From Escoffier to Rachael Ray tweets: evolution is in the eye of the beholder. With the recent publication of Nathan Myrvold's six-volume juggernaut, Modernist Cuisine, I got to thinking, has food culture spiraled out of control? With the World Bank president saying food prices are at a tipping point, having risen thirty-six percent since last year, with forty-four-million people in low-income countries being pushed into poverty since last June, and the middle classes in developing countries eating more meat that uses more grain, should one be proud to be a foodie? (Incidentally, "foodie" is a term that popped up in the early eighties to denote someone who is a sophisticated connoiseur of cuisine. But the word "foodie" itself makes you sound unsophisticated about food, like, "Oh, he's just a foodie, his idea of fine dining is a meatball hoagie and a 7-UP." Maybe "foodeur" would work better.)
Marie-Antoine Careme earned a reputation for making fancy meals and desserts for the European aristocracy in the nineteenth century, the kind of elaborate concoctions you see at the Bocuse d'Or. And then there was Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck and… The Food Network. It was a cool idea to feature nothing but food, but then it got watered down. Bobby Flay had eighteen shows, and they started to blend into one another. You worried about the prospect of a BBQ-themed sitcom, after seeing how well Emeril's foray into the genre turned out.
And there's nothing wrong with the celebrity-chef phenomenon. These individuals are some of the hardest-working people out there, and deserve recognition, though the crossover factor has brought us recent cookbooks from Gwyneth Paltrow, Eva Longoria, and Sheryl Crow. The glut of cookbooks exemplifies what I'm talking about. Or maybe Rocco DiSpirito on Dancing with the Stars exemplifies it. Because celebrity chefs are spreading themselves too thin. You get to the point where you root for one of the heavier contestants on Hell's Kitchen to sit on Gordon Ramsay and not budge until he apologizes for calling him a "fat donkey."
I get that food can be fantasy, that people dream about Padma's scar, or eating at El Bulli, or having Tom Colicchio pin them to a bed and tell them what's wrong with them. It can be amazing to witness the transmogrification of humble ingredients into virtual art. And French cooking terms can make you feel smart. You used to chop up string beans, and now you julienne haricot vert on the bias. It's a big deal. And if you're the type of person who'd like to see Jeffrey Steingarten on slop for a week, there's always Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Guy Fieri is the punk Springsteen of downmarket dining, celebrating blue-collar grub coast to coast. How cool would it be to have your own universal, greasy spoon free-meal card? All you need is your own TV show and the ability to tell everyone they have the best enchilada/scrapple/everything omelet you've ever eaten. And spiky-haired charisma, a convertible, and the appetite of Orson Welles.
So Jamie Oliver's activism is great (even though Morgan Spurlock and Fast Food Nation didn't make much of a dent, judging by current obesity rates), as is Alice Waters' canonization, and Ferran Adria's wizardry. But did we really need this Cooking Channel spin-off? And all these food-based reality shows, and challenges, battles, wars, and throwdowns? What happened to just eating? With real wars going on, it may be hard for some to square molecular gastronomy with refugee camps.