Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with food. I’m not talking about eating as it relates to body image and weight – that’s a story for another day. I’m talking about how I experience food, beyond just meeting my physical need for sustenance.
I like food, but I’m not quite sure what that means. I care about food as a tangible substance and a social construct, as a hobby for lack of a better word. I want to learn more about it. I want to know where my food comes from: the individual ingredients, the techniques used in its preparation, and the culture that gave rise to the complete recipe. I want to experience new foods in new settings and I seek out the “best” version of my favorite dishes. 90 minute drive to Mitsuwa for the only decent ramen in Chicagoland? So worth it.
I define a neighborhood by the meals eaten and drinks imbibed there. My idea of exploring a new place involves extensive research (including but not limited to Eater, Yelp, Thrillist, TimeOut, local magazines, and personal recommendations) and a carefully crafted itinerary of eateries that exemplify the area’s gastronomic identity. I “know” the neighborhood when I can confidently recommend a handful restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and bakeries. Let me tell you about this killer punk rock whiskey bar in Lincoln Park, right next to DePaul.
All of these things – cooking, eating, exploring – are pleasurable activities and learning opportunities. That’s good, right? But sometimes it feels like there’s a nasty, narcissistic side to this pursuit. There’s an element of self-aggrandizement, or maybe it’s not aggrandizement so much as “keeping up with the Joneses.” Depends who I’m talking to. Knowledge is power and knowledge of one’s culinary environs is the hipster-foodie’s greatest weapon in the quest for social legitimacy.
At some point (or maybe always), my interest in food stopped being about individual enjoyment and became something warped: to not only experience but to experience exclusively. Because exclusivity is a convenient shortcut to superiority.
These shitty thoughts started creeping into my head. “Is this guy seriously recommending a ramen joint to me because it’s better than a place in South Pasadena? Have you even been to Shin-sen-gumi?“ I scoffed when a friend suggested a Japanese restaurant in town. “You think this generic Indian restaurant is authentic? Because I just finished a book about the failure to adopt South Asian cuisine in US culture that suggests otherwise,” I thought to myself when another friend excitedly described her first taste of chicken tikka masala. (The same friend later mocked the typical diner at an expensive steakhouse who knows nothing about good quality meat. She did this not out of meanness, but because upscale American food is her area of expertise.)
There’s nothing particularly surprising about this phenomenon. Food is deeply tied to culture, the defining attributes of a society, and human society tends to be hierarchical. In countries experiencing resource scarcity, access to food translates to clout. Wow, you’re the fattest guy in the village. Marry me? In more modern times, access is not enough. There must also be knowledge- nay, expertise – nuanced opinion, and social capital, in addition to access. You know the celebrity chef at the fusion sushi place downtown, the one with the insane tartare and 2-hour wait? That’s hot. (Just kidding! No one thinks “fusion” is sexy anymore.)
My interest in food is genuine in the sense that eating and drinking is one of the most enjoyable parts of being alive, igniting all sorts of pleasure pathways in our brain, through sight, smell, sound, taste, and texture. But this hobby, and the particulars of its pursuit, are also socially programmed by my demographic – young, highly educated, urban, immigrant, middle income. This is how I define my identity and how I prove myself to my peers.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to define myself by sneering at others. I don’t want to prove that I’m a judgmental asshole, however well informed.
So next time I’m scouring blogs for the best jibarito in Humboldt Park, I’m going to ask myself: Why am I doing this and what value does it add to my life? Is it because I really like this Chicago-original, Puerto Rico-inspired garlicky mess of a sandwich? Or is it because I determined, based on my online literature review, that the jibarito is a unique aspect of Chicago food culture and I want to claim it for my own? In food, as in all things, I want to be critical of possessive tendencies, particularly possession through conspicuous consumption.
If all that checks out, my next question is this: Anyone want to join? Because a good meal is meant to be shared.
P.S. Writing this blog made me super hungry. Can’t wait to get home and make angel hair pasta with spinach-walnut pesto (and a drizzle of cream) for dinner! -xoxo, A