Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

It's time to end the food fantasy

April 19, 2011 |  1:43 pm

Food As a culture, we've become obsessed with food. Not only do we tune in to cooking competition shows such as "Top Chef," but we live-tweet during the programs and tune in afterwards to show recaps. We can't go out to dinner without snapping the perfect photo of our dish for Facebook. And we don't just pull over at random when we see a food truck; we actively seek them out via Twitter. We want to know the culinary trends before they happen; we want to hear from gourmands on what adventurous (gross) thing they've eaten, so that we may talk about it with our foodie friends; we want to know which chef is cooking at what restaurant; and we collect souped-up gadgets for our kitchens. Our appetite is voracious. But is anyone actually eating -- or are we just buying into the fantasy?

We’d rather take the perfect photo than the perfect bite: P.J. Huffstutter captured the phenomenon perfectly in last year's story, "Dinner is the theater as food paparazzi converge." Her article began like this:

The paparazzi target wasn't hard to find: The star smelled distinctly of fish.

Camera flashes cut across the softly lighted downtown Los Angeles restaurant, as the crowd at Ludo Bites jostles for the coveted photo -- of the Columbian River king salmon confit.

A few minutes later, as a server walked past with a plate of foie gras terrine, 18 food bloggers aimed their cameras and prepared to fire anew."This is the game we all now play," chef and owner Ludo Lefebvre said through gritted teeth. "We cook, we smile -- and the people, they don't eat. They get their cameras."

Not so long ago, diners, hungry for a memento of special meals, would pull out a point-and-shoot at a restaurant for a quick picture of sliced birthday cake.

No more. Taking a cue from Twitter and Facebook cultures, serious foodies and casual consumers alike are using digital technology to document each bite, then sharing or swapping the pictures online.

Chefs call them the food paparazzi, and these days, no morsel is too minor.

We eat vicariously through celebrities: Our preoccupation with the image of food extends to what celebrities eat, and those celebs are just as eager to share all the greasy details when they're interviewed. Mac and cheese, fried zucchini, burgers, fries -- what fattening food won't a starlet say she eats? The question is whether it's true that there are so many thin actresses who eat like they're on the path to obesity (doubtful) or if they're selling fantasy (more likely) for consumers to eat up. Such was the topic of a recent New York Times article by Jeff Gordinier, in which he asked, "For actresses, is a big appetite part of the show?"

Such passages are widespread enough in the pages of American periodicals that at least one longtime film publicist, Jeremy Walker, has coined a term of art for them: the documented instance of public eating, or DIPE. […] Even when an actress doesn’t overtly chow down, it is not unusual for her to gush about her fondness for doing so. “I actually really love to lie in bed, watch TV, be a total sloth, and eat my favorite food: Kraft macaroni and cheese,” Drew Barrymore told Harper’s Bazaar in the October 2010 issue.

It's become so cliché that you'd think writers would only want to include those details only when it reveals something genuine about the person, as it did in a Radar magazine article about the overly neurotic Shannen Doherty, who ordered "a Greek peasant salad, no olives, no tomatoes, no cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, extra cheese, extra dressing, and you know how they cut up the souvlaki chicken on top for me?" No matter: Cliché or not, readers eat it up.   

We deck out our kitchens, but we don’t really cook: In the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Megan McArdle documents the evolution of the kitchen in "The Joy of Not Cooking."

When my grandmother was growing up in the 1920s, the average woman spent about 30 hours a week preparing food and cleaning up. By the 1950s, when she was raising her family, that number had fallen to about 20 hours a week. Now, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, women average just 5.5 hours — and those who are employed, like me, spend less than 4.4 hours a week. And that's not because men are picking up the slack; they log a paltry 15 minutes a day doing kitchen work. One market-research firm, the NPD Group, says that even in the 1980s, 72 percent of meals eaten at home involved an entrée cooked from scratch; now just 59 percent of them do, and the average number of food items used per meal has decreased from 4.4 to 3.5. That’s when we’re home at all: by 1995, we consumed more than a quarter of all meals and snacks outside the home, up from 16 percent two decades earlier.

Despite the declining numbers, we've never been more consumed with pricey kitchen gadgets.

Jack Schwefel, the CEO of Sur La Table, talks about "the romance" of the high-end kitchen gadgets he sells. […]

Why pay $349.95 for what is essentially a souped-up blender? Customers "picture themselves outside by the pool, surrounded by 20 of their friends," says Schwefel. "There's always been a lot of gimmick to the gadget world, and you’re starting to see this proliferation of specialty gadgets." Each of those gadgets comes with a vision of yourself doing something warm and inviting: baking bread, rolling your own pasta, slow-cooking a pot roast.  […]

When I asked Schwefel what his male customers favor, he immediately said "Knives," calling them the "golf clubs" of cooks.


In all three articles, the secondary theme is a consensus among chefs, restaurateurs, real home cooks and cultural commentators that it's time to get real. Given the rising cost of groceries and the obesity epidemic, I'm inclined to agree. The fantasy is fun, but we need to redevelop a realistic relationship with food.


Should there be a 'fat tax'?

Moviegoers should know they're consuming a tub of calories

Food safety: Should canned foods come with a warning label?

Meghan Daum: The GOP's feeding frenzy over Michelle Obama

Chef Jamie Oliver: Does his 'Food Revolution' concept infringe on personal freedom?

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Deconstructed Lamb Lasagna. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Comments ()