It seems all that anybody wants to talk about these days, at least with any level of passion and enthusiasm, is food. Whether it be discussion of individual food preferences (or exclusions), talk of the newest restaurant, superfood, food fad, food television show, food personality/chef, food truck, or food item sourced locally (almost always organic, small batch, grown within 100 miles, and made by small independent business selling out of their backyard), it seems that being a foodie is all but going mainstream in a big big way. Notably too, where discussion of art, theatre, and literature used to dominate the cultural pages and content of most major newspapers and media sources, talk and discussion of food is on the rise and displacing much of the discourse reserved for the traditional arts.
In many ways, this is not surprising. Foodie culture, after all is tied to a countercultural impetus, and shares many things in common with the form of avant-gardism we normally associate with the art world. Notions of connoisseurship, subculture, underground community, slumming it to find off-the-radar experiences, engaging in transgressive acts, seeking the experiential, and fighting the institutions and metanarratives shaping conversations and defining the norm, are but a cross-section of those shared similarities.
But whereas the art world and art history have all but institutionalized counterculturalism and the avant-garde as part of the dominant story about art-- a condition that makes it much more difficult for artists, critics, and historians to launch a critique about the art world-- the world of food, its consumption, production, distribution, and history, is still shaped by large global forces that have yet to reconcile and fully embrace the diversity of food types and practices seen around the world. Enter here the food avant-garde, those foodies on the leading edge of disrupting and bringing into question the norms of eating, making food choices, and exposing those institutions and institutional practices shaping common perceptions about food.
Chef and food globetrotter Anthony Bourdain is an excellent example of a now mainstream food culture figure who unites many of these themes in his books and television shows. Last year, CNN began producing his latest project Parts Unknown-- a TV series that documents Bourdain's travels to remote, war-torn, unexpected, and more off-the-radar places to report on the local food culture. Most of what Bourdain seeks out is understood to be on the fringes of the expected and norm of North American food tastes (he spends a lot of time in back alley food stalls and locals' homes), but at the same time he also visits the most exclusive dining establishments in the world (such as Noma in Denmark) to satisfy the gourmands tuning into his show. In this way, he is very much a flanuer, looking for the "high" and "low" food experiences that he brings into a kind of unexpected relief. Take for example his recent show on Las Vegas (see YouTube clip) where he spent half the episode in the best restaurants on the strip, and the other half in dive bars in the desert.
This idea of a "food avant-garde" is the topic of Dana Goodyear's informative and entertaining book Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (2013) . It is a book I have had on my wish list for months after first hearing her discuss the project on a NYT blog thinking about how much the trangressive aspect of foodie-ism is linked to wider global unease about the politics and social implications of food choices we make and are being made for us. In one of my favourite passages in the book, she lays out the heart of her argument: "The deeper into the foodie world I ate, the more aware I became of its reactionary tilt. Though the public has embraced it as a mainstream hobby, foodie-sim is a counterculture. Its shared values are a love of the special, sub rosa, small batch, and handmade and loathing of homogeneity, mass production, and uniformity" (146). Goodyear's account is compelling in that she understands and exposes many of the contradictions of foodie-ism as it engages in acts of transgression at both the margins and centre of food cultures around the world.
A more academic take on the subject appears in the work done by Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann's Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape (2010). Right from the book's preface, the authors tackle the contradictions of the "high" and "low" approach to foodie-ism as a story about democratic versus classed access to food: "This important new cultural analysis tells two stories about food. The first depicts good food as democratic. Foodies frequent ‘hole in the wall’ ethnic eateries, appreciate the pie found in working-class truck stops, and reject the snobbery of fancy French restaurants with formal table service. The second story describes how food operates as a source of status and distinction for economic and cultural elites, indirectly maintaining and reproducing social inequality. While the first storyline insists that anybody can be a foodie, the second asks foodies to look in the mirror and think about their relative social and economic privilege" (xv). This dichotomy almost perfectly mirrors most of the art theory of the past several decades that isolates the problems and contradictions of maintaining a viable form of avant-gardism-- one that not only continues to disrupt expectations around art, but also creates social and political change-- as an issue related to democratic access versus exclusionary practices.
These connections are fascinating and are likely at the root of so much of the interest and passion around food that I see around me. In the world of art, food has historically served as a potent theme and is also seeing a resurgence (see the recent work of artist Mark Menjivar as but one example) and I must note here as an aside that some of the most interesting food and beverage trends I have seen are often spotted first at art openings (!). Still, the stereotypes of hipster vegans, gluten-free celebrities, and paleo-yoga and other assorted foodie devotees aside, more than ever before, food is linked to a politics of choice and a form of self-expression and self-determination.