The New Epicureans

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.]

Yesterday I noted the religious iconography of our society, hardly an original observation, but I’m studiously trying to avoid any hint of originality on this blog.

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.”

— Livy

9 comments on “The New Epicureans

  1. bgc says:

    I think it is a kind of decadence due to the abundance of good food.

    Even 40-50 years ago in the UK most good food was home cooked – catering and shop bought (ready made) food was barely edible (sometimes literally inedible – school dinner stew always contained ‘gristle’ i.e. cartilaginous bone-ends; in summer milk was simply sour – separated into a solid plug of rancid yellow cream and a thin blobby juice looking like cottage cheese mixed with water).

    Most people were hungry a lot of the time, so any kind of decent and pleasant food was very gratefully received.

    House guests would normally be given bread and butter with jam (‘jelly’), plain biscuits and a cup of tea.

    Meals out (for a special treat – once every few weeks) would be something like fish and chips; or scones, jam (maybe a *small* blob of cream – fresh cream as opposed to the usual buttercream) and tea.

    The biggest treat of all was home-made cake (something like a Victoria sponge, or a ‘fruit cake’ resembling a less dense Christmas cake).

    But once the volume and standard and affordability of bought food went-up – then something special needed to be added to impress people and tickle their jaded palates: BS sauce!

  2. Proph says:

    That quote reminds me of a study I read a while back demonstrating that superstitious beliefs (in things like the zodiac and horoscopes, for instance) were more prevalent among atheists than among Christians. The authors concluded that theistic belief actually serves to innoculate people against superstition. Irrelevant thought, but interesting nonetheless.

    • outofsleep says:

      Well, there is a coherence to any orthodox believer’s beliefs. An uneducated Christian might attribute something strange to angels, whereas an uneducated atheist would attribute it to aliens. Among the educated and non-superstitious, however, the Christian still believes in angels, but the atheist no longer believes in aliens (or at least not the kind that hide behind bookcases with big black eyes).

      This is either the huge weakness of Christianity or its secret, baffling strength. In its orthodox and rigorous forms, it’s the most coherent worldview (that I’m aware of) which takes account of the supernatural.

  3. Aurini says:

    This reminded me of the mother in the Screwtape Letters – her lust for “the perfect piece of toast, which she remembered having as a little girl” was just another form of gluttony.

    I’ve often described Atheism as a broad spectrum anti-biotic; it completely flushes the system of all memeplexes, leaving the individual vulnerable to bizarre, mutant strains, often that we’ve never seen before. Baby being thrown out with the bathwater, and all that.

    • outofsleep says:

      Ah yes… I remember being struck by that quote as well. It must have been operating on a subconscious level in my mind when I wrote this post. “Oh a gluttonous person would drink 6 cheap beers out of the can. I’m not a glutton. All I really want is a simple manhattan. But none of that pre-bottled bitters stuff, please. It’s horribly unbalanced. How do you make your bitters here? Hmm, I see. Well at least give me a nice bourbon. May I see the bottle please? Oh no no no… this is the oak-aged version. That will clash with the vermouth of course! Sigh… my desires are very simple, really. All I want is a manhattan. Why is this so difficult?”

      Hmm… that was dangerously fun to write. I feel I could mock these people all day just for kicks. I better move on before I start getting gratuitously mean-spirited. So tempting….

  4. James Kalb says:

    There are a couple of good movies on food and drink as religion, Sideways and Babette’s Feast.

    The first is set in present-day California. It’s about contemptible people with sordid lives for whom wine gives access to transcendent reality. I called it a good movie but actually the people are too repellent and the filmmakers seem too much a part of the world they portray. It does suggest the role foodism can play for people though. It’s not just a matter of display. Faith has to precede hypocrisy.

    The second is set among the aging members of a small Protestant sect in a village in 19th century Denmark. There are some odd circumstances and the deceased founder’s unmarried daughters take on the (former) greatest chef in Paris as their unpaid servant girl. After 10 years Great Chef/Servant Girl wins 10,000 francs in a lottery and blows it all on the ingredients for a dinner for 12 honoring the founder’s 100th birthday.

    In that one there’s a comparison between two religions, sectarian Protestantism and Art (in this case, the art of cooking). The idea seems to be that neither really works in the long run but they supplement each other when they’re brought together, which never happens except in movies with weird plot devices. There’s a soliloquy at the end that attempts to reconcile it all but it’s a bit too vague to work.

    The movie does suggest though that the life of the Protestant sectarian wears a bit better than that of the artist or at least that of the artistic devotee. The Great Chef decides to stay in the village because people and lives turn out badly in Paris and her art does more good in the village. (On the other hand, the aging sectarians were getting pretty cranky before the dinner put them into a good mood with each other.)

    • outofsleep says:

      I hadn’t considered the pop culture angle. There was also a cute little animated movie called “Ratatouille” a few years back. In that movie, though the rat protagonist was a bit of a snob, his hero was a big fat chef who had a big heart and lots of gusto. The restaurant critic villain “Anton Ego” was portrayed as a hopelessly self-important snob. At the end, a bite of delicious food makes him remember his childhood and fall in love with the world all over again.

      I never saw “Sideways.” When it came out, all the cultural organs I trust the least were hailing it as “smart,” “hip,” “sophisticated” etc., a big clue for me to stay away! In fact, liking “Sideways” became a shibboleth for elites and wannabe-elites, it seemed to me for a while. I’ve never even seen it, but I’m aware of the impact it’s had on whether those “in the know” will order merlot at a restaurant.

  5. James Kalb says:

    It was a well-made movie on the whole, and Paul Giamatti gave a good performance as a wormy guy with one bright spot in his life. He had some good as well as wormy qualities, but it’s hard to imagine anyone avoiding merlot or thinking pinot noir is cool because of his view of the world. What do I know though.

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