Toward the end of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, he deploys a C.S. Lewis quote that is probably familiar to many of us:
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
Writing specifically of the U.K., but presumably thinking of Americans as well, Poole writes: “We all live in that country now.” As a skeptic of what Poole calls “foodism,” I found his absolutely exhaustive skewering of food culture enjoyable — his debunking of the exaggerated claims of “organic” food, his bemusement at “molecular gastronomy,” and everything in between. He catches every detail, including the fact that certain food sensitivies can be “fashionable” (woe to the foodist who is glucose-tolerant!).
Naturally, this book has sparked some defensiveness in the foodist community — even The Girlfriend, an avid cook, felt she was under attack when I initially described the book’s premise to her. What I find interesting about the book, though, is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of pure yuppie-bating that you see in something like Stuff White People Like (nor, though this goes without saying for those familiar with Poole’s work, does it take the Palinesque route of fetishizing fast food and store-bought cookies).
Now Poole admittedly doesn’t have a program for truly authetic eating, because his book finally isn’t about eating, any more than the foodist trend is. It’s about class structure, about ideology (including a nod to Zizek’s “superego injunction to enjoy” on the final page), about a society that has reached “the apotheosis and dead end of individualistic consumerism.” It’s about a massive, multi-faceted cultural trend that commands us to devote as much time and attention to consumption as possible — and then to congratulate ourselves for our achievement and look down on those who fail to attain our high level.
That is to say, it isn’t about silly individuals who are doing pretentious things and should stop before they embarrass themselves further, but about a society whose demands are increasingly dehumanizing and sinister. And it makes this case while nonetheless being thoroughly entertaining. In short: highly recommended.