By Eleanor West
Food Republic • Feb. 22, 2012
We all know that person who can barely eat dinner because they’re too busy snapping photos and waxing lyrical about the amuse-bouche. Some call them foodies. Many call them annoying. Of course, we all love to eat, but the national obsession with food can be overwhelming, if not exhausting. To address the nature of the foodie, and foodie-ism, a panel of food writers, authors and editors who call themselves “anti-foodies” gathered together last night at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City to ask the question: Has Food Worship Jumped the Shark?
Among the panelists were moderator and I.C.E. instructor Erica Wides; author of Day of Honey, Annia Ciezadlo; Editor-in-Chief of Saveur, James Oseland; Co-Founder of Bed-Stuy Farm, Reverend DeVanie Jackson; Co-Founder and Editor of Food52.com, Amanda Hesser; and author of The American Way of Eating (released yesterday), Tracie McMillan.
Erica Wides kicked the discussion off, asking, “Can you care about food without sounding elitist?” While Amanda Hesser argued that simply using the term “lifestyle” to describe food and its culture evoked elitism, James Oseland countered that he had never met a person in any country, of any income bracket, who did not consider food to be precisely that. He went on to say that it is the fetishization of eating and the worship of chefs that he found bizarre.
As one might expect, a discussion about fetishizing food quickly segued into a conversation about the Food Network. Reverand DeVanie noted that Food Network cooking shows often skip over the prep work stage and instead have all of the ingredients ready to go on the counter. She wryly claimed, “I always say, if I had those little bowls then I could cook too!”
But as the panel delved further into the issues of food worship, the discussion took a decidedly political turn. In McMillan’s book, The American Way of Eating, she recounts her experience working as a farmhand picking garlic, as a cook at Applebees, and as an employee at Walmart, all of which gave her rare insight into the world of food that is not often portrayed in the media. As a farmhand, McMillan would work up to nine hours a day and receive as little as two hours of pay for the garlic she picked. She says she was able to trace the garlic from the fields she worked on back to big retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods.
Most pickers, she observed, have no idea where their produce ends up, indicating a major disconnect between those who grow our food and those who buy it. Whether at Walmart, Applebees or in the fields, McMillan did see a general passion for food that was maybe not quite as obsessive as “foodie-ism,” but nonetheless dispelled the myth that low-income earners do not care about what they eat. “The only people who believe that poor people only like junk food have never met a poor person,” she said.
Despite talk about food system woes like the lack of GM labels or the rule of industrial food retailers, the panel remained optimistic about the future of food. The increase in farmers markets, the rise of food education for younger generations and the importance of cooking at home were highly praised. James Oseland did have a bone to pick with the Union Square farmers market, however, saying that while he loved it, one half of him was “appalled” by the fact that peaches and plums could cost as much as $4.50 per pound. No one agreed that the food system should stay as is, but all concluded that a commitment to better food could provide results. McMillan left the audience with this charge: “We have to start taking our food seriously and we have to stop teasing people for it.”