Is eating out pleasurable any more? Is it fun to sit in a restaurant and scream over the DJ? And if you are lucky enough to be able to hear, do you want to listen to a server deliver an eight-minute sermon on the provenance of whipped salt cod and potato fritters? I don’t, but I did, just last week.
Popular culture is overrun with the fetishization of food; cooking shows, celebrity chefs and blogs obsess over the hunt for the perfect bowl of wood-ear mushroom and bamboo shoot ramen. Food has never been better, and more joyless. In the past few weeks, news feeds have been filled with examples of foodie-related misery.
One: In these pages, Globe food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith wrote of “dining aggression” after he engaged in a Twitter war with restaurateur Jen Agg, of perpetually popular Toronto restaurant The Black Hoof. Agg had tweeted that her customers were behaving like “douches.”
It’s as if the customer should feel lucky just to be inside the rarified corridors of the food world. Once, as I put my napkin in my lap, I was told by a hostess at a high-end restaurant that the next seating would be in exactly two hours, implying that were we to stay longer, we would have four other people sitting in our laps.
Two: At an obesity summit in Vancouver, Dr. Valerie Taylor, the mental-health chair of the Canadian Obesity Network, suggested that the Instagramming of every meal smacks of eating-disordered behaviour, or at least a dysfunctional relationship with food. There’s a problem, she noted, “when you don’t take pictures of who you’re with, you take pictures of what you’re eating.”
Three: In the new book Smart Casual, Alison Pearlman examines the merger of high and low culture in dining, in what we eat (ironic comfort food like $22 Mac ’n’ Cheese) and where (the Michelin three-star restaurant that feels like a diner). While this trend sounds democratizing, she argues that it has created haughty exclusivity, eliding anyone who can’t grow his own cow.
Foodies bring the eye-rolling on themselves with their inflated self-regard. The website for Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant formerly ranked No. 1 on the list of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, announces: “In an effort to shape our way of cooking, we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.” Shaping the future is a lot to ask of a hungry diner faced with a plate of lingonberries or live ants on cabbage leaves with crème fraîche. When a norovirus outbreak occurred at Noma in March, and diners were felled by violent stomach heaves, foodie outsiders could be forgiven for a touch of schadenfreude. Even if the food is foraged, the extreme-dining enterprise feels decadent, like a new kind of gluttony.
I was reminded of this while immersed in a story of paucity, that of modern food banks where the hungry typically receive hampers of processed and fatty foodstuffs. In 1998, Nick Saul became director of The Stop, one such institution in an inner-city Toronto neighbourhood. The new, best-selling book The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, written by Saul and his wife Andrea Curtis (disclosure: Curtis is a friend) documents how, with aggressive fundraising and determination, The Stop became a thriving community space where people meet and access resources, work in the garden, and have a good meal together. There, food brings people together, and even addresses larger social issues.
It’s an anti-food-bank food bank that cleverly enlists foodie culture to serve its own ends. The Stop has elaborate fundraising dinners and a catering company run by some of Toronto’s best chefs, offering trendy items like oxtail poutine. Proceeds fund the programs on offer, like after-school cooking classes and pre- and post-natal support; it’s foodie-ism without solipsism.
Sneering at foodies, while fun, distracts from the real issue of hunger. Pretentious dining – and being annoyed by it – is a privilege; most North Americans live on a fast and processed diet.
People still come to get hampers at The Stop, but the food is high quality and healthy – and yes, often local. On Saturday mornings, there’s a farmer’s market offering artisanal cheeses and heirloom veggies. The compelling notion behind The Stop is that if foodie preoccupations with quality and sustainability matter to some, they should matter to all. Writes Saul, paraphrasing food activist Mark Winne: “The rich get local and organic, the poor get diabetes.” Perhaps that will change: Saul has left The Stop to roll out the model across the country as CEO of the Community Food Centres Canada. Taking the exclusivity of foodie-ism and turning it into inclusiveness is a radical idea.
What’s most striking about The Stop is that it breaks the isolation of poverty by inviting people to experience food communally in a lovely setting. A leisurely meal together – the breaking of the bread – is the point of food. Pleasure is powerful. It’s a notion that’s too often lacking in the foodie world, where eating prioritizes cachet above humanity.