Wanna see a neat trick? In this review, LV Anderson says the book Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America is a “damning indictment of bourgeois dining habits”. As an example of the moral depravity of “foodieism”, Anderson writes of “exhibition kitchens”, which present a section of the working kitchen where restaurant patrons can see workers preparing food:
Well-heeled patrons have begun paying a premium for seating arrangements that give them a view of their food as it’s cooked. But the “work” they witness is a sanitized, aestheticized version of the labor actually required to keep a restaurant kitchen running—the live-action equivalent of food-porn programs like Barefoot Contessa. (Many restaurants with open kitchens relegate menial labor and ugly industrial equipment to enormous prep kitchens behind closed doors.) What makes this trend particularly galling is that it coincides with a spate of chef memoirs (like [Anthony] Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential) that detail the demeaning demands, unpleasant working conditions, and disruptive hours of professional kitchen jobs. Foodies hypothetically know better—they know restaurants are built on the backs of grunts—but they pay extra not to help improve kitchen labor conditions, but to induce chefs to play-act a fantasy of leisurely, creative cooking. So much for foodie solidarity with the people who produce their food.
You catch that? The trick is in the big assumptions — first that “exhibition kitchens” are a luxury addition to restaurant decor. They’re not. Chipotle grills meat in view of customers. And they’re following the lead of every respectable taqueria in San Francisco.
The second trick is the assertion that “foodies” don’t know that kitchen labor is physically hard and occasionally grueling even though, by Anderson’s definition, “foodies” are well-acquainted with and fetishize the message that kitchen labor is physically hard and occasionally grueling.
It happens again and again in the essay. For another example, check out Anderson’s paragraph about “culinary excellence”, which assumes that chef talent and cooking talent ought to be one and the same, leading to the conclusion that the prominent trend of near-sourcing ingredients and trumpeting said ingredients’ inherent quality are misdirections. Though not likely to be the case, the essay makes Anderson appear to have never considered that chefs have long prized high-quality ingredients (for obvious reasons) and that near-sourcing is a reaction to supermarket homogenization. Those tomatoes Los Angelenos used to buy at Safeway in 1992? They were the same bland tomatoes from the same mega-farm, engineered for hardiness and visual attractiveness, not taste, that people in Boise bought.
Now, however, thanks to the efforts of people who care about such things, we can bite into the mealy monstrosity that is Granny Smith apples, or buy a sugar-punchy Honeycrisp. We know that WalMart’s grocery section often only carries produce from within 50 miles of the store because it’s simultaneously cheaper and fresher that way. Best yet, because of “foodies’” emphasis on near-sourcing and honoring regional heritage, diners of all backgrounds have more options specific to their place rather than settling for a Euro-centric ideal of Great Food.
But Anderson’s most insulting assumptions of all are in this passage and its subsequent sentences:
The food movement ran into trouble when it began insisting that good taste was also capital-G good: Food that is good for the environment, for animals, for workers, for community-building, and for health will also taste the best.
Read those carefully, because they’re not the same thing; Anderson conflates A causing B for B causing A. It’s hardly a “damning indictment” of “foodies” to say that a good number of them honestly believe that by nurturing and caring for the entire food production process — farm-to-table to use the buzz term — the food will taste better and people will be better for it. The point is not that good-tasting food is virtuous, but that if our choices result in good-tasting food either way, why not try to make the rest of the process better, indirectly do better by the world, and have better-tasting food for it because overall we might feel better for doing good? It’s not complicated.
The rest of the paragraph mistakes “voting with your wallet” for “voting by buying the more expensive things”, again ignoring the economic incentive brought about by the network effects of near-sourcing. When somebody — chef or everyday grocery shopper — buys a fish straight from the boat that caught it four hours before, the fishermen still get their cut, and the customer both pays less than she would have for day-old fillets at the supermarket and gets fresher fish. If more and more people do that, yes, the middlemen responsible for distribution lose out, but everyone else is a winner. Even if middlemen persist, the “foodie”, by Anderson’s own definition, wants to ensure that the food reaches her in pristine condition, which requires care for the entire process, which requires care for the workers, including the middlemen!