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.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Deetch" or "dutch"? Both are capable of being made to sound absurd

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 17.)
YEARS AGO, while on a government-sponsored visit to Germany,  I noticed my official guide smirking as he eavesdropped on the conversation of some of our fellow passengers on a train trip between Karlsruhe and Berlin.

He later explained that the group’s accent identified them as coming from a provincial region in the north of Germany. A resident of sophisticated Bonn himself, he clearly regarded them as yokels. His contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.

It lodged in my memory not just as extraordinarily unprofessional, coming from someone employed to promote a newly-unified Germany, but as a striking lesson in how human beings put others down purely because of the way they speak.

Mocking other people’s accents is an age-old way of asserting cultural and social superiority. 

It’s also one of the easiest ways in which to poke fun at other nationalities - a fact cleverly exploited by the scriptwriters of TV comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and ’Allo ’Allo!, in which the Germans and French were mercilessly caricatured on the basis of their accents.

Fifty years ago, Peter Sellers sold lots of records with his wickedly clever impersonation of Indians. Would he get away with it today? Probably not. Cultural sensitivity would rule it out. Yet some accents are still considered fair game - including our own.

On the American talk show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver had great fun recently with a New Zealand television news clip about the fuss over the National Party’s alleged plagiarising of a track by rapper Eminem in its election advertising.

Two aspects appealed to Oliver. The first was National campaign manager Steven Joyce’s reaction when journalists asked him whether National had obtained copyright clearance to use the Eminem song.

Joyce’s reply - "We think it’s, um, pretty legal”  - amused Oliver, who suggested the politician would make an entertaining defence lawyer.

But what also attracted Oliver’s attention, perhaps inevitably, was the accent of the New Zealand television reporter featured in the clip. Her pronunciation of “Eminem”, in particular, so amused him that he attempted his own imitation – not once but twice, to the great mirth of his audience.

Fair enough; I cringe too at the pronunciation of television journalists. Some give the impression they’re on a mission to destroy every trace of euphony in the English language.

This particular reporter’s pinched pronunciation of the vowels in “Eminem” was enough to make even me wince, and I’m a New Zealander.

But then, with accents, who’s to say that one is worse than another? All accents are capable of being made to sound ridiculous.

Several years ago, simple-minded Australians (no jokes about tautology, please) hooted with delight at the famous “Beached Az, Bro” video – an Australian-made cartoon in which a beached whale with a Kiwi accent declined an offer of a potato chup because he could only eat plinkton.

It wasn’t terribly clever, but it played to the widespread perception among Australians that New Zealand is a slightly more backward version of Tasmania.

Even an intelligent magazine like the Spectator Australia can’t resist having a dig. In an editorial devoted to National’s election victory a couple of weeks ago, it referred to events across the “dutch”.

But really, can anyone say the New Zealand accent is intrinsically more absurd than one that pronounces chips as cheeps, kiwi as koy-woy, pool as pewel and today as to die? Or, for that matter, ditch as deetch?

I suppose we just have to accept that New Zealand English can sound odd to other ears. What apparently doesn’t occur to most Australians, with their nationalistic braggadocio, is that their accent can sound pretty tortured too.

And what about the Brits? Once, travelling on a train in France, I spent several minutes trying to figure out the nationality of the young men who were sharing my compartment. It eventually dawned on me that they were from England and that the language they were speaking was nominally the same as mine.

No one from a country with Britain’s quaint assortment of impenetrable regional accents is in a position to poke fun at the way other people speak. At least a New Zealander from Kaitaia can understand one from Invercargill, which is not something that can be said for the British.

So perhaps people like Oliver should lay off the jokes about other cultures’ accents. It’s a cheap way of point-scoring, and it often says a lot more about the mocker than the mocked.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

George, George, what were you thinking?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, October 8.)
I’ve always rather liked George Clooney. I particularly enjoyed the films he made with the directors Joel and Ethan Coen, namely O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.
Both movies bore the Coen brothers’ trademark storyline of greedy, evil or stupid people (sometimes all three) getting caught up in grotesquely complex events that spiral out of control, usually with disastrous and outrageously funny consequences.

Clooney seemed a natural fit with the Coen brothers’ darkly whimsical view of the world. What especially impressed me was that even with his matinee-idol looks, he was happy to play roles that required a degree of self-mockery. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously – a quality he shares with a similarly suave heart-throb from an earlier era, Cary Grant.
I was less impressed with the over-rated Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney’s directorial debut, in which he starred as a colleague of the legendary American broadcaster Edward R Murrow, and I probably should resent him for his involvement as producer of Argo, which wilfully misrepresented New Zealand’s role in a plot to spirit six American diplomats out of hostile Iran. 

But his best films have been brilliant and even his poorer ones are better than most, so he remained one of the few Hollywood stars I admired.
His efforts on behalf of war victims in Sudan seemed to mark him as a decent man, too – a genuine humanitarian, and blessedly free of the irritating sanctimony and self-promotion that has made U2’s Bono a figure of ridicule.

On top of all this, Clooney seemed endearingly immune to the hype, humbug and glitz customarily associated with big box-office names. Still more reason to like him.
That is, until last week. Then he blew it.

Clooney could have got married quietly and discreetly. Instead, his wedding was the centre of a media event that was extravagant even by Hollywood standards.
We can only conclude this was deliberate. Why else choose Venice as the venue?

It’s hard to imagine any city in the world where there would be less prospect of privacy. In Venice, people get around in open boats. This meant that virtually every move by Clooney and his bride, the Lebanese-born civil rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, would be witnessed and recorded by paparazzi and TV cameras.
Again, we can only assume it was orchestrated with this intent. The media seemed to have been advised in advance of the wedding party’s movements so that they could be on hand to capture every moment.

