‘Be modern – worship food,’ exhorts the cover of The Official Foodie Handbook. One of the ironies resulting from the North/South dichotomy of our planet is the appearance of this odd little book, a vade mecum to a widespread and unashamed cult of conspicuous gluttony in the advanced industrialised countries, at just the time when Ethiopia is struck by a widely publicised famine, and the rest of Africa is suffering a less widely publicised one. Not Africa alone, of course, is chronically hungry all the time and acutely hungry some of the time: at a conservative estimate, eight hundred million people in the world live in constant fear of starvation. Under the circumstances, it might indeed make good 20th-century sense to worship food, but punters of ‘foodism’ (as Ann Barr and Paul Levy jokily dub this phenomenon) are evidently not about to drop to their knees because they are starving.
‘Foodies’, according to Barr and Levy, are ‘children of the consumer boom’ who consider ‘food to be an art, on a level with painting or drama’. It is the ‘art’ bit that takes their oral fetishism out of the moral scenario in which there is an implicit reprimand to greed in the constantly televised spectacle of the gaunt peasants who have trudged miles across drought-devastated terrain to score their scant half-crust. (‘That bread alone was worth the journey,’ they probably remark, just as Elizabeth David says of a trip to an out-of-the-way eatery in France.) Art has a morality of its own, and the aesthetics of cooking and eating aspire, in ‘foodism’, towards the heights of food-for-food’s sake. Therefore the Third World can go suck its fist.
The Official Foodie Handbook is in the same format as, and it comes from the same firm that brought out, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook. That is to say, it is ‘a Harpers & Queen Publication’, which means it springs from the loins of the magazine that most consistently monitors the lifestyle of new British affluence. These ‘official handbooks’ are interesting as a genre. The idea has been taken up with enthusiasm by Harpers & Queen, but the original appears to be The Official Preppy Handbook, published in the USA in the early days of the first Reagan Presidency. This slim volume was a light-hearted check-list of the attributes of the North American upper middle class, so light-hearted it gave the impression it did not have a heart at all. The entire tone was most carefully judged: a mixture of contempt for and condescension towards the objects of its scrutiny, a tone which contrived to reassure the socially aspiring that emulation of their betters was a game that might legitimately be played hard just because it could not be taken seriously, so that snobbery involved no moral compromise.
The book was an ill-disguised celebration of the snobbery it affected to mock and, under its thinly ironic surface, was nothing more nor less than an etiquette manual for a class newly emergent under Reaganomics. It instructed the nouveaux riches in the habits and manners of the vieux riches so that they could pass undetected amongst them. It sold like hot cakes.
The British version duly appeared on the stands a year or so later, tailored to the only slightly different demands of a youth newly gilded by Thatcherism. The Official Foodie Handbook mentions two fresh additions to the genre in the USA: The Yuppie Handbook (‘the state-of-the-art manual for Young Urban Professionals’) and The Official Young Aspiring Professionals Fast-Track Handbook. There seems to be no precise equivalent for the Young Aspiring Professional in Thatcher’s Britain: the Tory Trade Unionist (or TUTU) might fill the bill in some ways, but not in others. The Yuppie is, presumably, driven by an ambition he or she now has the confidence to reveal nakedly, an ambition to go one better than the vieux riches. In Britain, it is never possible to go one better than the vieux riches, who always own everything anyway. Harpers & Queen, the self-appointed arbiter of these matters this side of the herring-pond, identifies the strivers peremptorily as Noovos, or Noovs. There is something a touch Yellow-plush Papers about all this, but there you go. It would seem that The Official Foodie Handbook is an attempt to exploit the nearest British equivalent to the Yuppie market, for, according to the arbiters, food is a cornerstone of this hysterical new snobbery.
Very special economic circumstances, reminiscent of those of the decline of the Roman Empire and also of the heyday of Edwardian England as described by Jack London in People of the Abyss, establish gluttony as the mark of a class on the rise. The Official Foodie Handbook notes: ‘It takes several things to support a Foodie culture: high-class shops, fast transport bringing fresh produce from the land, enlightened well-paid eater-outers who will support the whole expensive edifice, lower-paid workers to make the food. Suddenly they are all present.’
Piggery triumphant has invaded even the pages of the Guardian, hitherto synonymous with non-conformist sobriety. Instead of its previous modest column of recipes and restaurant reviews, the paper now boasts an entire page devoted to food and wine once a week: more space than it gives to movies, as much as it customarily gives to books. Piggery has spawned a glossy bimonthly, A la Carte, a gastronomic Penthouse devoted to glamour photography, the subject of which is not the female body imaged as if it were good enough to eat, but food photographed according to the conventions of the pin-up. (Barr and Levy, ever quick with a quip, dub this kind of thing ‘gastro-porn’.) The colour plates are of awesome voluptuousness. Oh, that coconut kirsch roulade in the first issue! If, as Lévi-Strauss once opined, ‘to eat is to fuck,’ then that coconut kirsch roulade is just asking for it. Even if the true foodie knows there is something not quite ... about a coconut kirsch roulade as a concept. It is just a bit ... just a bit Streatham. Its vowels are subtly wrong. It is probably related to a Black Forest gâteau.
