How Food Seduced and Betrayed Us First came the excitement of global cuisine, food porn, and personal transformation. Then came the ugly politics, the toxins and diet scares, and pandemic shortages.

(Photo Dmitry Dreyer via Unsplash)

Palm trees out the window, glitz in the lobby—I am in Los Angeles to write about a documentary in the making, and I am hanging out with people half my age. To avoid feeling like an auntie they must tow about, I play anthropologist and observe closely. Over dinner at a casually chic, carefully chosen restaurant, they talk about the smoke infusers they use to finish artisanal cocktails, their $300 sous-vide water ovens, their Italian espresso machines. Yet I am picking up bits and pieces of their home lives, most of which seem to take place in studio apartments with hardly any furniture.

When did food move from sustenance, holiday ritual, and occasional treats to a consuming avocation with its own vocabulary, gear, techniques, and media? There are more devotees than most religions can attract, and their rituals are charged with significance. Even Julia Child might be perplexed by our obsessive new relationship with food and the bittersweet contradictions it cannot quite resolve.

How did eating become such a complicated source of pleasure?

 

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My grandmother’s idea of a weeknight dinner was pasta shells and rubbery, boiled-gray ground beef soaked in watery, astringent tomato sauce. (I swear she just diluted a tablespoon of tomato paste.) For her bridge club—and only for them—she ladled shrimp in white sauce into puff pastry shells she thought the height of elegance. Mouth watering, I served the ladies from a silver tray that reeked of recent polishing.

Somehow, Annie pulled everything together for those bridge club lunches. For us, alas, a special occasion meant her famous lemon meringue pie: a thin, soggy crust beneath congealed lemon goo topped with chewy meringue. No one ever dared tell her it was terrible, because, though plump, she had sharp edges, nothing warm and maternal about her. Was that why she cooked so indifferently? Seven kids to feed and she would have adored college and a career. With every bite of pie, we paid for her lost dreams.

I did taste a few ritual pleasures as a kid, though. Sara Lee pecan coffeecake and strong black Irish tea guaranteed an after-Mass gossip. Frozen baby Cokes and Snickers bars were the wild excitement of Saturday nights. At Christmas dinner, I was allowed to sip a pretty pink sparkling wine called, God help us, Cold Duck.

And that was it. No salted caramel lattes, frozen custards, T-ravs, gelato, smoothies, fast food debauches, Trader Joe’s party apps, gourmet pizzas, dim sum, sushi, ramen bowls, Korean barbecue, curry, Swedish meatballs, gyros, pide, babaganoush, bibimbap, pho, pad Thai, truffled frites, charcuterie boards. Food was not yet interesting.

Women assembled three meals a day for everyone around them, often on a tight budget, then went home and licked the S&H green stamps the cash register spat out, hoping to someday have enough for a blender. We ate the same foods again and again, all of it bland, salty or sugary, and processed to death.

Now, a friend hosts a White Trash Potluck every fall, and we torture each other with stuff we actually grew up eating, squeezing canned cheese over all of it and laughing more than we eat. Why was it all so awful? In her food column, Megan McArdle slices right through all the elaborate theories about social norms, gender, immigrants, and the Cold War. Midcentury food was an “endless parade of things molded, jellied, bemayonnaised and enbechamelled,” she says, because housewives thought it looked prettier that way. They made tuna casserole because their family liked it—or at least they were used to it, and could afford it, and the neighborhood grocery store had the ingredients in stock.

I am going to tiptoe out on a limb here and say that drudgery had a bit to do with it, too—that, and the Valium prescribed to our mothers. For their generation, cooking was a woman’s holy obligation. It was unthinkable that a husband fix a meal (unless he grilled flesh in the backyard and waited there, sweating in a funny apron, for magical deliveries of cold beer, platters and plates, salad and sides). Women assembled three meals a day for everyone around them, often shopping on a tight budget, then licking the S&H green stamps the cash register spat out in hope of redemption. We ate the same foods again and again, all of it bland, salty or sugary, and processed to death. Iceberg, after all, was easier to ship. Canned fruit would last. Space Age Tang and vaguely obscene Twinkies felt modern, and those shallow-trayed Swanson’s TV dinners promised freedom.

