‘You are what you eat” has never rung truer. The revolution has failed. Consumerism and globalisation have triumphed, and it has been done through food.
Where once there was a rebellious middle-class youth, today there are little gourmands more interested in lemon grass than marijuana, in menus rather than manifestos, in mixing pisco sours rather than lobbing Molotov cocktails. It’s no longer the doors of culture they want to see opened for the proletariat, it’s the pantry.
Dinner conversation among the chattering classes has turned from Marikana to parmigiana, from the arms deal to where to get the best veal, from discussing the secrecy Bill to fussing about what doesn’t go with dill. What piques us is not the Nkandla scandal but cooking à la king.
Foodism is supplanting art and culture. We prefer fettuccini to Puccini; bok choy to Tolstoy.
As a food columnist I feel partly responsible.
The change in my lifetime has been remarkable. When I grew up in the 1980s, the culinary culture of South Africa was dire, sexist and very unhealthy.
But, in my case, the die was cast early. As an eight-year-old on the school playground the other kids would run away screaming when I opened my lunch box of stinky Roquefort cheese sandwiches, courtesy of my Belgian father.
At home, we had witloof (chicory — almost unheard of in those days) and ate raw herring. On the rare occasions my school friends visited, they thought my family was trying to poison them.
They were accustomed to braais and potjies, beef and potatoes with gravy powder, chicken and white rice with canned mushrooms, cauliflower with instant white sauce, I&J fish fingers and slap chips. For a while, the snackwich machine cheered everyone up.
Coffee was instant chicory. Pasta was macaroni baked with slices of watery tomato and melted sweetmilk cheese. When the first packets of dried spaghetti arrived, South African housewives cooked it until it had the texture and taste as close as they could get it to spaghetti in a tin. Bolognaise was made with sugar and a packet of tomato soup.
Today, our supermarket shelves groan with variety. In Woolworths, you find carrots in three colours, Polish blueberries, Mexican avocados and snoek from New Zealand, not Kalk Bay. Pick n Pay has dozens of brands of olive oil and balsamic glaze, and even sells lime foam in aerosol cans.
My local Checkers, for years a shabby place where anything special would expire, now offers live crayfish, an oyster tank, rabbit and buffalo milk mozzarella.
My hamburger, my boerewors roll, even my samoosa have gone gourmet. With the current meat scandals, and apparently giraffe and kangaroo doing the rounds in our biltong, and possibly horse in our supermarket burgers, there seems to be a cogent argument for gourmet fillings, where one has the reassurance that only the choicest ingredients procured from the best suppliers are used.
Within 250m of my living room (I have measured this on Google Earth), I have a choice of dozens of restaurants, including fusion, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Lebanese and Indian.
Perhaps it’s because I live in Cape Town where we are obsessed with eating out. I mean, how many sous vide water baths are there outside the Western Cape?
I admit, I would rather talk about creamy potage than grubby politics these days, but I’m beginning to have some doubts. My bedside creaks under a pile of biographies of the pineapple, the potato and tuna, and an autobiography of a chef, Anthony Bourdain. Morris Kline’s Mathematics in Western Culture has been pushed aside by Cooking for Geeks; my Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology is invisible beneath my Larousse Gastronomique. On Sundays I no longer paint: I cook.
Thankfully I don’t have television (it has been replaced by the oven) or I would end up watching reality TV shows such as Junior MasterChef (there are now versions in 10 countries) with children aged between eight and 13 making nori rolls and parfaits. How did we get to a point where four-foot-high tykes are pitted against each other imitating Heston Blumenthal with foams and molecular cuisine?
Insatiable eating machines
Is this a better world? Part of me wants to rebel: I wonder whether it’s not all too gluttonous and self-absorbed; a great distraction from what really matters; a world where we are turned into profitable, insatiable eating machines consuming more than we need, driving up demand, chasing every new fad.
As the fashion industry gave us the must-have item for every season, now we will have the flavour of the month.
Just as the pharmaceutical industry invented all kinds of new ailments for us, the food industry — at a price — will keep finding new things to free us from — not from wage slavery, but from eggs, caffeine, gluten, lactose, sodium, sucrose, genetically modified plants and the preservatives and additives they added in the first place.
Is it even possible to rebel? Isn’t the real appeal of the free-range, organic, local, artisanal, humanely butchered slow food not altruism, not hitting back at the corporations, nor even saving the planet, but the greedy promise of the next titillation of tastier, more scrumptious, guilt-free food?
Some worry that foodism is a fresh form of class warfare, a new disguise for snobbery and elitism. Are the yuppie markets and little eateries springing up in Woodstock and Salt River or Maboneng really the fifth column of gentrification?
Instead of critiquing the latest art-house movie or Booker Prize winner, you will end up being looked down on if you don’t know how to thicken a runny ganache or rescue separated mayonnaise — that is if you still dare to buy mayonnaise in a bottle, chicken stock in a cube, or sneak bottled salad dressing under your guests’ noses.
You will only impress if you can pontificate on why egg whites are best whipped in copper bowls or know what length makes a French loaf a baguette, a bâtard or a ficelle — all this in a country where the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research says we throw away 9.04-million tonnes of food a year. In pure maths terms, that is half a kilogram of food waste every day for every one of the 50-million people in South Africa. How many half-kilos are you responsible for?
And on a global scale, the foody quest for exotic wonders is harming communities out of sight and far away. The global popularity of sushi has pushed the bluefin tuna to the point of extinction. Since quinoa was discovered by Westerners and its virtues extolled by food writers, myself included, Andean peasants can no longer afford what was once for them a dirt-cheap and vital staple protein.
Perhaps, as with all cultural revolutions, there are aspects we love and others we hate. We should be on our guard: foodism has the potential to be as oppressive and harmful as any of the isms, from consumerism to communism. We have become wary of politicians and not wary enough of celebrity chefs.
And we best be mindful that, unlike art, food only superficially nourishes the soul.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 March 2013.