Friday, October 24, 2014

Why food and wine faddism has become almost intolerable

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 22.)

I have an admission to make. I am a recovering wine and food writer.
For many years I wrote wine columns; even a book. I also reviewed restaurants for various publications and was a judge in national restaurant awards.

Those days are now behind me. I enjoy my wine and my food as much as ever, but haven’t lost a millisecond of sleep fretting that I’m no longer part of that scene.
This has nothing to do with ill-will or personal animosity. I don’t think I’ve ever met a winemaker I didn’t like, and I greatly admire what the wine industry has achieved over the past 30-odd years. 

Similarly, I respect the chefs I know. They work hard and are fiercely dedicated to what they do. We should all be enormously grateful that they have transformed New Zealand from the dull, stodgy, meat-and-three-veges culture that I knew when I was growing up.
So what’s the problem? Why am I strangely relieved that consignments of wine no longer turn up on my doorstep from companies hoping for a favourable review, and that I no longer get paid to dine at some of the country’s best restaurants?

Here’s why: in the end, I was repelled by all the hype.
At some indeterminable point during the past decade, the business of wine and food moved beyond the simple appreciation of eating and drinking. It morphed into something approaching a cult.

Glossy food and wine magazines proliferated beyond reason. In some metropolitan newspapers, space previously devoted to issues of public importance was taken over by café reviews and articles about the food fad du jour.
Chefs, winemakers and even baristas became celebrities, lionised like pop stars. Entire display stands in bookshops were devoted to expensive recipe books, their creators posing on the covers like kitchen gods.

The language of food and wine became progressively more preposterous. Wine critics not only discovered that they could get away with laughably pretentious writing, but that it resulted in them being even more revered.
Restaurant menus began to look as if composed by graduates of creative writing schools. The concept of simple things done well seemed to be abandoned as restaurants competed to create ever more exotic combinations. Some worked, many didn’t.

Perhaps worst of all, it got to the point where you couldn’t turn on the television without being confronted by food shows.
At the innocuous end of the spectrum these were honest, simple programmes that often told you something about the culture of a place as well as its cuisine. I quite enjoyed the River Cottage series, for example, and the food-inspired travelogues of Rick Stein.

But then television also gave us excrescences like Gordon Ramsay (I momentarily forgot his name while writing this, so typed “foul-mouthed chef” into Google and there it was) and a serious of contrived, so-called “reality” food shows – a misleading term if ever there was one – in which the primary object seemed to be the humiliation of the contestants.
The latest example of food and drink faddism is the fascination with craft beer. I rejoice in the range of beer now available to consumers, thanks to a new generation of creative independent brewers. But the earnest, bearded cultists who gather at craft beer festivals strike me as only slightly less tragic than men who spend their weekends playing with model planes and boats.

Someone coined the clever term “food porn” to describe the obsession with food and wine and the preponderance of TV shows, magazines and books devoted to the subject. Just as the porn industry does its best to strip sex of its eroticism and mystique (has there ever been a sexy porn movie?), so the simple pleasure of eating and drinking has been contaminated by crass hucksterism. 
How did this come about? Some of the blame must fall on those old culprits, the vulgarians who work in marketing and public relations. Relentlessly talking up anything with a dollar in it is what they do.

I began to lose interest in writing about wine when I sensed that wine companies were increasingly being taken over by aggressive young marketing types who might as well have been promoting Coke, for all they cared or knew about wine, and that the labels they kept pushing forward were not ones that ordinary people could afford to drink.
But marketing and PR spruikers can succeed only if there is a responsive market, and a new type of consumer – affluent, acutely attuned to the trend of the moment and terrified of missing out on whatever’s new – provides it. And I’m not just talking about the impressionable young, because many of the most hopeless food faddists are baby-boomers like me.

We can only hope this is merely an awkward growing phase that an inchoate consumerist society must go through en route to social maturity. And that in due course we will rediscover the simple pleasure of mince on toast.

1 comment:

Skippers said...

And have you noticed how travel articles no longer simply focus on what to see and do, but put great emphasis on what and where to eat?