The name of the Food Rave is entirely appropriate for a modern culture in which food is the last ingestible substance you can indulge in with obsessiveness without being frowned on by society. Alex James, the Blur bassist turned gentleman cheese farmer and Sun food columnist, has said: “My 20th birthday party was all about booze, my 30th birthday was about drugs, and now I realise that my 40s are about food.” And he is not alone. Food replaces drugs in the gently ageing food-fancier’s pantheon of pleasure, and brings along with it traces of the old pharmaceutical vocabulary. You hear talk of taking a “hit” of a dish or its sauce, as though from a spliff or bong; and a food-obsessive in hunter-gatherer mode is thrilled to “score” a few chanterelle mushrooms, as though he has had to buy them from a dodgy-looking gent on a murky Camden street corner. Food is valued for its psychotropic “rush”; Nigella Lawson refers to salted caramel as “this Class A foodstuff”. Yes, food is the new drugs for former Britpoppers and the Ecstasy generation, a safer and more respectable hedonic tool, the key to a comfortingly domesticated high.
Western industrial civilisation is eating itself stupid. We are living in the Age of Food. Cookery programmes bloat the television schedules, cookbooks strain the bookshop tables, celebrity chefs hawk their own brands of weird mince pies (Heston Blumenthal) or bronze-moulded pasta (Jamie Oliver) in the supermarkets, and cooks in super-expensive restaurants from Chicago to Copenhagen are the subject of hagiographic profiles in serious magazines and newspapers. Food festivals (or, if you will, “Feastivals”) are the new rock festivals, featuring thrilling live stage performances of, er, cooking. As one dumbfounded witness of a stage appearance by Jamie Oliver observed: “The girls at the front – it’s an overwhelmingly female crowd – are already holding up their iPhones […]
If you can’t watch cooking on TV or in front of your face, you can at least read about it. Vast swaths of the internet have been taken over by food bloggers who post photographs of what they have eaten from an edgy street stall or at an aspirational restaurant, and compose endlessly scrollable pseudo-erotic paeans to its stimulating effects. Right now, five of the 10 bestselling books on amazon.co.uk are food books, with Nigellissima outselling Fifty Shades of Grey. According to the spring 2011 Bookscan data, British sales of books in nearly all literary genres were down, except for the categories of “food and drink” (up 26.2%), followed by “religion” (up 13%). (Before 1990, the bibliographic category of “food and drink” didn’t even exist.) That food and religion alone should buck the negative trend is no coincidence, for modern food books are there to answer metaphysical or “lifestyle” rather than culinary aspirations, and celebrity chefs themselves are the gurus of the age.
It is not in our day considered a sign of serious emotional derangement to announce publicly that “chocolate mousse remains the thing I feel most strongly about”, or to boast that dining with celebrities on the last night of Ferran Adrià’s restaurant elBulli, in Spain, “made me cry”. It is, rather, the mark of a Yahoo not to be able and ready at any social gathering to converse in excruciating detail and at interminable length about food. Food is not only a safe “passion” (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of “passion” that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one. The unexamined meal, as a pair of pioneer modern “foodies” wrote in the 1980s, is not worth eating. Most cannily, the department of philosophy at the University of North Texas announced in 2011 its “Philosophy of Food Project”, no doubt having noticed which way the wind was blowing, and presumably hoping that it would be able to trick food-obsessives into hard thinking about other topics. One can of course think philosophically about food, as about anything at all, but that is not what is going on in our mainstream gastroculture.
Where will it all end? Is there any communication or entertainment or social format that has not yet been commandeered by the ravenous gastrimarge for his own gluttonous purpose? Does our cultural “food madness”, as the New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggests, tip into “food psychosis”? Might it not, after all, be a good idea to worry more about what we put into our minds than what we put into our mouths?”
— Let’s start the foodie backlash | Guardian