Food Memes

With the spread of celebrity chefs, restaurant rating and the glossy food media we’ve come to think we understand a great deal more about food than we really do. Like the Endless End of America, a series of memes about food, it’s history and how we interact with it have creeped into our world. And, like the Endless End of America, they just don’t stand up to scrutiny. These memes show up in the food media and advertising and it is well past time to have them deflated. I will tackle two memes: the “Cooks like Grandma” meme, and the “Smell and taste memory meme”. It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they are something different from what we are being told; and, yes, in sometimes they don’t exist.

This was precipitated by a video about the wiz bang restaurant Alinea, in Chicago. Here is a link to it. Take a watch, I’ll wait. Now that you’ve seen it you have to remember I’ll be discussing this video only. How it partakes of a series of tropes in the food media. It is often called food porn. An attempt by watching to experience vicariously something that really makes use of another sense. Touch for sex, and taste for food.

I have no real opinion of it as a place to eat. Like most really high end places, you go, pay your nickel, and get whatever the chef is making that day. The point is that you will get to experience what ever the chef thought was best of what they could do that day. In Ailnea it’s over $200 for what is called a tasting menu. The term is Table d’hôte, or the hosts table. It’s like having your wife pick for you. Which can be viewed as lazy, or, as it should be viewed, as a way of understanding what someone else thinks; of you, of the world, of what it means to eat. It is an invitation to intimacy.

When you are cooking for your family, food as art is a silly and pompous stretch. But, the idea of food as art is what drives places like Alinea. Like music, food is ephemeral and abstract, but unlike music there is no way to record it and have it more then once, you must destroy it in order to sense it. Food as a piece of art is created individually for each audience member and can be experience by that person only once. Every taste is an unique and final experience. It will never be repeated. This leads to endless streams of verbiage and video-iage trying to capture the experience of eating some piece of food. It also leads to a lot of foot in mouth instead of food in mouth.

First a general note on the video shown, it’s a very White, very Suburban, world being shown. A world most Americans alive to see that video have never experienced. Those that could have experienced it are the wealthiest class of Americans. I watch the video and I see, someone saying, “I make the most amazing food in the world for Rich White Folk”. I know I’m being oversensitive, but I was left feeling like he wan’t speaking to me.

In my next post I’ll tackle the Grandma meme. It has a number of connotations and misrepresentations. I’ll also look at how it should be seen. By it, I mean the food of the past.


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