 

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(Photo by Brett Jordan via Unsplash)

When I was ten, my mother and I moved from my grandparents’ house to a tiny apartment. Now it was just the two of us, and the first morning, she threw some kind of seasoning salt on the scrambled eggs, and my head exploded. That breakfast was as revelatory as psilocybin. Eggs could have taste. This changed everything. Soon I was cooking myself, daringly and with many disasters, from Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook. My mom was at work, and she had never bothered teaching me the little she knew about the kitchen anyway, because my generation was meant to be free from its clutches.

That did not happen as quickly as intended. But a different transformation had already begun, the same one that had prompted the nonexistent Betty to go international. Between 1961 and the turn of the century, worldwide food exports increased 400 percent, spiraling upward as supply begat more demand and wilder choices. Today, living amid the farmland southeast of St. Louis, I can easily obtain not only heirloom tomatoes and freshly butchered lamb but also jackfruit, miso, udon, escargot, French feta, Himalayan fine pink salt, and hand-harvested saffron. The world has blown wide open.

Dr. Krishnendu Ray, who chairs nutrition and food studies at NYU, remembers the fizzy excitement of the mid-’90s, when he was teaching at the Culinary Institute of America. “Food was coming to be talked about in the public media, especially TV,” he says. Forget the old cookbooks—an audiovisual medium could capture the glossy shine of pomegranate seeds, the silvery blur of a chef’s knife, the sizzle of bacon, the rapture of a decent velouté sauce.

Japanese programming shaped the progression, Ray adds. “They entered the American television world with Iron Chef—it was kind of a caricature, but I remember my students at CIA saying, ‘You’ve got to watch this!’ The Japanese have always taken the craft more seriously than any country but France. A popular connoisseurship began to seep into the American world. People learned new ways of making and consuming, and it all began to acquire a momentum of its own.”

The sparkle of media celebrity then began to transform the industry, Ray says, with more and more middle- and upper-class kids announcing that they wanted to go to culinary school. “The field began to look like music, where there could be superstars at the top.”

For a lot of young people, food also became like music: “Their identity was built around what they were listening to, what they were eating, what they were not eating, what they were cooking.”

This is the part I am trying hardest to understand, because my obsession with food was less deliberate. It seemed, and still does, more about comfort than identity: It was a way to show love, experience friendship, distract or soothe myself, remember that the world holds pleasure and sustenance, ease hungers that have nothing to do with food.

But I meet people like Dustin Wood, twenty-four years old, working in a neuroscience lab. He has just moved into a new place: “No furniture, large kitchen, cast iron pans, sous vide, cooking torch.” I am thinking crème brulée, but he uses it to sear meats. He also smokes and grinds his own. Has a Ninja. Wants a Kitchen Aid. “I like the idea of trying new things, cooking from different traditions,” he tells me. “I think of it as low-risk chemistry.”

When I was ten, my mother and I moved from my grandparents’ house to a tiny apartment. Now it was just the two of us, and the first morning, she threw some kind of seasoning salt on the scrambled eggs, and my head exploded. That breakfast was as revelatory as psilocybin. Eggs could have taste.

Dr. Rafia Zafar is my age, but she gets it. Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Washington University, she has explored attitudes toward food around the world and across the centuries. “We are all food-obsessed right now,” she observes dryly. “We get upset if we can’t get the right balsamic vinegar.”

We learned about that balsamic from food blogs, TV chefs, Instagram, specialty shops, restaurants, and immigrants who were finally coming from places other than Ireland and Germany. Wood used to adore Anthony Bourdain’s shows, because “you could see an obscure place you’d never go. He wasn’t hiding anything from you. He showed how food is a way to connect with people, even though you might not have many other things in common.”

