Saturday, August 8, 2015

Has the food cult got out of hand?

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 7.)
As I write this, the salivary glands of Wellington foodies will be working overtime in anticipation of the Wellington on a Plate festival. But I’m strangely unexcited.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I have no interest in eating. Quite the contrary.

I love food and regard every meal as an adventure. I’m lucky to have a wife who’s not only a terrific cook but who doesn’t seem to mind that my first words to her most mornings are “What’s for breakfast?”
I have sometimes wondered whether my enthusiasm for eating is a bit unnatural. Is it normal to recall, with vivid clarity, flavours from dishes eaten decades ago? (The rahm schnitzel from Wellington’s long-vanished Mecca restaurant lives in my memory.)

But I needn’t have worried. In terms of obsession with food, I apparently trail well behind the pack – which brings me back to Wellington on a Plate.
The festival programme arrived with my Dominion Post several weeks ago. It runs to 70 pages.

On page 11 I read that you can experience something called the D’Luxburger in the Lobby Lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel. “This gastronomic extravagance,” the blurb reads, “includes a collection of sumptuous ingredients – Ngawi-sourced crayfish and black truffle mayonnaise; groper and caviar; slow-poached Wellington South Coast paua.
“This SeaSational burger trilogy is accompanied by a gold-flaked vodka martini, Krug Champagne and Martinborough Dry River Pinot Gris.”   

The price: $350 per head. For this sum you apparently also receive “a glittering crystal gift”.
I wonder, is this really about the pleasure of food, or is it about acquiring social status points that can then be boasted about with one’s wealthy friends?

Admittedly, the D’Luxburger is at the extreme end of the scale. But flicking through the rest of the Wellington on a Plate programme, I can’t help but get the uncomfortable feeling that food has been elevated to the level of a fetish.
The same page invites diners to sample five different cuts of a cow at Dragonfly restaurant. The hook is that you do so blindfolded.

This striving for novelty strikes me as the culinary equivalent of “jumping the shark” – in other words, reaching the point where the simple enjoyment of good food is in danger of being overtaken by gimmickry. 
Heston Blumenthal can be blamed for much of this. He’s the English chef who built a cult out of dishes such as egg-and-bacon ice cream.

Blumenthal seems an amiable enough character, but his food is described in terms that go beyond mere pretentiousness. According to an article I read recently, his menus are not just about taste but about “the ebb and flow of stories: contextual theatrical narrative-driven dishes that have layers and layers and layers”.
Perhaps Blumenthal is having an elaborate joke at our expense, but the tragedy is that there’s no shortage of affluent consumers hungry for anything that smacks of novelty. If it’s expensive, so much the better - it must be good.

Meanwhile a peculiar faddism seems to have overcome chefs and foodies, such as the sudden romantic enthusiasm for “foraging”. Evidently food is much more authentic if it has been harvested from the roadside.  
One festival event invites people to forage with the chef from the exclusive Wharekauhau Lodge, then return to the lodge for a five-course, wine-matched lunch using the ingredients gathered. That will set punters back a modest $247.

Among other fads I’ve noted, fish nowadays must be line-caught and chips must be hand-cut. Even the humble oat must be steel-cut. Such practices apparently endow even everyday foodstuffs with a powerful mystique.  
And of course you must be able to trace the exact provenance of everything you eat, right to the very paddocks where the ewe that supplied your lamb shank grazed contentedly on alfalfa and white clover seasoned by salt-laden winds off Palliser Bay. If you can shake the hand of the farmer, so much the better.

I applaud the range and quality of food now available in New Zealand restaurants and cafes. I bow to our farmers and growers and clever chefs.  
But Wellington on a Plate takes the celebration of food to a level where even I have to ask: has it all gone a bit far? The food business strikes me as being in danger of becoming almost as much of a pretentious con as the fashion industry.

Suffice it to say that I won’t be lining up for a D’Luxburger. I do, however, like the look of the Kapiti Coast Festival of Fish and Chips. That sounds like me.

1 comment:

Vaughan said...

It would be good if we all paid as much attention to what goes into our minds as what goes into our stomachs.

The obsession with food is a form of materialism. We gobble up that errant philosophy at our peril.

Materialism preaches that happiness (as opposed to a passing thrill) can be found in the consumption of material goods.

If that were so, then our wealthy friends -- and those pitched to us as celebrities-- would be rolling about laughing with each other and exclaiming how happy they are.

The paradox of life is that although the physical side of our being seeks immediate satisfaction, it is from our spiritual side, our selfless actions, that happiness and contentment comes.

We would get that great feeling of true happiness more by shouting a person down on his/her luck the fancy burger at the Lobby Lounge than eating it ourselves.