Foodism, the new cultural signifier

Food may well have replaced high art, as Deresieswicz argues, but it has also replaced popular culture. People talk about food now the way they used to talk about bands. Music has become too fractured and diverse to provide the necessary combination of accessibility and specificity for self-definition. If you liked Kiss or The Eagles in the 1970s, the fact established part of who you were: your class affiliations, where you came from, what drugs you liked to take, whether you were urban or rural. Today, if you like Grizzly Bear or Kanye West, it virtually means nothing. You could be a banker or a member of Occupy Wall Street. You could be eighty or eighteen. You could live in East Texas or the Upper East Side. I mean, Marco Rubio's favorite group is NWA.
Today, your attitude toward pork belly is a clearer statement of who you are and where you come from than any television show you watch or band you follow. Tell me what you know about pasta, and I'll tell you how much your parents made, how much education you managed, how much is in your savings account. Unlike other cultural phenomena, which are more or less generationally undefined now, food explicitly identifies youthfulness. The younger you are, the more you know about food, generally speaking.

I've had this tab open since last Thanksgiving (I'm not joking, I know I have a problem), but now that it's been a year it still applies: On Thanksgiving, the Foodies Should Shut Up. Anecdotally, it does seem as if books, music, and movies have receded as cultural touchstones in favor of food and television.

The rise of TV and food in the pop culture pantheon are related. Television turned chefs (and by association their restaurants) into celebrities. Both television and food have also benefitted from the internet. Television episodes recaps and reviews, food and restaurant blogs, everywhere is a boom in information about a small number of shows and restaurants that we only once read about in books like the local newspaper or books like the Zagat guides. 

The number of items in each category matters. Whereas the number of restaurants in a city has stayed largely fixed, and whereas the number of TV shows I watch has increased but perhaps only by 2X, the number of bands and musicians I can follow now has increased by 5 to 10X. Almost everyone I know can easily name 10 bands they love that I've never heard of, but it's rare for someone to mention a restaurant in SF or a TV show I don't already know. Having a small number of items of shared devotion creates a sense of communal power. Music still matters, but more people I know share a greater overlap with my TV and restaurant favorites than with my music universe. 

Not everyone is happy with the foodism bubble.  Writes William Deresiewicz:

But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.
But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.
A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
Yes, food centers life in France and Italy, too, but not to the disadvantage of art, which still occupies the supreme place in both cultures. Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.

There's no doubt foodism has become a totem of class, and I would be happy to never see another photo of someone's dinner plate or lunch again on a social network–and that includes pictures of my own food, which I've been guilty of inflicting on others in the past (unless you're a chef or serious food journalist, then it's expected).

But the one aspect of foodism I do enjoy is the deep fetishism of the craft of cooking, as epitomized in documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry or cookbooks like The French Laundry Cookbook or Modernist Cuisine. Reading about the conception of a dish and then the process of perfecting it until it becomes a recipe for maximizing the chances reproducing the best version of that dish is no more ridiculous, to me, than an article discussing the redesign of a website, a book about how the Mac was made, or a piece in American Cinematographer about how a movie like Gravity was shot. The more complex and audacious the better. Craftsmanship is sexy.