Listening to his enthusiasm, another reason for the transformation occurs to me. I would bet cold cash that crossing genders was what ultimately turned a chore into a hobby. Once women did not have to do it and men wanted to do it, cooking took on a shine.

 

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The house is glum. My husband’s blood test came back high everything, so he must now eat all the foods he hates and none of the foods he loves. The dog has mysterious allergies, so for eight weeks, he can lick no plates, earn no cookie bones, eat nothing but hydrolyzed-protein dog food. There are fewer bright spots in each day, and fewer surprises. They might as well both swallow dystopian food-replacement pills and be done with it.

As for me (yes, in here, eating brownies in the closet), I am beset by the not entirely irrational fear that they will forget how much I love them, because I am no longer proving it daily in the most primal way. The secret an Italian grandmother whispers to a young woman is that she must keep her husband’s balls empty and his stomach full—and that does not mean full of spinach and salmon.

Food connects us—to each other and to the world. “It is used to show that you are part of a group—or not part of a group,” Zafar once told me. “If you make a Venn diagram, there’s a circle of people you’d go out for drinks with. But only part of that circle holds people you’d also go to a restaurant with, and a smaller subset you might invite to your home.”

I would bet cold cash that crossing genders was what ultimately turned a chore into a hobby. Once women did not have to do it and men wanted to do it, cooking took on a shine.

Within that small circle, especially, we evangelize. A friend with a new appliance—oh my God. The Instant Pot! The Air Fryer! It takes me a month each time to talk myself down, so tempted am I by their litany of praise. And ALDI and Trader Joe’s are, it goes without saying, cults, full of in-group knowledge and the euphoria of epicurean delight on the cheap.

Such coups never mattered to my skinny mother. After a big lunch, she would say, “Oh, good, now we don’t have to eat supper,” and I would be crestfallen. No supper? I was like my Aunt Kitty, who came home from every social event and regaled us with the menu. “Why is she always talking about the food?” my mother wondered, genuinely bemused. I knew exactly why: Food packages our memories.

Proust was not the only chap to taste a cookie and recall pleasure. I cannot remember an autumn hayride without thinking of charcoal crust on molten marshmallow, the sticky goo washed down with icy lager. The first guy I dated who could afford a good restaurant has been eclipsed in my mind by the meals we shared. Swordfish, French Champagne, strawberries in cream—those were the reliable pleasures of our outings, far less complicated than his psyche.

And who does not remember the food they ate abroad? Flaky religieuse from a patisserie in Paris; crumbly scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream in a London hotel lobby. Conch in Grand Cayman, fishcakes in a Bermuda diner, cod and a malty cream stout in a Newfoundland pub. Madrid tastes like flamenco and paella to me; Haiti like its vanilla, sweet and strange, infused with an earthy musk.

Is it any wonder that the first generation told they might never make the kind of money their parents did resolved to have experiences instead of saving up for the suburbs? Or that they would travel and eat as adventurously as Bourdain, yet go all mushy and nostalgic for their grandmother’s comfort food?

 

• • •

 

My husband groans. A cooking show has come on our PBS station, and he is watching someone baste glistening flesh with incredibly sweet and spicy sauce, and he is not certain life is worth living if he has to eat more spinach and salmon. A friend encourages him, enthusing about her weight loss since going gluten-free; another is avoiding inflammatory foods (which sounds like good common sense until I see the list); a third is paleo, and even during chemotherapy, she recoils in horror when I suggest Saltines and ginger ale for the nausea. I have two friends who avoid spices and one who chews ghost peppers. People have sworn off sugar altogether, something I would have thought impossible, or gone vegan, or clean (what, I eat dirty?) or raw, or sober. Some use keto to enter a state of permanent internal combustion. Planning the menu for even a small dinner party is like working a sudoku puzzle. When someone says, “Oh, I eat anything,” I want to weep with relief.

What happened?

