Reckoning with my inner food snob

Posted by jdg | Monday, February 07, 2011

I've been thinking a lot about food for weeks (and not just how I ordinarily think about food. . .me want. . .more). Because of the piece I wrote about Detroit grocery stores (and some of the pushback it received), I have had to recognize and confront some of my biases. By all accounts, I definitely seem to view certain food-related choices as a measure of sophistication. Some people say they enjoy experimental jazz or claim they can tell the difference between a $20 and a $200 bottle of wine. I certainly can't, but I sure can get all smug about never buying processed packaged food at Wal-Mart. In fact, I refuse to even set foot in a Wal-Mart. When I see the synthetic orange powder in a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese I emit an effeminate gasp of horror. I would not be caught dead in an Applebees. The clown Ronald McDonald is an anathema in our household. I read food blogs and find myself mildly aroused by their photographs. I may have once even called the smell of fresh arugula "sexy." I like my fruits and vegetables seasonal, local, and preferably organic. And I can't escape the feeling that all of this totally makes me an asshole.

That may be harsh. At the very least, I can't help but feel what it really means is that I'm just another brand of consumer, and that any sense of smug superiority I have is just the product of good marketing. Meanwhile, a secretive cabal of Germans in Monrovia, California are laughing at me and counting all my money.

I guess part of the problem is that I can't fully commit. I may not be able to set food in a Wal-Mart, but I can't go into a Whole Foods either. I don't seem capable of pulling the trigger on a $4 organic apple. And don't get me started about fine dining. The first time I went to a highbrow restaurant I was being recruited by a law firm in Seattle and I found myself staring at the prices on the menu in total disbelief. For the price of one entree I could have paid a family's weekly grocery bill. And I thought that was obscene. It seems I can't accept the full trappings of yuppiedom without a healthy dose of self-loathing. The gentleman opening a grocery store in our neighborhood recently asked our neighbors to e-mail him suggestions for products we'd like to see there that the previous store there did not have, and after I read my response over I just shook my head. "It would be great if you had rBGH-free organic milk, Greek-style yogurt, non-irradiated (local) produce, cage-free eggs, and whole-grain bread that doesn't list high-fructose corn syrup as a major ingredient . . ." Who the fuck have I become?

I guess I have the excuse of wanting to provide healthy food for my children. When most us were growing up, there was no backlash against agribusiness or the big food conglomerates. PepsiCo. Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg Co., and Sara Lee had only begun consolidating every food label in North America. To most of our parents, the biggest choice in the grocery aisle was between a name-brand and a generic. To buy a name-brand product was to show they loved us, and had the money. My working mother did not have the time or the resources to always shop for fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, so at home we ate a lot of meals that started with frozen or processed ingredients. It's not that she didn't love us, it's that she didn't have tons of time and (unless you were on a commune) there wasn't a whole lot of cultural pressure to do otherwise. 

Growing up, I also ate a fair amount of fast food. Before Fast Food Nation and Carlo Petrini and that guy with the relief-pitcher mustache who made the movie about eating McDonalds for a month ruined it, fast food was an honest pleasure in my life. We usually tried to order from the healthier options, but it never occurred to us that Wendy was evil. . .(I guess I've always had a thing for redheads and orphans). Back then the enemy du jour wasn't pesticides or high-fructose corn syrup or industrial-raised livestock. It was saturated fat. The answer was margarine, always, over butter. No bacon. Skim milk. We bought fat-free mayo. They even made low fat Twinkies that almost tasted like a Twinkie. I knew a girl in college so convinced that fat was her enemy that she ate nothing but Kellogg's Corn Flakes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She may have been following some trendy 1923 diet established by John Harvey Kellogg himself (if she followed his advice for daily yogurt enemas, she kept that to herself). Of course a few years later everything flipped and fat became our lovable, greasy friend while carbohydrates learned what it meant to be scorned by diners everywhere. It felt like only a matter of weeks before I wanted to punch half a dozen people in the face for talking about how much they loved bacon as though that admission made them some kind of rebel. So-called "foodies" popped the collars on their Perfecto jackets and butter was back on the menu, baby. Locally-churned butter, of course. No trans fats.

I guess because the way we eat is so inherently tied to our health, and these trends are so fickle and short-lived, I can't help but wonder what's next. When patron saint Anthony Bourdain keels over from a massive local-organic-free-range-grass-fed-pork-belly-induced heart attack, what will the foodies do? Will they cut back on the foie gras and organic duck-fat french fries? I can't help but examine my own history and question whether I will someday look back on these current trends and see that I fell for them hook, line, and sinker like the good little consumer I am.

