Politics and Artichokes

Indulge me. I'm having a moment of philosophical weakness. It doesn't happen very often and I promise to reward you, somehow, later, for putting up with it. I need to talk to you guys about politics. Not American politics, not office politics, not even really food politics exactly (I promise not to talk about Michael Pollan right now), but more the politics of how we think about, talk about and own food. I've had a few conversations in the recent past that have really set me to thinking.

The first was with my uncle Mitch last week. Mitch is one of my favorite people to eat with. He's a trained chef - out of professional kitchens now - but always putting his skills to good use for friends, family and the occasional competition. He's also a fucking grump, which is what makes me like him so much. While in the midst of an excellent blogging project on eGullet with a few friends, he invited me over to participate in their "mystery basket" challenge. While we chopped, snacked and sipped - as always - on a cocktail or two, we got into a conversation about cooks, chefs and the way we define them.

via Mitch's "A Tale of Two Boroughs"

"I don't care what people say," he concluded, "if you're cooking at home, you're a cook. If you're cooking in a restaurant, then you get to be called a chef." I have always agreed with this. But, what really struck me was that we live in a culture where that distinction needs to be made and I don't think it's always been that way. Some people will tell you that America's renewed intellectual enthusiasm for food is a trend, or a fad. I don't entirely disagree. I don't think it will always seem as glamorous as it seems right now to work in the food industry (even if, in reality, it really isn't all that glamorous while you're doing it). I also don't know if it being a trend is a particularly bad thing, but I do know that it makes some people very angry.

Which brings me to the second conversation that stirred up this pontification: my Sidekick's little brother is a chef. A brand, shiny, new one, right out of the culinary school gate. I will say that while he and I occasionally disagree on matters of the palate (hello, he wants buffalo sauce on everything sometimes), the kid has got some serious skill and is a force to be reckoned with (as evidenced by the fact that he got a job in one of the best restaurants in Brooklyn, six days after moving here). While drinking beers with a few of his co-workers this weekend, he, in an effort to explain why I could not stop talking about the meal we just ate, called me one of the words I hate most: foodie.

I have no doubt that he was well-intentioned, and I never would have said a word about it, until one of his counterparts shot back that she hates that word. I was relieved, I wanted to talk with this woman about why we both felt that way, but didn't really get the chance. She sort of launched into a diatribe about hating foodies, blogs, essentially anyone with an opinion about food outside a restaurant kitchen. Because she works there. Has worked there all her life. She's "in the shit", as it were, and doesn't appreciate the sense of "entitlement" that comes with writing about food. I certainly won't deny that there are people out there who fit this profile. However, I believe just as vehemently that while people working as professional chefs own that title, they certainly don't own food. And, to be frank, I think it's irresponsible for those who make a living in that business to discourage people from being passionate about the food they eat. I don't think that your working in a kitchen means that you don't know anything about writing, so please don't tell me that I don't know anything about food, just because I don't get paid to cook it.

I'll say it right off the bat: I am one lucky son of a bitch. I've lived an entire life in which, for the most part, I've always been able to eat what I want without restriction. I have no food allergies, I've never gone hungry and my parents ushered me into a world where you live to eat, instead of the reverse. Case in point: artichokes. When I was a kid, coming home from school to a pan of artichokes steaming on the stove, with drawn butter waiting to bathe them, was completely normal. I never questioned it. Every last one of my childhood friends ate their first artichoke at my house. When I try to pinpoint the moments in my life that led to the food obsession I currently harbor, I think of artichokes first.

I've spent my life loving food. I've certainly never worked a line, but I've also worked my fair share of hours in the food service industry. I don't like the word foodie because I think it refers to the self-appointed experts in edible bourgeoisie that certain chefs go on rants about. It (to borrow heavily from Eatocracy's mission statement, because I love it) fetishizes food, makes it sound like something meant to be enjoyed most by a certain sub-sect of people, rather than being respected, heralded and enjoyed as the thing that keeps all our gears pumping. I know a lot about food, but that doesn't mean I enjoy it any more than you.

But, I will, without reservation, admit that when I tasted Mitch's artichoke risotto, I was reminded that he and those uppity, grumpy chefs of the world, sometimes know a little bit more about food than I do.

via Mitch's "A Tale of Two Boroughs", and also Tasty Travails


  1. I want some!!!!!!!!

  2. How many cocktails did we have again?

  3. @Beth - I'm glad you like it when I get a little verbose and crazy. You're stuck with me now.

    @Sue - You have no idea how true that statement is.

    @Mitch - Um... three? Four? They were each more delicious than the last.

  4. And I would never call myself a mixologist either.

  5. Now I truly understand how much you loathe the word "foodie". I can honestly say, I never knew that before. Also, I want an artichoke now. Maybe with some buffalo sauce?

  6. yep, referring to yourself as a foodie, pretty much solidifies in my mind that you know nothing about food. i got called one the other week and i still feel gross about it.

  7. So what are we supposed to call you? I need to categorize things and people! HELP!

  8. Really, there is a difference between people who mainly eat to live without too much attention to taste, and those who relish, seek out, or make wonderful food, whether it's simple, familiar, and fresh or unique, exotic, and complex. I tend to refer to those of the savoring variety as "foodies." I don't know another word to describe those folks, among whom I include you and myself. But I don't know that I've ever referred to myself that way...