Vulgarity and Ambrosia

Over at eGullet, there’s a lively discussion regarding profanity in food writing. While the forum thread was started as a question regarding the inclusion of the word “fuckingˮ in a quote from a chef, it evolved into a larger discussion on the place of colorful language in the food world.

I see a larger discussion here that has yet to be touched upon; the elevation of food to a near poetic status and how it sometime dissuades views upon what I perceive to be the reality of food. We see this elevation everywhere, from magazines and books to even movies and blogs.

(Notably absent from the above list of media is television, which for some reason has a difficult time communicating the sublime nature of food. In television, the food technicians are exalted; the food rarely so).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with exalting food in this manner. I love to (ahem) consume these kinds of food media, and judging by the commercial and critical responses to the above, many of you do as well. What all of these types of media do well is apply a certain level of aesthetic to food, elevating it from a simple consumable product to one that either:

  1. …is capable to delivering allegories or metaphors to the more romantic notions that are within many of us. (As an example, think of the stories out there that use the Thanksgiving dinners as a treatise on how swell family life can be).
  2. …is capable of delivering what my friend Gwyn calls “brief instances of pure being, experience erasing thought and bringing (one) to a point of stillnessˮ.

When done well, these types of art oftentimes exceed the pleasures of the foods they describe.

However, to use this perspective as the only frame of reference in dealing with food is completely missing out on several hard-core realities of the food world. Food is a dirty business. Animals die for it. Millions of people call the food industry their principle means of support. It is less an exaltation than a simple fact of life. For many, food is simply that…food. In the course of dealing with food people for almost three years now, I find that it’s clear that many people either forget or choose to ignore this fact. Oftentimes these are the same folks who don’t wish to be reminded that meat comes with a face attached to it.

And yes, at times, food is a vulgar business. Fungus, molds and decomposition are used in various aspects of its production. There are many recipes where blood is a critical ingredient.

Then there’s the people involved in food production. From the fishermen who are “full of testosterone, full of yourselves, straight off the “high seas,” with all the bravado and machismo of Green Berets ” to the kitchen cooks that Anthony Bourdain likens to “piratesˮ and everyone in between and elsewhere, these are folks that are rarely seen in the cover stories of Bon Appetit.

Food isn’t just about the tribe of humanity, or that ever-nebulous sense of family. It’s also about death and rot. It’s as much about the guy who steals a bottle of Jack Daniels from the back stockroom as it is about Emeril. It’s about politics and romance, good steak and bad beer. It’s about caviar and hot dogs. Anyone who views food through the rose-colored glasses of “Good Housekeepingˮ or the poetry of MFK Fisher is missing out on a much larger and colorful world.

A world, by the way, that happens to include a fair amount of vulgarity.

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