Review of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat

Toward the end of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, he deploys a C.S. Lewis quote that is probably familiar to many of us:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

Writing specifically of the U.K., but presumably thinking of Americans as well, Poole writes: “We all live in that country now.” As a skeptic of what Poole calls “foodism,” I found his absolutely exhaustive skewering of food culture enjoyable — his debunking of the exaggerated claims of “organic” food, his bemusement at “molecular gastronomy,” and everything in between. He catches every detail, including the fact that certain food sensitivies can be “fashionable” (woe to the foodist who is glucose-tolerant!).

Naturally, this book has sparked some defensiveness in the foodist community — even The Girlfriend, an avid cook, felt she was under attack when I initially described the book’s premise to her. What I find interesting about the book, though, is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of pure yuppie-bating that you see in something like Stuff White People Like (nor, though this goes without saying for those familiar with Poole’s work, does it take the Palinesque route of fetishizing fast food and store-bought cookies).

Now Poole admittedly doesn’t have a program for truly authetic eating, because his book finally isn’t about eating, any more than the foodist trend is. It’s about class structure, about ideology (including a nod to Zizek’s “superego injunction to enjoy” on the final page), about a society that has reached “the apotheosis and dead end of individualistic consumerism.” It’s about a massive, multi-faceted cultural trend that commands us to devote as much time and attention to consumption as possible — and then to congratulate ourselves for our achievement and look down on those who fail to attain our high level.

That is to say, it isn’t about silly individuals who are doing pretentious things and should stop before they embarrass themselves further, but about a society whose demands are increasingly dehumanizing and sinister. And it makes this case while nonetheless being thoroughly entertaining. In short: highly recommended.

16 thoughts on “Review of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat

  1. Interesting that the Lewis quote you’ve cited above is about the unveiling of meat… and not the striptease of, say, a bowl of steamed vegetables. Perhaps you’re familiar with Carol Adam’s work from the early 90s (The Sexual Politics of Meat, The Pornography of Meat), which argued that there was something particular about the way our culture eats meat products, and thinks about meat products, that’s qualitatively different from the way we eat vegetables and grains. Meat eating, the argument roughly goes, is akin to sexual dominance. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she would have argued (way back in the 1990s, ha ha) that we had been “living in that world” for a long time… and that the way we eat has long been a political problem, at least (for her) when it comes to gender issues. In other words… if Poole thinks that analyzing the class politics of food will reveal how dehumanizing and sinister we are, Adams has been arguing that analyzing the gender politics (specifically of meat) will reveal how dehumanizing and sinister we are.

    Food is revealing. Nothing is more political than what we eat… if only for the simple fact that every single time we put a morsel of food into our own mouths, we’re eating up other living things, or securing resources that could have been used for someone else. This always makes me think about Whitehead’s claim that “life is robbery.” Unfortunately, eating – in this light – can also begin to look rather endlessly sinister. We can never escape from the situation in which, in order to eat, we risk securing resources that might not rightfully be ours. I think it’s really important not to forget this, and to consistently interrogate our eating practices as a way of interrogating the extent to which we’re living out those things we claim to be politically committed to. So I find these kinds of critiques really essential. But… we still have to be able to find a way to eat. And perhaps, god forbid, to even take a little pleasure in it. Otherwise we turn the violence of that robbery against our own bodies.

  2. In the book, Poole seems to more or less bracket explicitly ethical food choices, such as vegetarianism — they receive no scorn and are not grouped together with those being skewered. He does make fun of some “ethical” food practices that seem to be more marketing-based than substantive (for instance, he points out some of the inherent paradoxes of various types of food claiming to be more environmentally friendly). He identifies as a carnivore but does not have a chip on his shoulder about it. At the same time, it does seem like some of the most memorable excesses are meat-based, including one horrific-sounding tribute to “The Human Centipede.”

  3. Are you sure this isn’t just one of those things that people enjoy that you, Adam Kotsko, find vexing? Like, if this book drew exactly the same conclusions about, say, dressing up for Halloween, or dancing to loud music, you’d be writing more or less the same review? I’m still probably going to read it, mind you, but that’s the first thought that came to mind. Plus, whatever the excesses of molecular gastronomy (namely, any fool with access to liquid nitrogen can claim to be doing it), most every critique sounds more or less like someone ranting about electronic music–it’s fake, it’s pretentious, it’s artifice over substance, etc. etc. Of someone looking for a handy way to dismiss something they’ve never had the slightest interest in to begin with. Bonus points (and I’ll admit, it is satisfying) if you can do so in a way that aligns with your own ideology.

  4. I’ll defend molecular gastronomy to the death. Strikes me that most objection to it is a kind of philistinism akin to people who think all “modern art” is “trash”.

  5. That is to say: other than “molecular gastronomy,” which I don’t think I can really afford in any case, I do indulge in virtually all the things mentioned in the book — I eat plenty of organic food, The Girlfriend and I cook a lot (I do to a lesser extent due to the division of labor we’ve settled into, but it’s not due to disdain for cooking), etc., etc. Objectively speaking, my behavior is probably about 75% “foodist.”

    He’s not arguing against particular behaviors, he’s arguing against a whole complex that has been built up around them. There’s nothing remotely similar going on with Halloween costumes or dancing as far as I can tell.

  6. Fair enough–it had the scent of a lazy argument to me, but I’ll freely admit I’m on shaky ground having not read the book.

  7. they receive no scorn and are not grouped together with those being skewered

    Except for the whole organic food thing, apparently.

  8. Long-time lurker stepping into the fray, here. Nothing seems to get people’s backs up more than “someone-who-does-not-eat-as-I-do.” Vegetarians scorn carnivores, who are themselves looked on askance by vegans, etc. etc. Not to get all Zizek, but there is definitely something about the horror of the Other enjoying that which you do not enjoy going on here, I think. (I write this as my vegan sausages are frying in olive oil, just to clarify my position. Or is it my stomach?)

  9. Paul Maguire,

    Its a recognised culinary term which relates to a specific set of practices around experimentation with food, founded largely by Hervé This, but popularised by Ferran Adrià and in the UK Heston Blumenthal (although like many movements, most associated with it do its practice but don’t want to be associated with the label). I don’t think the term itself is at all controversial.

    I guess I’ll have to read the book, but strikes me that, while there is much UK food culture that is pure ideology there is also a peculiar move associated with the UK anyway that eschews food culture in general, preferring the “none of this foreign muck, meat and two potatoes” approach.

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