cod ponzu or water buffalo meatballs for $32 — I think it is high time that all like-minded people ditch their reticence and publicly decry foodie-ism for the pretentious, exclusionary, and expensive nonsense it is.
For years, I have tried to ignore the fawning celebration of this-or-that Michelin-starred, San-Francisco celebrity chef and the rapturous drivel about poetic cuisine. But the journalistic accolades have now reached such a crescendo that before another mini-plate of seaweed in Thai basil broth is served, I must speak out for the other San Franciscans, for the people whose “communal tables” are where they serve dinner at home, whose “dining scene” takes place in their own kitchens, and for whom being immersed in a “food culture” means shopping at the local grocery store or the corner farmer’s market.
We have been silent too long. And we are, quite literally, paying the price for our reserve.
The city’s image as a food mecca where the overindulged jostle for refills of their cold-pressed organic blends before restaurant hopping via Uber, is both superficial and an affront. Of course, more restaurants open here every day than almost any place on earth. We patronize many of them, particularly in the neighborhoods. And yes we appreciate that as a coastal city, eating well and trying new things is a cultural trait. We just don’t feel the need to rhapsodize about “fusion” or talk about our frisson when we are buying frisee.
Moreover, we insist that the long tradition of “eating well” in San Francisco has been hijacked by those with fussy palates we neither recognize nor share. We further assert that eating out in San Francisco is becoming a class-conscious, expensive sport for the wealthy and their acolytes whose menu haikus about Israeli couscous, pickled ramps and hazelnut financier are a mesquite-infused smokescreen for skyrocketing prices. This is not to even mention the “reclaiming and repositioning” of more proletarian favorites: Anyone for half a deviled egg while you wait? That will be $2.50 please.
Cooking may have evolved as long ago as 1.9 million years. Its purpose: to tenderize animal tissue, make it easier to chew as well as kill the bacteria that could kill us. It also enabled our ancestors to expand their diet and wrest more energy from food. Our tastes are vastly more sophisticated now, but our need for basic sustenance remains. So, too, does another basic fact: It doesn’t matter what’s on the menu, or how much it costs, the remains of all that fancy food end up in the sewer. And eating at a best-100-list restaurant will not make the aftermath of your conspicuous consumption look or smell any different.
And that’s a critical point. Much of what passes for obsessively refined taste in food today is really about distinction from and superiority over the canned food, fried food, obese America that many foodies fear.
I share their distaste for an unhealthy, overstuffed nation, but some humility is in order. It is neither fair nor wise to assume that a preference for tuna noodle casserole over duck liver mousse is a character flaw. Or that cookies flavored with Douglas fir are somehow more gratifying than those made with oatmeal and raisins. Foodies will, of course, insist that they are not being critical at all, that it’s all about the adventure of food not the predictability of it.
We say fine, go explore, just stop acting as if those who don’t take orgasmic pleasure in shaved romanesco and pig fries are pitiable peasants whose taste buds have been ruined by their daily gruel.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that foodies be forced to trade their cucumber crema for the fish-stick Fridays of Catholic lore. We are instead urging them to redirect their enthusiasm to teaching people — and maybe themselves — the virtues of healthy cooking, not extravagant eating.
If not, if the lure of wild-nettle quesadillas still packs them in, I have but one bit of advice: Read about the feast of Trimalchio in the Satyricon, a Roman novel written in the time of Nero. Grotesque extravagance — hors d’oeuvres of white and black olives delivered by a bronze donkey, entrees representing the signs of the zodiac — becomes the fodder for stinging satire. It’s still loathsome and laughable 2,000 years later. Don’t say we, the other San Francisco, didn’t try to warn you.