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Stomachs Too Big to Fail | The Nation

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Stomachs Too Big to Fail

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Food as Succulent Strings of Heirloom Adjectives and Vintage Nouns

About the Author

Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's is launching a new venture, Lapham's Quarterly. His most recent book is...

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Over the decades, this catchall term has lost all bite and meaning.

On moving east to New York City in 1960, I formed the habit of eating in restaurants and with it the supposition that the pleasures of the table were those to be found in the company and the conversation rather than in whatever was the sun-dried specialty on the plate. My belated introduction to the notion of a higher food consciousness I owe to Julia Child.

In the early 1960s, having served her apprenticeship at Le Cordon Bleu, she was conducting a cooking class on American public television, her program, The French Chef, so popular that the editors of The Saturday Evening Post sent me to take note of its being whipped up in a kitchen in Boston. The two days in her company—on set, at home, watching a taped sequence of her prior performances—were both a joy and a wonder to behold.

A hearty and steadfast woman unburdened with affectation, Mrs. Child didn’t preach sermons—gastronomic, moral, or conceptual. So carefree was her approach to the materials in hand that, when making a mess of a potato pancake, she didn’t lose her composure. “If this happens,” she said, “just scoop it back into the pan. Remember that you are alone in the kitchen, and nobody can see you.”

She took a simple and innocent delight in anything and everything she found pleasing (puff pastry or fish heads), her sense of enthusiastic discovery like that of Duke Ellington’s finding “the best barbecued ribs west of Cleveland and the best shrimp Creole outside New Orleans.” One of her French Chef episodes opened on an artichoke boiling in a pot under a shroud of cheesecloth, Mrs. Child looming suddenly into the shot to lift the cheesecloth with heavy tweezers and an expression of cheerful surprise.

“What’s cooking under this gossamer veil?” she said. “Why, here’s a great big bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it.”

She had a way of misplacing things, often the butter, sometimes the seasoning or the chopped carrots—on one memorable occasion, the turkey. Undismayed by random accident and secure in her belief that all’s well that ends well, she could point to chicken frying in a pan and say, reassuringly, “We just leave it there, letting it make simple little cooking noises.”

If from Mrs. Child I learned what little I know about gourmandizing, I was never troubled by the wish to live on a farm, there in the morning mist down by the Wabash to milk a cow, butcher a pig or strangle a chicken. Journalist Brent Cunningham takes to task the notion of rural utopia dispensed from the pulpits of the food-reform movements and finds it suffused with a reduction of “bourgeois nostalgia,” an artisanal memory of sweet-water streams overflowing with trout, the countryside teeming with “poor but noble” people, “tough and hard-working…living healthier and fundamentally better lives than the rest of us.”

The souvenir postcard is a misreading of American history. The story being told and retold in the old diaries and letters is not the one about a happy return to the well and the barn; it is the one about a desperate escape from the mud. Agriculture was never anything other than a hard row to hoe, and on reading the record I recognize myself as having been born into a uniquely privileged generation in an exceptionally fortunate country, never threatened, unlike most other people in most every other society that ever squatted on a riverbank or tented on the plains, by the fear, much less the fact, of starvation.

Together with every American housewife during the century denominated as America’s own, I welcomed the glut of packaged foods, was glad of the escape from having to cook, grateful for the kitchen conveniences, for the year-round strawberries and the prompt home deliveries of saturated fat. In the company of travelers recently arrived from the Soviet Union and never before having seen a Stop & Shop, I shared their astonishment at the sight of what they perceived as a miracle.

I don’t bring the same sentiment into the restaurants that, by the early 1990s, had begun to come equipped not only with brushed and burnished steel but also with the atmosphere of devout observance that consecrate the exhibits of modern art. I never doubt the presence of grade-A epicures astonished by the revelation of A-list cuisine, the pleasure being taken in a well-dressed salad presumably akin to my own enjoyment of a well-turned phrase, but I suspect that as often as not it is the price of the thing that is precious, not the thing itself, and I notice that even when the food is mediocre, the sales pitch is invariably exquisite—succulent strings of heirloom adjectives and vintage nouns, wonderfully gratifying numbers ($465 for the tasting menu, $1,450 for the Napa Valley wine), literary ornament of a match with Tobias Smollett’s “five-year-old mutton, fed on the fragrant herbage of the mountains,” his “rabbits panting from the warren.”

Let the partaking of a truly expensive meal run to a five-course ritual of conspicuous consumption, and it becomes the proving of one’s salvation among the company of the elect. Who else but the rich can afford to pay so much for so small a shred of Kobe beef, can finance a holiday excursion to Le Cirque? The ancient agrarian societies dedicated the sacrificial bull or goat to Zeus or Jehovah; the modern capitalist society places the rhubarb gelée with gold leaf on the altar of Mammon.

It was my failing to remember that I live in a consumer society, one more interested in the fine furnishing of its stomach than in the interior decoration of its mind, that encouraged the waiter in New York last winter to repossess the menu. Here I was being offered the chance to eat money—equivalent in the American scheme of things to the body and blood of Christ—and I was refusing the sacraments.

Fortunately for the self-esteem of America’s moneyed noblesse, the signs of Mammon’s good grace are certain to become increasingly conspicuous. Between March 2010 and March 2011, the average cost of food in US cities rose to a forty-year high—iceberg lettuce up 48 percent, coffee 30 percent, bacon 24 percent, beef 21 percent, potatoes 14 percent.

The worldwide cost of food meanwhile rose 37 percent, the cost of crude oil 23 percent. All the available data indicates a steadily upward trend, the global market for food subject not only to crop failure and the loss of arable land but also to its uses as engine fuel.

The best-selling prophets of forthcoming dystopia name numerous probable causes, among them climate change, political upheaval, epidemic disease and nuclear accident, but as the leading indicator of bad news, they seldom fail to mention the projected imbalance between the world’s food supply and a world population breeding at a rate that would have done credit to Squire Smollett’s rabbits—2.5 billion in 1950, 6 billion in 2000, 9.5 billion by 2050.

Despite the twentieth century’s resort to mass murder and global war, the four horsemen of the apocalypse no longer can be counted upon to cull the herd, and the question that apparently needs to be addressed is whether the problem is animal, vegetable or mineral. Does it lend itself to a solution in accord with the moral and metaphysical definitions of wealth as food, or in line with the capitalist understanding of food as money? Which is the void that stands the better chance of being filled, the belly or the purse?

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