Food: The Newest Celebrity
Steak and pasta and salads aren't just sources of nutrition; they're also objects of wonderment, curiosity, and fantasy.
This week, The New York Times published an ode to the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. The staple of city breakfasts, though “designed to satisfy practical needs rather than voluptuary desires,” is infused, in The Times’ description, with the kind of sensual wonderment normally reserved for profiles of more human subjects. The sandwich’s brioche, the appreciation notes, “will be golden and soft”; its cheese “will have its briny charms”; the whole package will be slowly undressed, fold after shiny fold, “from its double wrapping of wax paper and foil.”
The humble glories of the breakfast sandwich make a winking but also entirely fitting subject for a genre that associates food with “voluptuary desires.” The highbrow Food Profile, seen across magazines and newspapers and blogs, is the logical result of a culture that appreciates food’s aesthetics as much as its capacity to nourish. The form regularly finds gnocchi “pillowy,” bolognese “unctuous,” and foodstuffs, overall, infused with personalities that range from the charming to the daring to the twee. (A Times profile of mayonnaise, also published this week, notes that people talk about the condiment—a “creamy spread rich with egg yolks and tart with cider vinegar”—not just enthusiastically, but “tenderly.”) The genre takes, as its guide, the Platonic celebrity profile—that breathy, occasionally creepy paean, published in GQ or Vanity Fair or Esquire, to a woman (it is usually a woman) who has been deemed the Sexiest/Best/Most Beautiful Alive. Squint, and you can almost see a Times critic taking in the Sexiest Sandwich Alive as it lounges insouciantly across from him on a banquet at the Chateau Marmont, its bacon beckoning, its cheese glistening, its wanton pile of proteins hinting, suggestively, at The Way We Live Now.
Celebrity profiles are infamous, at this point, for their distinctive combination of erudition and ennui. Their adjective-happy explorations of hot-lady celebrities—brofiles, you could call them—treat their subjects, Slate's Katy Waldman wrote, like "irreducible mysteries, floating so high above the mortal (male) writers that they can only be described in terms of their effects." They have a “conceptual fig leaf function,” winking and insinuating without actually revealing anything: One of their defining elements is that the reader comes away having learned nearly nothing about the personality—the person—of the celebrity in question. This is the journalistic form that has referred to Megan Fox as “a middle-aged lawyer’s shower fantasy,” to Jessica Biel’s “liquid lips” and “pearly ankles” and “Boulder shoulders,” to Cate Blanchett’s “gorgeously ripe mouth,” to Scarlett Johansson’s voice not as a vehicle for words, but as simply “a raspy frequency in the air.” It is a form that found Rihanna to be offering “her own radiant ass” to the public—and ostensibly to the author of her profile—“like’s it’s a rump roast.”
Celebritized food profiles—celebrations of, among other things, actual rump roasts—treat their own subjects with a similar mingling of mysticism and frustrated desire. (Just as most of us will never get a whiff of ScarJo’s skin, most of us will never consume the cacio e pepe with the “beautiful sauce, a cremina, thick and round and rich” that Mark Bittman sampled on recent a trip to Rome. And yet, through his words, we get a simulacrum of the experience.) The stakes are lower, of course: Given that their subjects are often actual pieces of meat, hagiographic food profiles are certainly not as objectionable as their human-focused counterparts can be. And they are often—see the breakfast sandwich thing again, which doubles as a thoughtful meditation on food as a shared infrastructure of urban life—quite charming. (The visual apotheosis of the form may still be the Times’s sexy chicken from 2011, which is a winking nod to the rise of food porn and, despite objections from PETA, a delight.)
What these pieces end up doing, though, is the same basic thing that celebrity profiles do: celebrating their subjects not as part of a system, cultural or nutritional or economic or otherwise, but as standalone—and often sui generis—aesthetic objects. The nutritional aspects of food—not to mention the work of food production and preparation, from the cultivation to the distribution to the shopping to the chopping to the roasting to the plating—are often missing from food profiles in the same way that Megan Fox’s and Jessica Biel’s and Rihanna’s backgrounds and personalities are absented, courtesy of the conventions of Esquire, from their own stories. The cheese, quite literally, stands alone.
Karl Marx would have some things to say about that. So would, probably, Walter Benjamin. The disentangling of the food product from its production, though, is generally a matter of journalistic expediency: Food, due apologies to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, does not have a personality, and Safeway-tripping and carrot-peeling are, for most of us, approximately as interesting as exegeses on the American trucking system. There’s a relief that comes with disentangling the products of food from the production of it. Food stylists talk about “making beauties” (as in “we’re making a beauty of that farro risotto”); food profiles render those beauties in words. The results can be immensely appealing.