Certainly Clooney seemed to revel in the attention, beaming and waving like a monarch acknowledging the adoration of his subjects. Not for him the raised hand to fend off prying lenses or the phalanx of bodyguards to keep the press at bay, as we’ve come to expect of celebrity weddings.
On the contrary, there seemed an inordinate amount of very public cruising back and forth on the canals in the company of his illustrious guests, the purpose of which was presumably to ensure maximum exposure.

George, George, what were you thinking?
Journalists, clearly so mesmerised by the glamour of the occasion that they momentarily took leave of their professional scepticism, wittered on about the prospect of Clooney’s female fans worldwide being plunged into despair at the sight of the man they called the world’s most desirable bachelor giving his heart to someone else.

In fact a more probable consequence was that many people who had previously respected Clooney as an intelligent and sensible man, with an admirable disregard for the usual excesses of Hollywood stardom, would be wondering how he could have let them down so badly. Or perhaps, like me, they were quietly rebuking themselves for having so naively misread him.

Several questions arise from the extravaganza in Venice. The first and most obvious is why so many stars feel an apparent compulsion to live their lives so publicly. Is it because they depend on the constant affirmation of the crowd? Does stardom get inside their heads to the point where public adulation eventually becomes the only way they can measure their worth?
Another is why celebrities appear to crave the company of other celebrities. Is this another form of validation for insecure egos? (Matt Damon, Bono, Cindy Crawford and Bill Murray are at my wedding – ergo, I must be up there in the celebrity stratosphere.) Did they have a life, friends, before they became stars?

But perhaps the most perplexing question of all relates to our own fascination with the cult of stardom, without which the Clooney-Alamuddin wedding would have been ignored.
After all, what are actors? They are people who are famous for pretending to be someone else.

We wrongly attribute to them the characteristics of the fictional characters they play. The extent to which we worship them hinges on how convincingly they pull off this feat. Our interest in them is as illogical as our fascination with royalty, whose mass appeal is derived from accidents of birth.
So we’re the suckers, and Clooney is simply taking advantage of our gullibility. But I can’t help liking him less as a result.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deceived and demoralised

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 3.)
I WONDER, was this the most demoralising election result ever for the New Zealand left?
There was an excited buzz in the left-wing blogosphere and in social media in the weeks leading up to the election. There seemed to be a sense that victory was in their grasp, even when the polls suggested otherwise. But they were cruelly deceived.

Their optimism is easily explained. In the early stages of the campaign, they saw the fallout from Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics dominating the news bulletins night after night.
After that firestorm had abated, the media turned its attention to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth, with its dazzling line-up of high-profile journalists and leakers from overseas, all eager to tell us how morally bankrupt our government was.

Those on the left observed the adulation heaped on Hager, who was lionised at speaking engagements. They thrilled at the big turnouts attracted by Dotcom and his incongruous handmaiden, Laila Harré. And they deduced from all this that an unstoppable momentum was building, the inevitable result of which would be the unceremonious dispatch of the Key government.
They were wrong. It was a massive indulgence in wishful thinking, and it must have made the left’s defeat even more crushing psychologically.

How could they have been so misled? That’s easy to explain too.
Consider the enthusiastic capacity crowd at Dotcom’s Moment of Truth event and the full halls he addressed on his barnstorming campaign through the country. The left interpreted this as evidence of an irresistible groundswell of discontent, when it was nothing of the sort.

Someone as novel and entertaining as Dotcom was bound to attract crowds, especially in provincial centres where not much happens. In any case, there are always enough true believers to fill halls and give the impression something big is afoot.
Alas, it was all an illusion. The great mass of New Zealanders, the Joe Average types who determine election results, were unmoved.  They watched the overheated news coverage on television, read the headlines and marvelled at the unpleasantness of it all. Then, on September 20, they went into the ballot booths and voted National.

Now the left is in disarray, as is obvious from the painful recriminations within the Labour Party. David Cunliffe inevitably became the scapegoat for Labour’s humiliation even though he ran a tolerably good campaign.
Ironically, the controversy over Dirty Politics and allegations of illegal state surveillance, all of which should have been helpful to Labour, deprived Cunliffe of the opportunity to articulate the party’s policies on issues closer to the concerns of ordinary people.  

The question now is whether Labour can recover from its self-evisceration in time to mount a credible challenge in 2017. When a veteran loyalist like Sir Bob Harvey is questioning whether the party should do away with its traditional red and even consider changing its name, there’s clearly a deep identity crisis to be resolved.
Labour still hasn’t determined whether it’s a party of the blue-collar working class (think South Auckland) or of the university-educated, inner city-dwelling liberal left (think Mt Victoria).

The Greens are licking their wounds too. They worked hard to make themselves more palatable to the wider electorate. They mounted an effective campaign and seemed supremely confident that this would be their moment, but the voters had other ideas. The Greens’ message didn’t seem to resonate beyond their core supporters.
They too must now withdraw to figure out how it all went so wrong. Small wonder that we’ve heard barely a peep from them since election night.

Internet-Mana is deservedly history. Never has a new party made so much noise for so little reward.
Will Harré and John Minto get the message and ride off into the sunset? Somehow I doubt it. Zealots don’t give up easily; they are sustained by an overwhelming sense of righteousness and rationalise defeat by convincing themselves that their fellow citizens are either suckers or knaves.

The net effect of the election result is that the New Zealand left must contemplate the unpalatable possibility that it is now irrelevant. The noisy activists and ideologues who used up much of the oxygen during the election campaign have been exposed as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of most New Zealanders’ lives.
They will of course continue shouting in their own echo chamber. That’s what they do. But after the drubbing of September 20, it will be a long time before they convince anyone that they have a message worth listening to.