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Eat Your Words: The Dangers of Foodie Culture

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We all take ourselves too seriously at times. Whether it's our relationships, our expertise, our creativity or our opinions, at some point we all find our way to the high horse. For people who live their passions, it's hardly surprising to find them taking to their soapboxes. If you have to fight a little for what you believe in or have the balls to follow your dreams, then why wouldn't you put your voice to them?

But we often forget, when we're kippering someone kind enough to show a general interest in what we're up to, to edit these diatribes or gently harness the enthusiastic detail with which we respond to general or affectionate enquiries about 'what we're up to'.

For me, learning about and sourcing ingredients and cooking them up for people in ever-new concoctions, is a wonderful existence. Writing about those activities, even more so. And why not, as I've invested hard-earned money and labour into creating something I think is original?

But I have no illusions that the rest of the world, or even my world, needs to follow me headlong onto a chopping board of Epicurean solipsism. I don't expect my friends to book a table at my restaurant or to read my book, far less follow my latest dish. I leave that to those foodie enthusiasts who wish to. And in the end, as long as I don't take myself too seriously, no harm done.

Or is there? After all, according to a new book, a little enthusiasm can be a dangerous thing. The recently published You Aren't What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture by Steven Poole throws more than a lively squib at the foodie world. He, one by one, knocks over some of the "food mania" of the last half century. From Elizabeth David to Heston Blumenthal, everyone is in for a kicking. But no-one comes in for it more than the amateur enthusiast; food rave hipsters, restaurant bloggers, even sheep farmers for their varying pretentions.

Originally the word 'enthusiasm' described some kind of divine possession or rather aptly afflatus. Dr Johnson defines it as a "vain belief of private revelation..." And one of the disadvantages of the current proliferation of public platforms for private opinions (including this one) has been that they breed such 'revelations' on an epidemic scale. Gastro-Twitter is awash in recommendations, idle thoughts, unabashed personal marketing, food thoughts, personal punts for newspaper columns (I wrote this) or recipes (I cooked this). And all these from anointed experts and cuisine poseur amateurs alike.

You Aren't What You Eat harangues and bullies its way through the corridors of cookery and what its author renames as 'foodism'. And in that it is a rather brilliant book, rich with de haut en bas cultural theory and well-groomed rhetoric. When it is clever it is virtuosic, indeed in many ways I wish I'd written it, so often have I wanted to slap a self-important food blogger or yawn at yet another tedious conversation about recipe plagiarism. With unguarded, hilarious, exposing blasts Poole fairly blows at self-regarding pomposity: the hubris, the hyperbole, the hierarchy and the fake heritage of gastro-culture.

It is so true that the foodie world is fat with over-weening absurdity, from the pseudo-science of homespun sous vide cookery to the quasi-political power shared among the foodist royalty. And like all Lilliputian monarchies it deserves an occasional dousing. But in his belittling of the people behind the movement, Poole strikes a false note. People like Gillian McKeith are easy pickings for the playground fool, but he doesn't quite dare to punch Anthony Bourdain in the guts. And in the final reckoning, the world is not being changed by celebrities but by small people with big ideas. It's their passion and endeavor that means we no longer have to eat blind and medicated poultry. Hard-working amateurs champion diversity and choice. It is those artisan producers and penniless hill farmers who struggle to bring quality back to our tables. For all their irritating smugness (not to mention wealth), it's Oliver and Fearnley-Whittingstall who are trying to do something about disappearing fish stocks and obese children.

What Poole gets quite right is that faddish foodie culture needs to have a word with itself but he fails where really clever satire succeeds. His lack of compassion in the end renders this a little book, nothing more than an erudite Grub St pamphlet, a narrow polemic. Indeed the failure of its author is that having kicked over the soapbox of his opponent, he climbs on one of his own, on which are written the words 'Clever Dick'.