The old extremes (the Grapefruit Diet! The Cookie Diet!) were strictly to lose weight, and the Mediterranean and heart-healthy diets to avoid cardiac arrest. The new variations aim for total self-transformation: more energy, less stress, clearer skin, sharper vision, a lighter heart, well-oiled joints, deep sleep, a life span of a century, sparkling clean bowels …. My grandpa owned Maryland Market, a tiny grocery store in the Central West End that delivered to the nearby mansions. He brought home what was left to feed his seven kids, so my family knew a lot about food. Yet I cannot remember a word uttered about something being “good for you.” My grandmother did not source organic or worry about antibiotics or GMOs or trans fats. Healthy meant fresh and of good quality, and you balanced meat and potatoes with something green.

We have superfoods—kale, kefir, acai, goji, turmeric—each craze arriving just in time to save us.

Some use keto to enter a state of permanent internal combustion. Planning the menu for even a small dinner party is like working a sudoku puzzle. When someone says, “Oh, I eat anything,” I want to weep with relief.

The drama makes sense in a time of invisible dangers. Even setting aside the weekly food scares, a single bite of a peanut-butter cookie can cause a child to vomit or gasp for breath. How do parents bear this? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in every thirteen U.S. children has a food allergy, and forty percent of these kids have more than one. A three-year-old died after eating a grilled cheese at pre-K; a six-year-old died after eating a dairy product; an eleven-year-old died after eating a milk chocolate bar. Our only clue is that food allergies are rising faster in Western, industrialized, and urban areas. Pollution and environmental toxins may play a role, as may super-clean, hermetically sealed homes and less time outdoors, where kids used to make mudpies oozing with microbes that conditioned their immune systems.

Even those of us lucky enough to avoid a food allergy are slammed like pucks by a succession of contradictory warnings. Fat is bad. Wait—we need fat. Eat only the healthy fats. What the hell, go paleo. It’s trans fats and carbs that are bad. Whole grains are good—but they have to be gluten-free. Veggies are definitely good. Eat them raw or crisp. Except, uh-oh—that does not break down the micronutrients. Turns out you have to cook some of them really well. Just save the water you boil them in. Although bone broth is better. With fruit, you cannot go wrong. Unless it is soaked in pesticides or dried or juiced to concentrate all that sugar—which is at least better than white sugar, not to mention the fake sugar pink envelope, the fake sugar blue envelope, and God forbid, fructose.

 

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(Photo by Mason Liesewetter via Unsplash)

I ask a friend half my age about her generation’s passionate interest in food. She is so used to the phenomenon, it takes a while for her to see it as remarkable. I remark that food is now aesthetic; we call an entrée “beautiful” if it tastes good. She opens her mouth to reply, but just then the waiter serves lunch. She raises her index finger, one minute, stalling as she rummages for her phone because she wants to text her partner a photo of her duck confit.

The irony only registers when she sees me grinning.

Another friend, only slightly older, marries and hits a wall. “How do you decide what to eat every night?” she wails. She and her partner have different tastes and health issues, and she has been sorting through recipes, but there are so many options—and so few that will satisfy both of them.

I am tempted to subscribe her to the coaching service offered by Equal Parts, a cookware company that will text you tips and encouragement to make meal prep less overwhelming. But her real problem is the overwhelming number of contradictory possibilities, and I have not yet sorted that myself.

I ask a friend half my age about her generation’s passionate interest in food. She is so used to the phenomenon, it takes a while for her to see it as remarkable.

Equal Parts compares its text service to “having a mom-like figure…only without the baggage of actually texting with your mom.” What this says about millennial relationships, I would hate to know. There is a need, I am told, for “domestic cozy”—but not so cozy that you are allowed to fail.

