Populist Gastronomy?

Is fine cuisine worth its exorbitant price? Sometimes, although price can be an unreliable indicator of quality. But when I have had the opportunity to indulge in high-end dining, I’m struck by how many diners don’t seem to be enjoying their food. In fact, the food seems to be an afterthought for the majority who are focused on showing off the depth of their wallet, being a general lout, taking care of business, partying, or gossiping about the latest celebrity in rehab. Fine cuisine is wasted, if not on the rich, surely on the bored, distracted, or ignorant.

Food writer Jay Rayner in his book The Man Who Ate the World noted the same phenomenon in his worldwide quest for the perfect meal.

…if my journey around he world had taught me anything, it was this: That every night, in the great food cities of the new millennium, there were terrific restaurants, filled with horrible people who were there because they could afford them,or, through status, gain access to them, and who were having a much nicer time than they deserved

Commenting on his fellow Brits he explains, “In Britain, food is, and always has been, from the top down”, an interest in food having been invented by the aristocracy as a status symbol. By contrast, he argues,

In France, the food culture is a bottom-up affair, with high gastronomy only being its ultimate expression. The notion of Le Terroir to which every Frenchman cleaves—that there is a specific piece of land from which their identity comes—may well encourage gastronomic conservatism, but it does at least lend the whole business a certain democracy.

The French are allegedly losing their gastronomic edge along with the intimate connection between French identity and fine cuisine. But Rayner’s thesis that a genuinely appreciative food culture must be a bottom up affair strikes me as plausible. People will care about flavor and the meaning of food only when their knowledge and experience is sufficient to warrant such a commitment. Such knowledge and experience is more attainable in a culture thoroughly suffused with the belief that their cuisine is more than a pleasant diversion but an expression of who they are. (Of course, the French are not alone in this belief; the Italians and Japanese and perhaps others are similarly committed.)

So what about the food culture in the United States? Is it a top-down affair where celebrity chefs create wondrous creations for status-driven consumers with too much money? Or is the growing “foodie” culture a place where genuine appreciation is rooted in deep knowledge of ingredients, methods, and traditions?

Aside from redoubts such as Louisiana where food traditions have long had a grip on the public, Americans discovered their palate only a few decades ago. Do we have what it takes to join the great cuisines of the world?

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