14
Sep
10

Food Tourism

Eating is one of the most basic human pleasures, one of our most hardwired and undeniably sought after experiences.

So it’s no wonder that capitalism, as it has with everything else, has produced a very abundant set of food options for a lower price than anytime in history. That much is kind of obvious, and not interesting as it stands.

But what I’m concerned about is the way in which, again, as happens with most capitalistic sectors, food consumption has become a kind of hobby or dilettantish activity that is supposed to have significance on its own.

I think most people have a friend who is always running around checking out different restaurants, singing their praises, and then scurrying around for something new. It’s a bonus if the ingredients are exotic. Things like shark, alligator, or pumpkin pasta for example. Also more points if the venue is quirky. Maybe the place is run by an immigrant who shouts at everyone who comes in the store, maybe there’s a special way you have to order to get service (soup nazi) maybe you have to know the odd times the place is open. The point of all of this is to collect a list of restaurants that are the best, and to compare them with others; the goal is to create a U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges (er, I mean restaurants), along with the best dishes that they serve.

But all this kind of makes me sick after a while. Indeed, it’s really just sex tourism with food. A frivolous enjoyment of a something with much greater significance and importance. Now, the converse is also possible. The person who, rather than seeking out new restaurants like a guided missile, is open to new areas and experiences. This “foodie” drops in to obscure locales with nothing but hunger in their bellies and openness in their mind. The meal is not just a vehicle for enhancing the optimal list of gastronomic experience, but rather is a door to understanding social or even political concerns (think vegetarianism, slow food, etc.).

This is not to disparage those people who shop aggressively for bizarre ingredients or grow their own food. These, like the habits I’ve been decrying, are a result of our increased FREEDOM. No longer are we trying to live from day to day (most of us in the west at least, don’t forget), and so we can experiment with strange ingredients, we can pursue our favorite dishes, and we can exercise profound control over our diets. We are able to, in a Hegelian way, “rationalize” our food consumption by freeing it from purely survival or biological constraints.

This is an opportunity for a new type of freedom that some people are able to sample by preparing their own food (a skill and an art form), or learning about the way that foods interact (knowledge), or supporting a certain way of raising food (ethics). All these are ways of ENGAGING with this transformation in our food world. Those who simply bounce from restaurant to restaurant searching for a more and more pleasurable experience, are simply disengaging and watching as an item of significance is ground into nothing but a playground for flavors and enjoyment; pure pleasure without any understanding of it or appreciation for its significance. It’s hedonism in a very corrosive form because as I said at the beginning, it engages one of our most undeniable drives but at the same deflects it from the circumstances and conditions that usually helped nature march in step with our cultures and minds.

People say that the U.S. is such an unhealthy country partially because we have no food tradition, which function as a list of default laws and conventions that help us structure our eating, just as the rules of English grammar structure the type of sentences that are available to us. In France portions are small, almost always with wine, and so there is less heart disease than you would think with a diet of basically butter and cheese. The farther back in time you go, the more tightly eating traditions are, and as I said, this is not necessarily good, malnutrition and monotony can be the downside. But as we realize our gustatory freedom, we should be careful not to spill out the structures that give the experience meaning into an ocean of tastes and sensations, as if we had been put in the food matrix, where everything is delicious despite its lack of connection with anything real (remember the traitor, forgot his name, who eats steak with the agents and knows the steak is fake, but enjoys it anyway?).

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