It sounds smart to say that food is now “performative,” except that I am not exactly sure what that means. Certainly it has joined fashion and home design as a creative outlet, staging our preferences. Certainly it is charged with drama. I hear friends order with the phrase, “I’ll do the…” instead of the old, passive “I’ll have” or “I’d like.” Food is now proactive, a participatory sport that one trains for and reviews afterward. We have finally taken Brillat-Savarin at his word: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

The new School of Life cookbook, brainchild of philosopher Alain de Botton, arranges recipes “according to the emotional states they inspire or nourish.” There are dishes “for when you don’t like yourself very much,” or “when you’re reflecting on bittersweet memories.” It sounds twee, but if I am honest, this is exactly how, left to my own devices, I choose what I want to eat. Would I unwrap an ice cream sandwich if I were sad? Never. After the wake for a friend’s brother, who overdosed on heroin before he saw thirty, my husband and I huddled over a tray table in front of our fireplace eating tomato soup and grilled cheese.

“Out of the 80 million Millennials in America, half of us self-identify as ‘foodies’—and we spend more time, energy, and money consuming food and food-related media than any generation prior,” writes Nikki Freihofer, editor-in-chief of Simple Syrup. The journal was begun by Washington University anthropology students to explore intersections of food and culture. “Young people are actively and purposefully integrating food into their daily lives in a different proportion and fashion than any previous generation,” Freihofer notes, adding that friends have “renounced CAFO meat [from animals raised in large, concentrated animal feeding operations] or have stopped eating quinoa because ‘it’s actually, like, really hurting the farmers in Bolivia!’”

So many of the world’s conflicts show up in food. Take racism—from enslaved fieldhands to lunch-counter protests to the food deserts in Black neighborhoods. Zafar’s latest book, Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning, pores over nineteenth-century cookbooks discreetly written by Black butlers who were telling white people how to be high-class.” Navneet Alang points out that “a succession of food media-approved, often white figures have made an array of international ingredients approachable”—dukkah, kimchi, sambai, harissa, sriracha, gochujang. But that leaves open “the question of whether, say, a person of color could have also made a stew featuring chickpeas and turmeric go viral,” as Alison Roman did. In this arena, too, power is still mainly White, with other cuisines subsumed for White ends.

Eating also means confronting the politics of commercial agriculture—genetic engineering that might have unforeseen consequences; toxic insecticides and pesticides; the ethics of caging and slaughtering animals; the methane from farting cows that is warming the globe; the dizzying ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from factory-farmed animals’ urine; the antibiotics seeping into the food supply; the conditions for migrant farm workers; the glut of food and one-third of it wasted every year.

Cast your mind back to all the slimed lettuce and soured milk you have hurriedly tossed, all the cardboard-boxed leftovers that seemed so over, the exotic condiments with gray-fuzzed lids, the forgotten ginger cacti and shriveled apples. Now start multiplying, because I guarantee you are not the worst offender. Think of the perfectly good produce grocers dump for cosmetic reasons, the slightly ripe bananas that would have made perfect bread, the millions of restaurant plates scraped into the garbage every night.

Food is now proactive, a participatory sport that one trains for and reviews afterward. We have finally taken Brillat-Savarin at his word: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

Our eyes are bigger than our tummies, one might say. This country has been partaking in a Roman food orgy for at least half a century. Just since the 1990s, the size of drinking glasses has doubled. Fast food supersized everything, and eating contests turned bulimic, as though that would delight the crowd.

Speed has ratcheted up too, from microwaves to that Instant Pot—and at the other end of the seesaw, slow food, and foraging, and intermittent fasting. Not to mention fat shaming, which ignores the long history of fat as a sign of prosperity, proof that you could afford to sate your appetites and live in comfort. Modern researchers tell us that the fewer calories we consume, the longer we will live, which strikes me, with my fondness for food, as less than life-affirming. There was a time my curves would have been described as generous, when twenty pounds over did not equal “morbidly obese.”

We have always used food choices as a weapon against one another. Back in 1937, in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote about how people scold the poor for eating junk food and not a wholesome diet. “The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots,” Orwell snapped. “And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.… When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty.’”

