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Good Food Doesn’t Have To Be Class Warfare

Does foodie culture—obscure ingredients, too-clever elaborations on junk food, and menus running into the hundreds of dollars—mock the poor?

Next restaurant

photo: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

Duck, presented with antique duck press, at Next restaurant.

Another day, another article trolling foodie culture. (Pro tip: targeting hipsters is so 2012; now the hip anti-hip flay foodies.) This time it’s—natch—Slate, taking the usual tropes and kicking them up a notch. For L.V. Anderson, foodies aren’t just insufferable obsessives, they’re actually immoral, luxuriating in contempt for the poor. Let them eat foam, Anderson cries.

It’s profoundly silly, but from the silliness we can extract the profundity.

Born in Ferran Adria’s elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, and raised in American outposts like WD-50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago, modernism utilizes laboratory chemicals and equipment to give foods surprising appearances and textures. Modernists chefs are often hailed as avant-gardists, but the pieces Pearlman highlights in Smart Casual reveal a troublingly reactionary attitude. Deconstructed, disguised, minimized reinterpretations of Heath bars, doughnuts, cheesesteaks, and burgers simultaneously mock anyone unhip enough to prefer the original version and applaud their eater’s advanced palate and dainty appetite.

[snip]

In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.

If elaborating on popular tastes for the benefit of sophisticates is an “ugly manifestation of deep-seated disdain for the poor,” we’re going to have to toss out a lot of Western culture: strike all the Detroit techno from Ibiza dance parties, cancel all the performances of Applachian Spring, cast Vampire Weekend and Mumford & Sons out from Lollapalooza, we’re done here. 

For instance, in my dotage I’ve tried to catch up on a lifetime of ignorance about classical music, and recently, attending a performance of Handel’s Water Music, I realized something—if someone had just told me years ago that most of it is just dance music, and a lot of that is gussied-up folk-dance music, it wouldn’t have seemed like such an imposing monolith of high culture. There’s a lot more there, in complexity of structure and themes, but its ancestry as social dance music is, at least, a toehold into the form.

The first pieces of classical music I loved were Bach’s cello suites, via the classically middlebrow Prairie Home Companion: tasting menus of popular dance forms like the gigue (derived from that most homely of dances, the jig) and the bourrée. Some of it is quite dancey; other movements have moved well beyond their heritage into abstract realms. Perhaps the most famous movement in the suites is the elegiac sarabande of the fifth suite, which has become literally elegiac—Yo-Yo Ma chose it to memorialize the dead of the 9/11 attacks, and more recently those of the Boston bombing.

Bach’s metaphysical reading of the form belies its very physical origins—a “colorful, tempestuous, exotic” Spanish folk dance that was tamed into a “calm, serious, and sometimes tender, but ordered, balanced, and sustained” form by the French nobility, who will do that sort of thing. In Bach’s hands it’s not a dance at all.

Like I said, if I’d known of its grounding in social popular music, I would have been less intimdated by their more rarified expressions of it. And that cultural process underlies the “reinterpretations” of base junk food. Far from mocking, it’s transitional, as Alison Pearlman writes in the book Anderson is nominally reviewing, Smart Casual:

Like their predecessors in the game of gourmet surprises, the modernists have used the reference to common foods as a foil for their own inventiveness. Conjuring something familiar has additonally helped them mitigate modernist cuisine’s possibly alienating strangeness. Asked if these were the motives behind his allusions to Pizza Combos, bagels, eggs Benedict, pad thai, and the many other ubiquitous foods he’s taken as points of departure over the years, [Wylie Dufresne of WD-50] heartily agreed. He also told me that using common points of reference anchors his kitchen’s experiments in flavor profiles that are proved to work.

In other words, the modernist screwballs are appealing to their own audience’s consumption of sweets and junk that are hardly the sole province of the poor. People have to be led by the nose from the familiar to the unfamiliar; as my former colleague Elizabeth Tamny pointed out in a fantastic piece about the midcult Lettuce Entertain You empire, Rich Melman’s adventurously friendly concept restaurants built a foundation on which a “copycat” culinary town became a world capital of fine dining. The first time I went to a “foodie” restaurant, the now-august Blackbird, I ordered venison—because I hadn’t had it since I was a kid, when a family friend brought us ground venison he’d hunted himself. It’s not like you can find it at Burger King.

If the auteurs behind the city’s culinary touchstones have pretentious contempt for the people who can’t afford to eat at their restaurants, it doesn’t show. Some grew up around American food standards, like Grant Achatz, who “descended from generations of cooks, caterers and restaurateurs in the neighboring locales of Marine City, Richmond and Armada [in Michigan]” (they’re famous for their pies). Rick Bayless came from another restaurant family—a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City—and followed the origins of the Tex-Mex food he was exposed to as a child back to its origins in Mexico. Curtis Duffy’s journey to Avenues and Grace began with Pillsbury biscuit pizzas and a desire to escape his troubled, rootless home.