A la Carte is an over-eager social climber and is bound to give the game away. ‘Do you know the difference between a good Brie and a bad one? One made in a factory or on a farm? If you don’t, your guests might.’ Then you will be universally shunned and nobody will attend your dinner parties ever again. This mincing and finicking obsession with food opens up whole new areas of potential social shame. No wonder the British find it irresistible. Indeed, in Britain an enlightened interest in food has always been the mark of the kind of person who uses turns of phrase such as ‘an enlightened interest in food’. If a certain kind of upper-class British cookery represents the staff’s revenge upon its masters, an enthusiasm for the table, the grape and the stove itself is a characteristic of the deviant sub-section of the British bourgeoisie that has always gone in for the arts with the diligent enthusiasm of (as they would put it) ‘the amateur in the true sense of the word’. This class is more than adequately represented by Mrs Elizabeth David.
In An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, a collection of her journalism dating back to the Fifties, there is an article describing the serendipitous nature of provisioning in London just after the war. Mrs David remembers how ‘one of my sisters turned up from Vienna with a hare which she claimed had been caught by hand outside the State Opera House.’ A whole world is contained within that sentence, which could be the first line of a certain kind of novel and sums up an entire way of life. It is no surprise to discover that Mrs David admires the novels of Sybille Bedford, nor that she was a friend of Norman Douglas. It is a little surprising that she has never turned her acclaimed prose style to fiction, but has always restricted herself to culinary matters, if in the widest sense: taking aboard aspects of history, geography and literature. Her books, like her journalism, are larded with quotations, from recherché antique cookery books to Virginia Woolf, Montaigne, Walter Scott. Her approach is not in the least like the gastronomic dandyism of the ‘food-for-food’s sake’ crowd: she is holistic about it. She is obviously a truly civilised person and, for her, knowing how to eat and to prepare good food is not an end in itself, but as much a part of civilisation as is the sensuous appreciation of poetry, art or music. In the value system of the person who is ‘civilised’ in this way, the word carries the same connotation as ‘moral’ does in the value system of Dr F.R. Leavis.
Mrs David’s journalism consists of discursive meditations upon food and foreign parts, but, in the course of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, one learns a discreet but enticing amount about her private life, enough to appreciate that her deftness with the pans is not a sign of domesticity but of worldliness. She is obviously the kind of woman before whom waiters grovel when she arrives alone at a restaurant. One imagines her to be one of those tall, cool, elegant blondes who make foreigners come over all funny, and it is plain that she is the kind of Englishwoman who, like the heroines of Nancy Mitford, only fully come to life Abroad. Her recipes are meticulous, authentic and reliable, and have formed the basic repertoire, not only of a thousand British late-20th-century dinner parties, but also of a goodly number of restaurants up and down these islands. She has been the conduit whereby French provincial cooking and French country cooking, of a kind which in France is being replaced by pizzas and hamburgers, may be raptly savoured in rural England.
The eponymous ‘Chez Panisse’ of the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook is directly inspired by Mrs David, who now spans the globe. The cook-proprietor of ‘Chez Panisse’, Alice Waters, says in her introduction: ‘I bought Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking and I cooked everything in it, from beginning to end. I admired her aesthetics of food and wanted a restaurant that had the same feeling as the pictures on the covers of her books.’ It seems an unusual desire, to create a restaurant that looks like a book-jacket, and most of the cooks from whom Mrs David originally acquired her recipes would think it even more unusual to learn to cook from a book instead of from Mum. But all this must spring naturally from the kind of second-order experience that lies behind the cult of food. Alice Waters is a girl from New Jersey who earned her culinary stripes by resolutely cooking her way through a compendium of French recipes assembled by an Englishwoman, using ingredients from Northern California and serving them up to the me-generation in a restaurant named after an old movie. The result is a Franco-Californian cuisine of almost ludicrous refinement, in which the simplest item is turned into an object of mystification. A ripe melon, for example, is sought for as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Ms Waters applauds herself on serving one. ‘Anyone could have chosen a perfect melon, but unfortunately most people don’t take the time or make an effort to choose carefully and understand what that potentially sublime fruit should be.’ She talks as if selecting a melon were an existential choice of a kind to leave Jean-Paul Sartre stumped. This rapt, bug-eyed concern with the small print not even of life but of gluttony is, I think, genuinely decadent.
Behind Ms Waters’ wincingly exquisite cuisine lies some post-hippy Platonism to do with the real and the phoney. ‘Depersonalised, assembly-line fast food may be “convenient” and “time-saving” but it deprives the senses and denies true nourishment,’ she opines. Like anorexia nervosa, the neurotic condition in which young girls voluntarily starve themselves to death, the concept of ‘true nourishment’ can exist only in a society where hunger happens to other people. Ms Waters has clearly lost her marbles through too great a concern with grub, so much so that occasionally ‘Alice Waters’ sounds like a pseudonym for S.J. Perelman. ‘I do think best while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb,’ she confides. For a person of my generation, there is also the teasing question: could she be the Alice, and ‘Chez Panisse’ the real Alice’s Restaurant, of the song by Arlo Guthrie? And if this is so, what does it prove?