The fiercest war burns between the vegetarians and the carnivores. Once, only Tolstoy cared. Of late, even devoted meat-eaters are a little apologetic when they shun the Impossible, given that the nitrous oxide from manure storage and fertilizer has a global warming potential 265 times higher than carbon dioxide.

“I don’t eat much meat,” I say—which, if I heeded my conscience, would be like saying, “I don’t murder often.”

What is more “natural,” to eat other animals or to cherish them? In “Sister Turtle,” Mary Oliver writes, “I am burdened with anxiety. Anxiety for the lamb with his bitter future, anxiety for my own body, and, not least, anxiety for my own soul. You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul. That worrier.”

A few lines later, Oliver writes of how “the clam, sensing the presence of your hands, or the approach of the iron tine, presses deeper into the sand. Just where does self-awareness begin and end?” And where does suffering begin and end, if the two are not the same? Should some sort of sensory awareness be our ethical yardstick? We are learning more of plants and how they sense and communicate….

This world of food is fascinating, but it is not always comfortable.

 

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Like sex, food is about temporary joy. Like sex, it inspired porn as soon as our media made that possible. Now we follow not just the techniques but the home lives of celebrity chefs, there is Hollywood-decibel buzz about a new restaurant, and food fads spread like memes. I suppose any fleeting euphoria tempts us to capture it—and so we have exquisitely lit, luscious food porn on Instagram, not to mention a Kama Sutra of process narratives you must scroll through to reach a food blogger’s anticlimactic little recipe. The need to photograph one’s food was, for a while, as intense as a raccoon’s need to wash theirs in a stream, thanks to omnipresent phones with surprisingly good cameras, Instagram as an outlet, and the aforementioned need for self-expression. The craze has mercifully subsided; still, I decide to try, hoping to understand why it became so obsessive.

Alas, dinner is Morroccan meatballs and flash-fried spinach, and my photo looks like the garish technicolor on a cheap restaurant’s laminated menu. Just what is it, other than skill and lighting, that turns a food photo into porn? In Gastronomica, Chris Cosentino defines “food porn” as “the ability of food to elicit a positive and euphoric reaction, as well as to make others covet what you are eating.” Porn is image without touch, and food porn is image without taste—“yet the simulation must be visceral and ‘fleshy,’” notes Richard Magee. Krishnendu Ray is quoted here, too: He says “(a) it is porn when you don’t do it but watch other people do it; (b) there is something unattainable about the food pictured in magazines or cooked on tv shows; (c) there is no pedagogical value to it; (d) it hides the hard work and dirty dishes behind cooking; (e) there is something indecent about playing with food when there is so much hunger in the world.”

(Photo by Louis Hansel via Unsplash)

Like sex, it seems to me, food is far more fun (and no longer pornographic) when participatory. Rather than drool over the way the light hits the water droplets in a photo of a strawberry puddled in chocolate, I would rather compose the meal I most want to eat: the velvety melt of a ripe, just-picked fig set against the honeyed tang of goat cheese, a peppered flatbread cracker, a glass of pinot grigio, a lemon tart. I would love to diet successfully (already that is a lie; I want only the result) but I have never been able to make food my enemy, or appetite something to suppress. Spinach salad will do if there is grated hardboiled egg, crisp bacon, red onion, and a blue cheese dressing. Oatmeal is fine for breakfast if I can add dried cherries, a sprinkle of dark chocolate chips, and a splash of heavy cream.

Porn is image without touch, and food porn is image without taste—“yet the simulation must be visceral and ‘fleshy,’” notes Richard Magee.

There is a reason lovers feed each other strawberries and newlyweds fork cake into each other’s mouths. We are also the only species that feeds other species for the joy of it. Nothing could be more mundane than food, yet nothing could capture tenderness so eloquently.