* * * * *

As someone who grew to a respectable height on non-local, heavily-processed (and often fast) food and who has always been relatively healthy, how did I end up on the side of the food snobs? My parents still eat like they always did. I can almost certainly trace my rebellion to the moment I stepped into my South Indian friend's home for the first time. The spices from hundreds of home-cooked Indian meals had coalesced with the paint on her walls. My father---one of the world's great curmudgeons against ethnic food---would have gagged. As I grew closer to this friend, I began eating there almost daily. This wasn't restaurant Indian food with no peppers and all that extra ghee and cream. It challenged my delicate palate. It burned. And the strange pleasure of it developed into a lifetime of adventurous eating. Today I will eat almost anything. That whole meal at Pankot Palace in Temple of Doom? Yum. 

The more I think about this, the more I think it does have something to do with my dad. The more that man feigned vomiting at any mention of the word sushi, the more I wanted to try it. I'd spent my life in the shadow of his strength, watching him fix cars and build things, and here was one area where he was a major wimp. His idea of Chinese cuisine began and ended with La Choy Chop Suey and take-out Sweet & Sour Pork. Italian was a jar of Prego or the Olive Garden. Mexican was Chi Chi's. Instead of doing drugs, I brought home hummus. A year in Europe upped the ante. I remember sitting at a dirt-cheap restaurant in Crete and ordering a salad. I watched an old woman walk past our table, out into her garden to pick a pepper, a cucumber, a few tomatoes, and a minute later they appeared cut up on my plate with some feta and olive oil. This was a revelation. All you hear about fresh, local food today is really just a recognition of what's ancient. It is nostalgic; anti-modern. When I returned home from Europe and tried to share some of the foods I had been exposed to with my family, instead of getting upset when they mocked me, I secretly enjoyed it. Here was proof that I had left the nest and grown more sophisticated. I might have come from culinary Philistines content to stuff their maws with soylent green, but I was no longer one myself. 

My sister went through the same sort of rebellion, but for some reason she's not nearly the snob I am. She doesn't hide the happy meal toys around her house when we visit. I guess this is why I'm writing today: I am a bit tormented by the hypocrisy of it all. A lot of the "ethnic" food I crave and (frequently enjoy) is the gastronomical equivalent of the fast food I have vilified in my own culture. Someone like me who looks down his nose at KFC or McDonalds will still eat extremely unhealthy meals at a Thai or Dim Sum joint with no regard to whether the food is mostly fried starches. The Burger King is evil, but In & Out Burger is awesome. I have seen the same sort of progressive white hipsters who rend their garments over "food deserts" and the lack of fresh produce in poor areas get in arguments about which trendy Brooklyn restaurant has the best local free-range fried chicken. In the foodie world, it seems, it's tough to be highbrow without the middlebrow to make fun of, or a lowbrow to pity (and slum around in once in awhile). 

After writing the piece about the Detroit grocery stores, I stopped in one of the rougher-looking supermarkets where I would never ordinarily shop just to see if it was as bad as everyone was telling me. It's true that the produce selection was rather limited and some of the fresh offerings unappetizing. When checking out what Michael Symon refers to as the "evil lurking in the center aisles" I did find a decent selection of name-brand processed foods. It all seemed overpriced, and in the end that seemed like a bigger deal to me than how unhealthy it was. It occurred to me that this was the food I grew up on. This was the food that nourished me through childhood. And yet here I am today, almost as bad as one of these out-of-touch 21st-century Marie Antoinettes in Berkeley shouting, "Let them eat kale!" from gilded balconies with platters of local halibut tartare and Belgian endives.  

* * * * *

As I look back at the paragraphs above, I'm struggling with whether or not to publish this. What is my point? What do I want you to glean from this rambling post? We all have our own histories and experiences that form how we think about food. Whatever those experiences might be, I personally am going to work harder at not passing judgment on the tastes and choices of others (even fellow snobs). I'm going to try to just enjoy what I enjoy and stop worrying what it says about me. And try to eat healthier across the board. I must remember that as elitist as current trends might be, as they become more and more widespread there are positive effects that will have benefits on local economies and the health of all consumers, as stores like Wal-Mart have begun to stock organic and local produce that beat the offerings at Whole Foods in blind tests. And I even think I've finally convinced my mom to use olive oil (and she started her own garden last year). 

But convincing my dad to try sushi? Yeah, that's never going to happen. It's more likely that I'd start listening to experimental jazz.