Saturday, October 20, 2012

The cult of food

There are two broadly distinct ways of dealing with food as a cultural phenomenon; and, you guessed it, one is good and one is bad.

One of these food cultures is eclectic and multicultural and puts food into the foreground. Food becomes a constant topic of conversation, as there is a constant need to choose, constant pressure to assess, to compare tastes and textures. Food becomes something of a cult object, an obsession even. This is the bad food culture (and, increasingly, the dominant one).

A good food culture (in my admittedly conservative opinion) puts food into the background, as is the case in any community which maintains the traditions of its national or regional cuisine. There is a limited repertoire, a pattern or cycle to go with most of the time, and no need continually to make choices and assessments and judgements, no need to talk about food much at all.

There is the health side of things of course. We know a lot more now about how particular diets can have dramatic effects on one's health and longevity, but, interestingly, traditional diets do pretty well on this front, certainly when compared to the sorts of diets encouraged by the proliferation and ready availability of convenience foods and confectionery. Eating used to be more restricted to certain times and places, healthily constrained by certain rituals.

But these rituals also had a civilizing function. Only when such traditional practices are functioning - and the focus is not primarily on the taste experience - can food and eating play their social and civilizing role.

Food talk is fine - to a point. But it is well to bear in mind that food is one of those dangerous topics which tend to expand exponentially to fill mental and conversational voids.*

* Like some forms of gossip. Or talk amongst older people about ailments. Or talk about the achievements of one's children. Or - worst of all, and worse than food talk by far - accounts of plans for the renovation of one's home and the implementation and progress thereof.

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