Perhaps Chicago’s most ambitious new restaurant is Elizabeth, number four on Chicago’s Best New Restaurants list, which serves a $145 ($175 on weekends) “Diamond” menu that’s “a four-hour journey through forests, skies, farms, and oceans” that its chef, Iliana Regan, describes as “new gatherer cuisine.” Her inspiration for Elizabeth is her Indiana childhood, growing up on a small farm and in a Polish restaurant:

She was also familiar from an early age with the butchering, curing, and drying of meats, since her dad raised cows and pigs. “You’d walk into the barn and there would be animals hanging from the rafters,” she says. “In the freezer in the barn was a bunch of animal heads.” It always smelled like smoke in there, she says, thanks to a smoker that had originally been used in the Polish restaurant that Regan’s parents owned for nearly 20 years. Regan’s mom was the chef while she was pregnant with her. Her parents never had lofty aspirations for the restaurant, Regan says; they just needed to put food on the table.

Regan supported her nascent career as a restaurateur by selling pierogis. There’s a common thread that runs through these chefs—taking their modest inheritance and pushing it as far as possible. It’s as far from contempt as I can imagine.

And Homaro Cantu, whose McDonald’s cheeseburger dessert gets called out in the piece, was homeless for three years of his childhood, leading to an ongoing interest in hunger and waste that’s driven some of his culinary experiments. In 2009, David Hammond ate a multi-course meal at Moto along the theme of waste, which featured dishes like an “apple” made from gelatinized apple cores and skins, a paradoxically elaborate attempt to recycle scrap into food:

Wow, I thought, reusing burnt bratwurst, potato skins, apple cores and skins sounds great, but it’s very impractical, I mean, without a particle recombination transmogrifier and a zero gravity crockpot, how could the average home cook hope to duplicate this kind of cooking? Then I got the joke (I’m slow, okay, don’t judge me): it’s not about recycling and reusing this specific stuff, it’s about recycling and reusing all the stuff chefs or home cooks might otherwise throw out….

So, my conclusion is that despite what might sometimes seem to be goofball antics, there’s a lesson beneath the considerable tab of a dinner at Moto (which I didn’t pay as I was “talent” on this excursion). You can take what others consider to be garbage and turn it into something pretty cool and enjoyable and even delicious. 

It might be preposterous, but it’s not disdainful. But why perform such experiments at an elite, unattainably expensive restaurant? “Trends always start at the top,” Cantu told the New York Times. "If people accept what’s happening at iNG’s kitchen table, it could be a game changer, altering the way we eat.” At the same time Anderson calls out Cantu’s food for mocking fat poor people, Cantu is on a Quixotic quest to kill off sugar with miracle berries:

The miracle berry can help diabetics enjoy the sensation of sweetness and even help cancer patients recover their appetites during chemotherapy and radiation. This berry eradicates the need for sugar, but it is also fragile, difficult to manufacture and almost impossible to cook. The federal government, manufacturers, farmers and even chefs can’t quite crack its code.

It’s food science outside the sugar-industrial complex, which has proven unfriendly to kicking its cheap sugar habit, and is engaged in a “consciencious effort—taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles—to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive,” in the words of Michael Moss. Cantu’s idea is that his culinary experiments will then travel back down the food chain.

And that food is moving back down towards its origins; it’s no longer the province of “upper-class foodies,” as Anderson sneers. As Britt Julious writes, it’s a somewhat affordable form of luxury:

Unlike designer clothing or a luxury home, “good” food can be found high and low. Chicago is the perfect place for foodie culture with its abundance of experimental chefs and mix of high and low establishments. The access to this world (and it is great and spans the city) can be acquired with little effort. There are pop-ups and night markets and small shops making food that hits just right. If memory is sensory then a great meal can last forever.

Take Trenchermen, #7 on Chicago’s list, a “striking steampunk chamber” that “manages to feel like a crowd pleaser while seamlessly working in off-kilter creations such as candied quinoa and Pickle Tots and punching up a rib eye with pickled turmeric or a chocolate crémeux with red Fresno chilies.” (And try the Malort-based Desperate Vesper, if you go.) Its current dinner entrees run from $17-$33. Compare that to the “Land & Sea” dinner menu at a fabulously middle-class standby, Red Lobster on South Pulaski, ranging from Roasted Vegetable Skewers ($11.50) to NY Strip and Lobster Tail ($36.25). Anderson turns her nose down at $14-$18 salads at Tom Colicchio’s Craft in New York; the salads at Red Lobster are $10.25.

For Julious, and for Iliana Regan, dining is like the sarabande, sharing a communal rhythm no matter the forms it’s given by place and class. But it’s not just shared horizontally; it’s shared vertically, moving up and down from farm to lab to table. Sometimes it ascends to rarified heights, but it’s never so exclusive and self-righteous as uncritical, self-aggrandizing rejection.

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