Which is also to say that “food porn” is a cliché, at this point, precisely because of its widespread usefulness. Food, in the food-porn-y frame—which is also embraced by Instagram and Pinterest and Saveur and Bon Appetit and Smitten Kitchen and thousands of other outlets and platforms, rendered online and in atoms—glistens and oozes and crackles, its surface studded with a wanton sprinkle of chopped parsley or chive or cilantro. Food, in this conception, is alluring; it is intimate yet also distant; it is inaccessible; it is to the average home-cooked meal what Gisele Bündchen is to the average woman.
You can quite legitimately trace all that back to Julia Child, whose show aired during a time when microwaves were new, when “fast food” was a nascent term, when meal-making—especially for women—was, in addition to its social and sensual pleasures, hard work. (The year Child first appeared on WGBH, in Boston—1963—was the same year, Michael Pollan notes, that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.) There was a certain relief that came with treating food not just as quotidian drudgery, but as a creative endeavor that could put families—and the women who managed them—in conversation with the culture at large. The Joy of Cooking, and all that.
And then came the women’s movement, and then came a booming economy, and then came a host of other factors that further helped to transform food, in the American imagination, from fuel for our bodies to fuel, also, for our minds. People began thinking about food as a topic of conversation and interrogation; the culinary became cultural. Starting in the 1980s, references to “food” in books and magazines and newspapers—references that had previously spiked in conjunction with the World Wars—began rising. So did references to “food culture.”
The following years brought the rise of the food blog and the Food Network and the celebrity chef and the James Beard Awards and the Food & Wine Festival and the “food movement” and the fast-casual restaurant and the farmers’ market and recipes rendered as narratives and Instagram and Pinterest and Saveur. Cable channels aired shows that presented food as both entertainment and, in the evening, fodder for sporting events. Foods became trendy and then, almost instantly, outmoded. Kale and bacon and high-end foams became victims of fashion’s pitiless gravities. Canning became an atavistic hobby. Fast foods—the Double Down! The Chicken Fry! The Super Bacon Cheeseburger!—became daring and ironized. Guy Fieri became the opiate of the masses.
Food became, more than it had ever been before, part of this complete Lifestyle. It was self-conscious. It brought unprecedented literalness to the notion of conspicuous consumption.
So it makes sense, given those shifts, that we would come to treat food not just as a source of sustenance, but also as a source of beauty that warrants intellectual engagement. Like the celebrity profile, food-porn-in-words is oriented toward adjectives. On the reality show Food Network Star—the self-explanatory competition that is directly accountable for the celebrity of, among others, Fieri—contestants are taught to describe the food they cook, in almost comical detail, to their audiences. Words like "delicious" are forbidden in favor of descriptions that simulate the eating experience; this is why, on food shows across the board—Chopped, Top Chef, Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, the various food-meets-lifestyle properties of Ina and Giada and Rachael—hosts and judges offer detailed descriptions of the "peppery punch" of pecorino, the "bite" of arugula, the "rich butteriness" of pommes dauphine. “You can compare a dish to a picture, a sports game, a musical performance or give it personality,” the blog World of Food and Wine suggests. “Describe its sunny or somber mood, shyness, assertiveness, or contradiction of flavors.”
The luxury implied in this description—food that is “somber”; food that is “shy”!—hints at another shift: Food has, on top of everything else, become both a player and a pawn in the culture wars. Food has, of course, long been a political thing; recently, though, news reports have brought an especially urgent awareness of that to the public consciousness. Food deserts and farm subsidies and veganism and pescatarianism and locavorism and GMO labeling and the rise of composting and the demonization of almonds and the carbon footprint of beef—all of these have brought political tensions to food’s cultural domain.
You could read the celebritized treatment of food—crackling crusts, bursting greens, salmon whose delicate poach has Something to Say About the Zeitgeist—as one way of reclaiming an orientation toward food that bypasses those political concerns. Instead, the approach celebrates food’s fundamental ability, heralded by everyone from Brillat-Savarin to Lévi-Strauss to the Ray-Batali-Flay triumvirate, to connect people. “The great virtue of the bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, or its variations,” Pete Wells writes in his paean to the breakfast sandwich, “is in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income or neighborhood. It doesn’t seek publicity. It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights. It just conveys nutrition and, if you need it, settles your nerves. It is a secret handshake that New Yorkers exchange, not with one another, but with the city.”
Food is, in many ways, fraught. But the food profile, in its way, fights against that. It recognizes that food, and celebrity, can have similar cultural functions: They gather us and entertain us and give us something simple to look at, aspire to—and share.