It’s amazing what one can learn on the internet, however pure one’s intentions. L.V. Anderson at Slate reviews Alison Pearlman’s Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America:
… It used to be that human ingenuity was valued in the kitchen. Now, what matters more is chefs’ knowing the right producers and buying the right products. Culinary excellence can no longer be achieved simply by learning the right technique; it can be acquired only by knowing the right things to buy—and by, it needs hardly be said, shelling out however much money it takes to buy them. In this way, modern foodies’ materialistic definition of refinement is more exclusive than that of yesteryear’s dogmatic French cooking. What appears to be a celebration of the natural and the simple is in fact more constrictive and less attainable, because it depends not on talent but on means and access…
Materialism and agricultural name-dropping have not snuffed out all appreciation for skill—indeed, as Pearlman chronicles, the ascendance of ingredient worship has paralleled a polar-opposite trend, that of modernist cuisine. Born in Ferran Adria’s elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, and raised in American outposts like WD-50 in New York and Alinea in Chicago, modernism utilizes laboratory chemicals and equipment to give foods surprising appearances and textures. Modernists chefs are often hailed as avant-gardists, but the pieces Pearlman highlights in Smart Casual reveal a troublingly reactionary attitude. Deconstructed, disguised, minimized reinterpretations of Heath bars, doughnuts, cheesesteaks, and burgers simultaneously mock anyone unhip enough to prefer the original version and applaud their eater’s advanced palate and dainty appetite. On the topic of these self-congratulatory simulacra of populist favorites, Pearlman is far too forgiving. Of a modernist bite-sized dessert that is made to look exactly like a tiny McDonald’s cheeseburger, she writes:
“However good the illusion, would anyone really mistake Moto’s BURGER with cheese for the fast-food familiar? No more than one would confuse an Andy Warhol silk screen of Campbell’s soup cans with Campbell’s soup.”
But it is not 1962, a petit four is not a silk screen, and McDonald’s burgers are not merely a symbol of commercialism. In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor…
A “bite-sized dessert… made to look exactly like a tiny McDonald’s cheeseburger”! I envision the McArdle-Sudermans anxiously ransacking their Theromix reference guides, searching for a knockoff recipe to serve as the climax to their dream dinner party for Pete Peterson, Charles Koch, David Brooks and Tom Friedman. (Which will never happen, but even a couple of Village-embedded Kochsuckers need impossible aspirations to boost their shallow aspirations through the dreary wastelands… )
Apart from conceptual eating and hipster fantasies, what’s on the agenda for the start of the weekend?