 

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During the pandemic, the supply chain breakdown at the grocery store felt like a betrayal. How can you not have pudding mix? And you could have held a stopwatch to see how swiftly we assured one another that takeout was perfectly safe. After the sourdough spree, people wore out fast. A big part of food obsession, it turned out, had been the fun of going to restaurants. The cooking at home happened a lot less often than the streaming of cooking shows. Besides, the takeout entrées and curbside cocktails gave us back a little normalcy. Food is hope. If we can enjoy something delicious, then whatever is happening cannot be that bad.

I am fairly certain the 1918 pandemic did not trigger a craze for sourdough starter. Even war shortages only prompted creative substitutions, like tomato soup cake. (Mmm, mmm.) As recently as the 1960s, people in a crisis would have simply frozen more casseroles. We have changed.

Granted, the rich have always been able to cultivate and amuse a refined palate. But their pastimes trickle down: from tutors to homeschoolers, chauffeurs to Uber, Sotheby’s to eBay, bossing your butler to bossing Alexa, Fortnum & Mason to Trader Joe’s. Gelatin, when it had to be tediously extracted from calves’ feet, was a delicacy. Then technology powdered it for the masses, and shredded-carrot Jell-o salads floated into their lives.

Today, people of all sorts have laid claim to a dressed-down version of the world’s finest, most exotic, most organic food. Whole Foods is nicknamed Whole Paycheck because for some of its patrons, it is. And they turn over that paycheck gladly, investing in health, pleasure, fineness, adventure, relationship.

Food is hope. If we can enjoy something delicious, then whatever is happening cannot be that bad.

Our passion for food is also a hunger for authenticity—an overused word but an increasingly rare experience. Many of us spend our days batting bits of electricity back and forth. The immediacy of a meal, the aroma and texture and heat, can bring us back to our bodies, back to the sensible world. Nibbling a cookie or sipping hot tea as I type somehow grounds the abstractions.

On the other hand, we have a disturbing tendency to denature what we eat. We talk about bacon, not pig; beef, not cow. Menus simply call meat “a protein.” Why does that make me shudder? Too much like the dystopian food pills? Boil it down, everything is chemistry. Or electricity. The Japanese have invented an electric fork that lets you “taste” nonexistent salt: You press a button, and the fork sends an electric current to your tongue, and there might as well be an anchovy in your mouth.

So maybe it is the gratification of wants—emotional food security—that we hunger for. The aproned mother or wife of yore, stirring or baking when we came home. In recent decades, she has been more likely to arrive late and harried with a sack of takeout. We cannot count on wives and mothers to feed us the way they used to, and so we fend for ourselves, go out, take out, order in, whatever. Family traditions are the stuff of nostalgia and holidays, but mainly, our food is up to us.

When traditions end, we invent compensation.

Our passion for food is also a hunger for authenticity—an overused word but an increasingly rare experience. Many of us spend our days batting bits of electricity back and forth. The immediacy of a meal, the aroma and texture and heat, can bring us back to our bodies, back to the sensible world. Nibbling a cookie or sipping hot tea as I type somehow grounds the abstractions.

We have done the same with religious traditions, which use food even more symbolically. Bread represents life—divine life, even. The saltwater at a Seder represents the tears of the enslaved. Zen Buddhists make ritual food offerings to quiet hungry ghosts, reminders of our ego’s greediness. And in these more secular times, food has practically become its own religion. Godless, if you do not count a few minor-deity chefs, but full of ceremony, ritual, symbolism, and dogma.

“Food is a common good,” James Beard announced, “a universal experience.” Once, that simple fact was enough. Now, just as we have lost Walter Cronkite and those early sitcoms families gathered around the Magnavox to watch, we have also lost a shared menu, an automatic delight at a steak-and-potatoes dinner and a sugary slice of all-American apple pie á la lactose-rich mode. No wonder we pore over food blogs, menus, photos, and Master Classes. We have to hunt for delicious food that will not sicken us or the planet. Food we can share—not just on social but in person. Food that will grant enough temporary joy and sustenance to keep our bodies and our souls together.

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