The Roman way, today
has always been an issue –this is to claim the obvious. But when food
became an issue with what and how to eat, and not necessarily if to eat
at all, is a different matter and still open to disputes. Take for
example third century after Christ. Back then, people in the Roman
Empire began to fell the growing pressure of the barbarians at the
gates. As it is perhaps usually the case, the first effects were
recorded in the food habits. The typical Roman dish consisted of
vegetables and fruits, olives and oils, bread and wines. Everything
consumed with moderation, since food was part and parcel of a larger
diet-ethics (inherited from the Greeks). The proverbial Roman fests and
Dionysian parties that offer the contemporary contours of the Roman
world were exceptions, compared to the average life-style. Furthermore,
the ascension to power of people from various parts of the Empire, with
more or less poignant barbarian roots, emphasized even further the
Roman mores and sensibilities. Towards the end of the third century
chronicles recorded increasing cases of Emperors’ gluttony, lavish
meals and ongoing parties. It was not only the quantity of food
consumed, but even worse the high amount of fresh meat. Of course, the
observers of the time decried the decay of morals and the advent of the
barbarian eating practices. Nostalgia for good all times quickly
appeared. It comes perhaps with no surprise that the first cook-book
was compiled in the forth century, as a guide to proper luxury and
eating habits. But in the long run, the barbarians won, and meat and
beer took over for the next millennium, to say the least.
It might appear surprising how today we seem to reiterate the Roman concerns of the third century. While some indeed pinpoint the danger to the ethnic cuisine brought along by the new “barbarians” –the immigrants-, the soft and more popular version of the same lament takes issues with a rather faceless enemy: the advent at a global scale of post-industrial capitalism that leaves no time for proper eating, that externalizes food to fast-foods and supermarket pre-preps and conceives of eating as a necessary routine activity that allows one to go back to work. Little wonder then that a huge market of recipes, cook-books, gastro TV shows, magazines, chronicles and chef schools is bourgeoning. In the same vein, people like Michel Onfray, a French hedo-anarchist, urges us, in his books (see for example Le ventre des philosophes, 1989 and La raison gourmande, 1995) to rediscover the pleasures of eating, to recover the hedonistic style of food and to unearth the lost Greek-Roman sense of diet-ethics: food not just as a necessary element to keep you alive and able to work, but as a sign of good life, refinement, taste, connoisseurship and enjoyment.
From hedonism to capitalism… and beyond
It is perhaps easy to take issues with Michel Onfray’s Nietzschean celebration of exquisite gastronomy as partly a manifesto of contemporary hedonism and partly an attempt to offer some philosophical grounds to the unprecedented advent of the middle class mores and tastes at a global level. To say that the hedonistic twist attached to the new gastronomy is a clear-cut sign of new (middle) class distinction is to claim (again) the obvious. What is interesting to note, however, is the way in which the general lament over the poor quality of food and the degradation of genuine eating habits sustains a whole industry that promises to deliver the “real thing”: the genuine taste, the unique eating atmosphere, the most delicious food. Thus, food goes beyond its traditional dual functions of necessity and pleasure toward a unique experience that borders mysticism and complete satisfaction. The immediate paradox is, of course, that such a state always remains elusive: the real thing is never reached which adds to the general dissatisfaction. However, satisfaction and the fulfillment of pleasure are not necessarily at stake, but precisely the “food-drive”, which orients today’s taste. With all the food around and with all the options (for those who can afford, needles to say) it is still not enough. The truth (of food and taste) is still out there.
A proper way to make some sense of this constant longing might be to ask to whom the new manuals, recipes, books and magazines address and what purposes do they serve. When the first cook-books appeared in the 13th and 14th century, after the Roman one, they had a precise sense: to orient the taste of the upper classes, to help them distinguish from the rest and to put some order in the culinary chaos of the time. This is precisely the time when food ceased to be only about quantity and taste, but its visual display and form started to gain prominence. It might be said the same thing about contemporary culinary guides, but would be insufficient. Many reports and statistics show that the middle and upper middle classes who are passionate about culinary shows and read cook books of famous chefs rarely, if at all, cook. It makes some sense: if people would really cook that much, then there will be no time to watch cooking shows on TV. A telling embodiment of this paradox, and of its contemporary scale comes from -where else- Romania. Recently, some nosy journalists discovered that the Agency for Governmental Strategies (a national Agency under the supervision of the Prime Minister) bought hundreds of copies of two best selling cook-books. The question was rather predictable: why this investment and for what purposes. The representative of the Agency had no clue.
Enjoy your hot dish! (always served cold)
But instead of making a laughing stock out of this tale and relegate it as just another crazy story from Romania, we should treat it as seriously as a proper Marxist symptom. So, I claim that the huge success of cooking guides, in all shapes and forms, is due not because people start cooking more and better, but precisely the opposite: these guides offer the comfort that somebody else cooks better and more, while we are thus free to enjoy watching. It is enough to know that somebody still cooks, while we can enjoy our usual crappy (fast)-food (again, in all shapes and forms). Consequently, what these guides offer is a simple displacement of pleasure: we are relieved from the burden of cooking since somebody else does it for us. Remember here the well known Zizek’s analysis of the TV canned laughter: after a hard day at work you open the TV and really enjoy the show since you are freed from the burden of actually enjoying it: somebody else laughs for you. The same thing goes for porn as well: don’t worry, just sit back and relax –somebody else is having sex for you so that you can really enjoy it now.
This paradox is rendered even more palpable if we notice that all cook guides, shows and magazines can emphasize (by necessity) is not taste and smell, but aspect and design. Alexander Cockburn was right then to name this genre gastro-porn since there is no fundamental difference between a well roasted veal steak and a naked woman on the cover of a glossy magazine –it’s all about visual. In Lacanian terms, gastro-porn is a perfect mechanism at hand to please the Big Other, the imaginary faceless outer observer. People in the Eastern Block have a different name for it –it’s called Stalinism. Suffice it to remember the times when official propaganda newspapers presented photos of unbearable plenty and record growth, though everyone knew better. But, acknowledging the powerful role of the Big Other in gastro-porn industry is just the tip of the iceberg. What is highly more important to observe is the manner in which the gap between the displacement of food pleasure onto gastro shows and the constant longing for authentic, real thing is filled in by the already mentioned powerful ideological alliance between capitalism and hedonism. Thus, while contemporary hedonism promises us to set free from the capitalist oppression via an exquisite and encompassing new diet-ethics (from vegetarianism to fusion), the result is nothing but a commodification of life-styles and tastes. Food then is not only part of a distinction game (a la Bourdieu) but, more importantly, a central element in a series of discourses and apparatuses (from medical and scientific to “naturist”) describing and inscribing how to properly take “care of the self” (a la Foucault).
The trap here is to try re-appropriating food and eating from their various discursive cruxes. We already saw that the quest for the real thing is part of the game and noticed how the Romans badly failed trying to do the same thing. Perhaps the proper way out would be to follow Venedict Erofeev’s plea: eat less, drink more.