Food Snobbery and the Joys of Cooking

I just started freelancing so obviously I decided I needed to impose some sort of insanely dorky homework on myself to get my brain in order. Thus, I read an essay—“Hitting the Corn-Pone Trail,” the introduction to Betty Fussell’s I Hear America Cooking, 1986—and wrote something.

“I can only say in my defense that there is no snobbery as intense as food snobbery, and I had lots of company.”

Betty Fussell is probably one of my favorite food writers, and one I rarely see getting any love. How great is that line, though?

She’s talking about, loosely, an 80s vogue for polenta and simultaneous disdain for grits, which 21st century food fans will know are basically the same thing. (Although in Gwyneth’s new cookbook there are no less than four recipes for Roasted Seasonal Vegetable With Polenta, so polenta’s back I guess.)

Blue = grits, red = polenta. Courtesy Googz, who else.

But Fussell’s also talking about trends in food snobbery. Snobbery implies a classism not just of monetary wealth—though in food obviously that’s a factor—but also of culinary cultural capital.

What’s cool? More important, what can you say is cool that will make other people think you are cool?

“The joke of American food, voiced often by Twain, is the joke of comic excess.”

Fussell calls much of American food a “parody cuisine,” a deliberate exaggeration. American food often feels like a joke, even now. (Especially now?) Doritos Locos tacos are just as funny as a corner Italian deli with multimillion dollar investors or a dive cocktail bar with valet parking or a three Michelin-starred restaurant that serves Doritos Locos tacos. (I made that last one up but let me know when it becomes real.)

But just because there’s humor to food doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad, so long as everything tastes good. The problem is it’s too rare to be in on the joke: everyone is so concerned with making sure they think the right things that they lose sight of the fun of food.

Are Cronuts funny? Yes. (Well, they used to be, although the joke’s a little stale now.) Are they delicious and masterfully crafted by a pastry chef at the peak of his talents? Yes, absolutely! Can they be both things at once? I like to think so.

“But if American cooking is not a plastic pornography ‘du ketchup au cake mix, du Jell-O au peanut butter, du Coke à l’orangeade sans orange,’ what is it?”

What do you actually enjoy cooking? What do you really think tastes good? What food are you delighted by? What do your neighbors cook at home? Where do your friends go out to eat? What do they order when they get there? If the American cuisine isn’t plastic pornography, what is it?

I’ve seen a sort of populist food coverage pop up recently, most notably with Sam Sifton’s “The Improbable Rise of the Mississippi Pot Roast” and Andrew Knowlton’s “Welcome to Hillstone, America’s Favorite Restaurant.” But so much more often the world my food world friends talk about is one my other friends don’t live anywhere near. And yet everyone eats. So where is everyone’s food?

“It is not the cooking that appears on television or in gourmet magazines or posh restaurant guides, because its purpose is neither showbiz nor celebrityhood nor fashion…This is cooking for the pleasure of cooking and eating. And because it does not make money or news in a money-making media-blitzed culture, it is unusually ‘silent.’”

We have two types of food in America, then: The deliberate exaggeration, the food that is noteworthy, loud, the plastic pornography. Cronuts and Oreos that taste like cronuts and high-concept restaurants and a chain restaurant’s latest move in the novelty foods arms race and every restaurant that has really, really good food yet has a really, really, really long line.

And then there’s Fussell’s so-called silent cuisine, the foods people eat when they’re sick or celebrating or got home from work late or are having their friends over to watch the game. The shortcuts they take or the extra step they go through for no other reason than grandma did it. Foods like the Mississippi Pot Roast, spinach dip, boneless skinless chicken breasts, or, I don’t know, PF Chang’s. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Spaghetti with plain old marinara.

So often we mix up the two, the loud food and the quiet one. Foods people truly, deeply love are mistaken for parody when you cross cultural lines (“you actually put Velveeta in your queso?”) and the food coven-approved foods that get written up are often somewhat far from people’s lived realities (why does one food truck have a line when the one down the road that’s just as good doesn’t?).

Too often we trust consensus more than we trust our gut, prefer status to deliciousness. I’m going to try to rely on the latter from here on out.

And I guess if you need me I’ll be over here sipping on my frozen bottom shelf strawberry margarita and reading Betty Fussell.

BONUS! Here is some most excellent 80s shade that didn’t really fit in the above but is too good to leave out: “The best of New American cooking is as muddled and as shifty as the old. The pace setter of California’s new style is Alice Waters, born in New Jersey, ravished by Provence, and married to the communes of Berkeley, where she dishes up Pacific-Provencale in a Monterey-styled house called Chez Panisse. The embodiment of Louisiana’s Cajun style is Paul Prudhomme, who was born in the swamps but who by the very act of bringing country food to the city has spawned a brood of Instant Cajun from Portland to Kalamazoo. The spokesman for Manhattan’s new all-American style is Lawrence Forgione, who flies in ‘native’ American ingredients to Madison Avenue as if a morel from Michigan would make a place American and a French morelle would not.”