Chesterton famously said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.”
[Actually Chesterton did not say this, but it’s a real zinger of a line anyway. And it sure sounds like Chesterton. The American Chesterton Society has a fascinating letter explaining the origin of this quote at First Things. This must be a very powerful nut, because in the course of looking up the quote to make sure I had it right, I noticed several impassioned responses from atheists, a sure indicator that it hit home.]
Emptied of a belief in a literal God people feel vacant, and yet feel the same old need to express the spiritual yearning they will always feel aching away inside them, so they invest all kinds of strange things with spiritual meaning. Thus, the cults of our day. MLK is an example of a near-universal cult, at least in the United States.
Another pseudo-religion now is the new Epicureanism. All over the cities of the western world now there are chefs, bartenders, and other “culinary professionals” who are passionate about, and devoted to, and mad for food and drink. These are the words they use themselves.
Any visit to one of these bars or restaurants is accompanied by a lecture from the waiter, from the chef, from the bartender, from the menu, etc. The lecture explains all the ingredients, explains the provenance of the recipe, and more importantly, is meant to convey the vaguely holy status of the one who has shown so much “passion and dedication” in creating your [espresso/cocktail/meal/etc].
This needn’t really be a problem. One can simply decline to take part in this world. It’s easy enough to avoid all this by eating simple meals with friends. I simply have regular exposure to it as part of the current circumstances of my life.
And I don’t mean to complain about quality food per se. To the degree that people actually pay attention to their food and what’s going into their bodies, it’s surely an improvement over McDonald’s or what-have-you.
I should also say that I have met people who love food, cooking, and specialty beverages (fine wine, fine coffee) who seem to operate with genuine joy and childish enthusiasm. They eat and cook with gusto, and they are a pleasure to be around. No pretentiousness, just happy pleasure and gratitude.
No, I’m talking about a different species here when I talk about the New Epicureans: people who use food and drink as a status booster. Very often these people also are at pains to explain how they are “passionate” about it, which is of course the first clue that they are not sincere, not in their heart of hearts. If I love to play chess (which I do), I don’t go around telling everyone I can find about how passionate I am about chess. I simply study and play chess, and enjoy it. Easy as that!
“Foodies,” on the other hand, are foodies as a public demonstration. They take pictures of their food/drinks and post them on the internet, usually tossing off the rare or interesting ingredients casually, as if it were no big thing to them, thus subtly demonstrating their credentials for all the world. Or they post things like “really enjoying the butterscotch notes in this malbec right now.” If they were really enjoying the wine, they’d be enjoying it, not posting about it online.
The new Epicureanism is perfect for an affluent, liberal society. It comes draped in environmentalism and social activism. Food is touted as local, organic, sustainable, small-batch, rare, etc. Particular coffees claim to be supportive of poor, brown, third-world farmers. Etc. (All of these things can be excellent qualities of course… but the real purpose of such designations is as status markers for the people using them.) It is also something that the proles don’t engage in. Boring, low-class people eat mass-produced food. The in-the-know elite eat special things. Knowing about special food is a way to signal your elite credentials while maintaining plausible deniability. “Oh no.. I don’t do this for status. I’m just passionate about food!”
Bottles of small-batch liquors become holy objects. A fancy bar with homemade bitters is a holy reliquary. The bartender is a kind of priest, and the best ones — the most original, in the pejorative sense that I use here on this blog — become bishops of their towns. People come to religious service at the bar, spending too much money and focusing on their own beverages as if they were liquid manna from the gods.
But it’s all empty and it’s all jockeying for status. There’s no humility, no gratitude, no contemplation. A religion of glowing green and amber bottles, filled with sweetly seductive poisons. Mirrors on the back of the bar to show the drinker the image of what he’s really interested in when he takes part in this ritual: himself.
What might have been a convivial, chummy discussion over drinks with friends instead becomes about the drinks themselves. An acquaintance once said to me “I don’t care who I’m with as long as the food is good.” I responded, “I don’t care what I’m eating as long as the company is good.”
Luxuriae enim peregrinae origo ab exercitu Asiatico invecta in
urbem est. … epulae … ipsae et cura et sumptu maiore apparari
coeptae. Tum coquus, vilissimum antiquis mancipium et
aestimatione et usu, in pretio esse, et quod ministerium fuerat, ars
haberi coepta. Vix tamen illa, quae tum conspiciebantur, semina
erant futurae luxuriae.
“For the beginnings of foreign luxury were introduced into the City
by the army from Asia. … the banquets themselves … began to be
planned with both greater care and greater expense. At that time
the cook, to the ancient Romans the most worthless of slaves, both
in their judgment of values and in what use they made of him,
began to have value, and what had been merely a necessary service
came to be regarded as an art. Yet those things which were then
looked upon as remarkable were hardly even the germs of the
luxury to come.”