FOOD and the culture that surrounds its production and consumption has always taken a backseat to dominant sociological lenses. Maybe because the discipline has always shied from an interpretation of food culture as crass materialism to emphasize the institutional critique of the economy instead.
I am reminded of Marx’s and Feuerbach’s contrasting interpretations of materialism with the latter arguing that, in the final analysis, we are what we eat. The former has presented instead a conceptualization that has nothing to do with food and eating per se but the social arrangements that bring them in varying qualities and quantities depending on class onto household tables. Marx’s historical materialism provides this important sociological insight but there may just be redemption for Feuerbach as of yet.
A counterargument or should I say, a rounding out, has been put forward by Netflix’s documentary series entitled Chef’s Table. The late Anthony Bourdain, at least on TV, had eloquently expounded on the notion that food is more than just nourishment but an entryway into people and their culture. A Chef’s Table mines this thesis to great illuminating effect and adds more insight into how our practices of consumption provide the greatest argument for socialism. Knowing how food shows are de facto elitist, such a positive endorsement may sound strange. The makers of the series are no card carrying party members for sure.
Initially, I felt great discomfort in the idea of fetishizing food especially when it’s reserved only for a particular class and culture. The culinary world and the connoisseurs that inhabit this exclusive club I strongly suspect are in it for the status symbol for the most part - a disposition that is sickening considering that a third of the world’s population could not care less if they are eating organic food or genetically modified varieties of grub that would eventually be burned as much needed calories for work and then later expended through the bowels without distinction.
But what was once the exclusive enjoyment of royalty is now within reach of the cosmopolitan global citizen with disposable income. Food consumption has become not just the ingestion of nourishment that would provide energy for work but it is packaged also as a pleasurable social activity and a marker of status symbol. It is no wonder that Instagram is flooded with foodie pictures which marks the shift of food from pure nourishment to becoming a fashion accessory too. We not only wear clothes but also come to brandish the food we eat as markers of status symbol as well.
Is the series guilty of this kind of food fetishism? Yes, especially when in some wayward moments and episodes they celebrate the conquest of the male ego of a new and imagined culinary terrain or when it presents the world as the oyster exclusively for the well-travelled and moneyed set to wallow in.
But the heart of the series actually lies elsewhere beyond being just a more complex iteration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. A consistent theme of the show is how connected food and nourishment is to identity and a sense of place.
There is an episode here that chronicles the conflicted subjectivity of a self-confessed undocumented migrant worker in America. Yes, she makes the best homegrown soft lamb tacos but her story was also handled to make it the narrative of America’s significant undocumented Latino community in exile. Here tacos have become not just as nostalgic but a point of a solidarity for migrant workers’ activism.
Against the onslaught of the homogenizing effects of the industrial food machine, the struggle of well-meaning chefs has been to continue to have access to quality ingredients produced by small artisanal farmers. The economies of scale that privilege profit over meaningful production always threaten to wipe out small enterprises and chefs are left with uniform supermarket ingredients. A thesis that can be gathered from whole series is that the system of food production and distribution must be changed to also impact the quality of people’s consumption.
But the series also portrays with consistency the common uplifting joys of shared meals between people whether these be complex gastronomic feats or the most basic and honest of homegrown meals. This is where the series I think also hints at a radical potential of a world without hunger and access to good nourishing food has become a basic human right.
Amidst the beautiful shots of food and the herculean human task of chefs preparing these the best way for the joy and pleasure of other human beings, a pain and longing is felt compounded with the earnest wish that someday everyone will enjoy these experiences as birth rights. Soon, we will be what we will be eating in a world without hunger.