Don’t reinforce their frames

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, April 22, 2010 21:49 EDT
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At first, when I read tristero’s angry post about this review of Alice Waters’ new book that teaches the very basics of cooking, I thought he might be overreacting a little bit. Here’s the quote in question that got him so mad:

And foodies. Do they feed families? Do they struggle to plan meals in the midst of soccer practice, homework and commutes? No, they can sit around, sip their wine, and consider their ingredients. If they do not have the 1/8 teaspoon of Aleppo pepper they need, they can just change their plans and go out for sushi.

In context, this quote is an attempt to ingratiate the reader into the world of cooking more for yourself, so I didn’t really see the big deal. The review of In the Green Kitchen is laudatory, and the reviewer is obviously one of those foodies she’s deriding. The rhetorical device she’s using is common enough. It’s a way of saying, “You may think that in order to fit into this world, you have to be smarter/richer/more possessing of free time than you are, but actually it’s quite easy.” It’s an attempt to set fears to rest by paying lip service to their existence. You see it all the time.

But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought tristero was right. The intention of these sentences may have been to lay fears to rest, but the result is reinforcement of the idea that “foodieness” is some wicked elitist hobby. In an attempt to reassure people that merely liking to cook doesn’t make you a bad person, the writer reinforced the idea that there’s something morally suspect about most people who like cooking. In an essay aimed at convincing people that cooking well isn’t actually that hard, this sort of rhetoric undermines the point. And as tristero pointed out, this reinforces right wing frames that imply that a populist moral superiority is easy to achieve by embracing bad taste and especially bad health habits, and that there’s something wrong with people who take pleasure in living well.

The only reason to include such counter-productive rhetoric is because liberals are so easily duped into playing the anti-intellectualism-as-populism game that right wingers created. I don’t know when it was that everyone in our culture universally agreed that there was something shameful about having good taste and good sense, but nowadays if you want to defend either good taste or good sense, you often feel like you have to set up disclaimers about how you’re not one of Those People, the ones that think these things matter. So to establish your right to praise the art of eating well, you have to denounce Those People who really enjoy eating well. It reminds me of the dizzying trend of hipster-denouncing as a trend in and of itself. You can have your good taste in music, I suppose, but only if you make it clear that you think that thinking that’s important is sick and possibly immoral. Trying to keep up with it all will drive anyone to suck down a constant stream of aspirin.

With cooking, the whole “I’m into it, but not into it into like Those People” dance is particularly strange, since cooking isn’t exactly some esoteric art form. It’s amazing how quickly Americans were willing to embrace the notion that cooking your own food at home is some sort of marker of wealth, and one that people should feel pangs of guilt about because it means they’re not the salt of the earth. A world where it was assumed you should eat at home to save money isn’t that far back in our past. I’d argue that it’s still my present; I’m always kicking myself for falling behind on meal planning and eating out instead, because it costs more money. When I was living alone and had less spare cash around, I carefully planned how often I “got” to eat out, and ate home-cooked meals the rest of the time because it was cheaper. Part of the problem with food deserts is that there’s a lack of access to grocery stores, which means people can’t save money by cooking at home. The kind of framing we see in this paragraph wrongly assumes that it’s hard work to make home cooking cheaper than eating out. In most cases, it’s simply cheaper to eat at home.

Which isn’t to say that I’m belittling the difficulties people face when it comes to cooking at home. But from everything I’ve read, it’s much more about time, access, and education than it is just money. The dollar menu at McDonald’s doesn’t appeal strictly because it’s cheap. It’s also fast, easy to pull off, and often the only source of food in the vicinity for many people. But articles like this, with faux populist “feeding a family is HARD, foodies!” disclaimers like this are largely aimed at an audience the writer assumes don’t live in food deserts, and whose main obstacles to cooking more are time and a feeling of intimidation about how to cook. For those people, it’s really not helpful to reinforce right wing frames about how eating well if you have the means puts you in danger of being a snobby snob.

Like tristero, I found myself a teeny bit confused by the idea that “foodies”—aka, those people who take a little too much pleasure in eating—are nasty snobs who insist on just the right kind of pepper or they won’t cook at all. I know a lot of foodies, and am fond of cooking myself, and I don’t know anyone like that. Most of them are a lot like the Salon writer, which is to say people whose interest in good ingredients isn’t that complex at all. I think most anyone can understand the difference between a vegetable with some flavor and something bland and tasteless, for instance. And even when people whip out exotic ingredients to serve, it’s usually with a giddy joy of discovery, not a snobbish sneering at those people who didn’t happen to luck out and find this one specific kind of salt. Of course, I’m not easily intimidated, which is also why I tend to get annoyed at people who feel threatened by hipsters that take what they consider a little too much pleasure in discovering new music.

Sometimes I think this race to denounce people who you think have taste that’s just a little too good (unlike your own good taste, which is properly grounded, of course) is old-fashioned American puritanism, wrapped up in faux populist garb. People feel they get get a quick jolt of “authenticity” by not being overly interested in refined pleasures, as if there’s anything inauthentic about the joy someone feels by eating good ingredients from a farmer’s market. Our suspicion of pleasure makes it easier to mark certain pleasures as “elitist”, even if they’re affordable to most people. And it would be harmless enough if the right hadn’t latched on to this, and was using the more-faux-populist-than-thou contests to poison our political system. Which is clear in the national debate about food. Look, for instance, at the way that right wingers are basically arguing for a food system that ruins people’s health under the banner of anti-elitism.

Anyway, I’ll show what a horrible, immoral elitist I am by recommending to people who can make it to the Brooklyn farmer’s market at the entrance of Prospect Park on Saturdays to find the vendor that sells butternut squash that’s been pre-peeled and seeded for you. It’s not that expensive and it’s the best thing squash I’ve ever had in my life. Well, that and the yellow zucchini I once got at the Austin farmer’s market.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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