If you tune back to 30 years ago, you’d realize how huge the invasion of food into our lives has become today. And I don’t mean the substance itself, which we used to put the emphasis on in the past. I’m talking about images of food: recipes, celebs being photographed while cooking or eating food, culinary globe-trotters sharing their gastronomic experiences from around the world, bloggers displaying their fave meals before (and often instead of) consuming them. These days, it seldom happens that a bunch of folks would sit at a table somewhere, and not bring the conversation to food (book talk used to be the fad in the days of yore; but no more).
First, our newly emerged middle class figured that you don’t just spend your time mooing while munching: “Yummmm, tasty! Gimme some more!”, and that’s it. Socializing while eating is a chance to utter complex and sophisticated conclusions about the consistency and texture of the sauce as well, or demonstrate your ability to discern saffron from cinnamon, and maybe even tell a story about that one time when you ate some awesome rice while you were in Goa (you did have heart-burn for days afterwards, but don’t you mention that). Of course, as in every cultured conversation, you should insert little bits of pretentiousness and idiosyncracies – detailed insight about ingredients people should never combine with fish, others you’d never dare taste even if you had a gun pressed to your head (supposedly), and still others that you’ve unsuccessfully tried to convince your little daughter to learn eating. Oh, and let’s not forget the subject of all those religious culinary taboos that have somehow sneaked back into our lives along with the latest “lifestyle shift”.
But the kitchen talk goes most smoothly when we’re talking about healthy food, whatever that’s supposed to mean. You’re either for or against saturated fats, gluten, fibers, iron and other heavy metals. And if you happen to have a vegetarian in your company, or God forbid, an all-out vegan, there’s no way in the world the conversation could stray away from the food thematic. All the books about looking after oneself and improving oneself that Foucault wrote, rely heavily on reviewing the various vectors of individualization and self-expression, now sexuality being pushed aside by food habits as the prime subject. Losing weight, detox diets, cleansing the thoughts and spirit – it’s all there. A friend of mine who lives abroad, comes every summer for vacations back here, and each time she fiollows a brand new diet, which she is always so eager to promote through personal example. Last time she had gone crazy about that US-inspired “paleo-diet”. Eating only stuff humans used to be able to afford before they became a sedentary species and started growing wheat and potatoes, milking cows, and keeping bees. Thus, the whole company around the table would teleport themselves into the imaginary Paleolite, and spend hours discussing what sorts of roots and berries people used to eat back then, how long they used to run in chase of antelopes, and how good and healthy they felt because of all that. Oh, by the way, does whiskey count as fermented paleo-fruit? Hmmm. Must check that with my Facebook paleo group to be sure.
What’s remarkable is that today, a more global meta-conversation around the Web is getting shaped up, transcending mere food conversation. See, I’m no longer just eating food and sharing my perceptions with those around me: I feel compelled to rub my awesome experience into the face of people whom I’ve barely met, but who I’m sure would be more than happy to vicariously “taste” my meal, even though they can’t really take a bite or smell it in real. It doesn’t matter – I HAVE to share it with the world! Otherwise why even bother eating? A new term sprang up in the 80s, “food porn“. As in sumptuously putting delicious food on display, manipulating the images with photographic filters and special lighting, even sprinkling colorful fake food elements made of plastic here and there – and making it all look even more natural and healthy than the original product. Today, everyone with a decent mobile phone can be an amateur “food pornographer” so to speak, and entice their friends and make them jealous by displaying the meal he’s just been served at the restaurant. You may not like seafood at all, but the spectacular sight is so mesmerizing, how can you resist uploading it in Instagram? You brag before your virtual friends, and you believe yourself so much, you even start feeling jealous about yourself! Because gradually, without noticing, you’ve experienced a grand cultural shift: now you’re enjoying the food much less; rather, its very images appear more savory than the food itself.
The same effect, though now with a trace of abstract thinking, can be noticed amidst the flood of meal names that bombard our senses at every corner. Boeuf Stroganoff, Duck Magret on A Bed of Geese Liver… It’s not very different with the salads, same exotics there: a few fresh straws guarantee you a quick trip to Nice, California, Morocco. The salad genre is very well represented in my local cuisine here, it provides huge opportunities for variations. Still, there’s the debate what is truly local national cuisine, and what was borrowed from (and more infuriatingly, by) our neighbors. National pride hasn’t bypassed the food domain either, obviously. There’s also the tendency to put food names in diminutive form, thus making them sound more “homely”, creating a sensation of delicious, grandmother-style old-school cosiness in the mouth and mind. Besides, like I said, there’s the heroics of gastronomic nationalism. It’s a big thing around my place. A shashlik could still be quite oriental, but if it’s got a “haiduk” prefix attached to it, its very mentioning causes something to stir in your chest, and you’re ready to stick a 20 buck bank note to the forehead of the clarinetist who’s blowing his mind off a couple feet away from the table (any self-respecting traditional restaurant should have a loud band of wind instrumentalists, no?)
An inexplicable notion seems to persist that the further back in time we dwell in our imagination, the better our ancestors used to eat. Better, meaning healthier, tastier, more accomplished as a whole. It stands to reason that those glorious folks of yore would feast just as gloriously, right? Oh well, when the belly talks, reason sits silently somewhere in the corner. Because we don’t even need to go back as far as the Paleolite to realize that the cuisine of our predecessors may’ve looked a bit… well, boring. If we remove things like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans and all those spices, that is. And think about it: we often like identifying with the downtrodden common-folk, but when it comes to food, we suddenly prefer the Sultan’s dinner. How come?
I’m not sure if we’ve given up on developing a truly unique national culture of our own at this point and frankly I don’t care, but as far as national cuisine goes, we’ve been working on that one quite actively as of late. The idea is to eat certain things that are trademarked within our touristic-political borders without anyone else having a chance to claim them: our white cheese “sirene“, our rakia… oh, and don’t you dare touch or rename our “sour milk” that you so stupidly call yogurt! We’re prepared to grab the yatagans right away! The problem with national cuisine is, there’s been no one to hold the food canon in check for the last 30 years, since the demise of communism, and the almighty Balkantourist institution along with it (you know, the one that pulled the so called “Shopska salad” out of their ass, and retroactively created a whole pre-history around it). Who knows if it’s made with or without peppers, parsley, ham and olives any more? Take such a typically patriotic meal like Tarator (essentially, yogurt diluted in water and mixed with minced cucumbers). Should it have garlic in it? Should there be walnuts and fennel? I’m confused! We all are! Let’s just add whatever we can find in the fridge then! I recently found an essay entitled “The Basic State of Tarator” in a recipe book, by the way: all you need is 1) yogurt, 2) water, 3) cucumber, 4) garlic, and 5) vinegar. Nothing more. Yes, building and maintaining a national identity used to go through raising monumental buildings, dams, power lines and ports – now it has descended into crafting recipes, and posting them on Youtube.
I don’t know how exactly food has ended up in the center of culture. Perhaps the reason is that eating remains the most egoistical action there is; even having sex requires some form of cooperation. And my belly is only mine! A society where the individual is an end in itself, the first, last and only carrier of the meaning of life, the only thing worth caring about, the substances sinking into our digestive systems have increasingly taken the front row, the way we consume them is seated at the helm, and is steering the ship to… wherever. Everything else comes next, it’s of secondary importance: from exalted aesthetics and gustatory expertise, to a scientifically grounded and reasonably articulated understanding of the benefits that eating brings to the soul and body, to the paranoid fear that the corporations are deliberately poisoning us with… chemistry(?) And thus, what used to be one of the most solitary physiological experiences has turned into the most contagious spectacle.