Friday, 10 December 2010

The new puritanism

How would you define a ‘vice’ – in a food sense, that is?

After the pantomimic howls of indignation over foie gras by some Guardian readers the other week, I’m delighted to report that it’s not just sandal-munching, museli-reading lefties who get in a lather about such things.

Over at the Telegraph, a report into the slow food movement in Italy provoked the following: “is there anything more absurd than being a ‘foodie’? it is remarkable how humans can turn a necessity into a vice.”

And this comment had then, apparently, been ‘recommended’ by four other people.

As an aside, apparently we have former New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene to thank for the term ‘foodie’.

But back to the subject at hand: what makes anyone get their sackcloth knickers into such a knot over food? Or more to the point, over the pleasure that other people take in food?

And when did the enjoyment of food become “a vice”? Or to put it another way, at what stage does enjoyment in food turn from something acceptable into something unacceptable? Where is the gastronomic rubicon? And who gets to decide?

Now I obviously don’t know for certain, but somehow I just cannot imagine this happening in France or Italy or Spain – unless possibly in direct connection to certain interpretations of religious behaviour.

Yet judging by what I’ve seen in recent weeks over here, there is no religious aspect to the disapproval that a number of people appear to have for other people’s enjoyment.

Is this one side of the increasing secularism in society, whereby people are filling the void of conventional religious belief with some sort of other religiosity?

More than one contributor to these discussions threw out the logic before posting. There are people around, for instance, who think (in a somewhat loose sense) that if someone loves food, then that is their entire life and their entire life can be judged accordingly.

The condemnation by a surprisingly large number of people of the idea of taking (excess) pleasure in food seems to have its roots in the puritanical aspects of our past.

Be unhappy with other people eating animals; be unhappy with farm production methods; be unhappy about all sorts of things, by all means. Explain your reasons; put your arguments; campaign.

But why be unhappy about people taking pleasure in something?

Mind, I’ve found myself also considering my own responses to a couple of issues too.

A couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the reported demise of some of our culinary heritage.

But times change – if they didn’t, we’d all still be swinging from the trees and, even if shoved into a room by the thousand, wouldn’t be able to come up with Hamlet.

But here’s the balancing act: times change, but does that mean baby out with bathwater is always positive?

Some of the dishes I touched on in that post are good enough to make it into Larousse. Yet we don’t value them widely on this side of the Channel. What does that say about what we do value of our own heritage and culture?

And what happens if we simply let our heritage and culture die away in a rush to try different things? Why is heritage and culture important? In part, because of our sense of roots, of belonging, perhaps? These things are part of us – they don’t exist apart from us.

It isn’t a question of believing that nobody should try anything new, whether a whole cuisine or an ingredient. But it’s about not throwing everything out in the rush to try something new, like a spoiled child who wants a new toy every week.

I also found myself wondering if I myself wasn’t a little susceptible to the ‘how dare you enjoy yourself doing this’ mantra, when a colleague announced that he was going to The Fat Duck for a slice of the Heston Blumenthal experience.

I’d touched on the madness of the £200 Christmas pudding here, but I must say that Jay Rayner hits a number of nails on their respective heads in this piece in the Guardian (which comes complete with puritan comment warning).

So, what is my problem with Britain’s top chef? Is it jealousy? Question with a question: of what? Is it a puritanical belief that, assuming they’ve got the dosh, people shouldn’t spend it on whatever they like? No. Apart from anything else, that would be massively hypocritical of me.

Trying to put it clearly, my problem with Mr Blumenthal is not actually Mr Blumenthal, but the way in which the pseudo-worship of what he does seems to be another fad.

To try to explain more clearly: take El Bulli, the Ferran Adrià-run restaurant home of molecular gastronomy near Barcelona. This home of gastronomic experimentation sits alongside a wonderful local cuisine; a cuisine that is valued and vital and fabulously alive.

Here, The Fat Duck doesn’t do that because it can’t do that, because no such situation exists in terms of an indigenous cuisine. So it just seems to me to be one of many distractions from something that has much to offer, but is being neglected, partly because of faddiness and partly because of a lack of interest in the pleasures of food generally.

No, that’s not quite the puritanism I mentioned above, but more the culture of not enjoying food enough to resist the pressures to eat mass-produced fuel in front of the telly, instead of taking time to sit down to a meal with family and/or friends.

Is it too big a leap to suggest that, if as that brief sketch implies, we are becoming more and more alienated even within our own homes, our apparent willingness to dump our culinary heritage is actually linked?

I’ve had online conversations with people who have suggested that there are no objective standards for judging food; that one foodstuff is no better than any other.

That leaves you with a belief that there is no qualitative difference between, say, a Pot Noodle and a chateaubriand steak.

Or as one of those online puritans that I mentioned at the top of this piece suggested, there is no difference between animal and fish produce and vegetarian alternatives: the textured vegetable protein burger and the real burger are no different.

Is it also, therefore, too big a stretch to suggest that, in a time when big business and finance (including the major supermarket chains) hold such sway in the country, such a puritanical rejection of pleasure in food, whether deliberate or not, is useful?

I don’t know the answers and I’m am not about to start positing any glib ideas. But it increasingly seems to me that denying gastronomic pleasure is a stance with more widespread ramifications than we might imagine.

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