My friend Vivian, a very accomplished and talented cook, once agreed with the statement that more than loving to cook she loved to eat. Since I’m the guy who made the observation I obviously concur. But if you read my post about James McWilliams and the, for lack of a better term, politics of food you know I have serious reservations about the whole foodie thing.
Now comes a funny little piece in the May issue of The Atlantic in which Megan McArdle looks at what’s going on with high-end kitchenware. Let me be fair, this is first person reportage not scholarship. Among the reported facts are the still-boxed mixers and food processors owned by “almost everyone I know.” And the comparative case is McArdle’s grandmother who made do with just average stuff. We even get a peek at someone using a $10,000 range to store sweaters. Crisis averted. Whatever our sins we’re not that bad, right?
What struck me overall was the tone of wonderment: “Why are we spending so much money on a place where we spend so little time?,” she writes. With all due respect to Ms. McArdle, who impresses me more than many writers, I’m really questioning all those fancy schools she attended. You need look no further than Volume 1 of Das Kapital to encounter the fetishization of commodities. For 21st century readers and folks not reared as red-diaper babies that’s not a prurient interest in grains and petroleum products. It’s the notion that purchased objects take on unusual importance.
OK, ok we reject Marx on the principle that communism collapsed. Fair enough. He’s a lousy economist, granted. But I’d submit he’s an under-rated sociologist and the dialectical approach he trumpeted is a powerful tool that ought to be more widely used. Really, if you can get through the dense language you ought to give some of it a read. Educating yourself is about wrestling with alien ideas, but I digress.
How about a Canadian, then? Erving Goffman posited the dramaturgical model. Stated simply, we can conceive of life as a stage so what one presents to the world, the front stage, includes not just our words and deeds but the props we choose. If you must have an American, how about Thorstein Veblen? Veblen is most famous for developing the notion of conspicuous consumption, the idea that some level of consumption is meant to serve a conspicuous social function. That isn’t, if you think about it, terribly dissimilar from the fetishization of commodities noted above and says a lot about sweater storage. So why is any of this a mystery?
What completes the picture is the comment stream and the video of cooking without the aid of all mod cons. Whatever the illustrative attempt, the video fails. It would have been better to illustrate bread or pastry making without the use of electro-mechanical aids. Those are trickier doughs and if you’ve done it both ways the labor savings are obvious. By comparison, creaming butter and sugar with a wooden spoon is no puzzle and was how I learned to do it back in the 1970s.
I found the comment stream amusing. There is some back and forth between the just do it crowd and the folks rationalizing their behavior. I was delighted by the woman whose comment pitied poor Ms. McArdle. And I was puzzled by the digressions about what’ constitutes ‘from scratch’ cooking. Can’t we stipulate that unprepared foods bought on the perimeter of the store constitute from scratch? I mean, even 80 years ago people were not butchering their own hogs in urban environments.