July 16, 2003

Only the best of breeding gives access to the mysteries of fennel

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I felt like a woman last week. This happens to me regularly. It is something that has been with me since my late teens but became more of a problem in my early 20s. By my mid-30s it has reached crisis proportions. I don’t admit it to many people, although my wife is aware and she understands. I’ve talked to professionals, but it is getting worse. I feel alone, trapped and misunderstood.

Something just isn’t right. Women empathise. Men, even if they recognise the problem, are too insecure to admit it.

I feel like a woman surrounded by men talking about 4-4-2 and the offside trap, flat back fours and Christmas tree formations, one up front, leading the line and the sweeper system, total football, ball-playing centre-backs and the percentage game.

All the above is double Dutch to most women. What football talk is to almost half the population, food is to me. I just don’t get it.

The unadulterated tripe about food, the rise of the celebrity chef, cooking and all the pretentious cant that goes with it, is beyond me. Yet as a leading indicator of social change, it is fascinating.

Last week, it was bad enough to be fleeced in a “high-class” kip in Dublin (more about that later), but to be excluded from the conversation as it veered from the mysteries of fennel to the wonders of fenugreek, was isolating and confusing, leading me to drink a bit too much.

What is it with food and our recent obsession with it? Is it that the Irish have suddenly discovered their extraordinary sense of taste? Or is it something more interesting, such as people defining themselves by the type of food they eat? Is appreciation of food a new form of social stratification? Can a food snob dismiss the party of a rich neighbour with a, “Well yes, the house is beautiful but profiteroles and chicken vol-au-vents, puh-lease!”

A food snob defines himself by what he eats. It is far too easy to buy a Merc. Any auld Flash Harry can cruise in a Kompressor these days — after all, there are more Mercs per head in Dublin than Frankfurt. To set yourself apart from the crowd, possessions have been replaced by appreciations.

History suggests that rapid social change has led to all sorts of affectations whereby the new sophisticates elevated themselves from the rest. For example, in the 1750s the middle classes started building parlours in their houses. Parlours were rooms separate from the rest of the house where swanky guests were entertained or the genteel cultivated their delicate sensibilities such as needlework, piano playing and the like.

Craftsmen were employed to make intricate furniture for the parlour, where the genteel could show off their good manners. In a fascinating book, The Refining of America, Richard Busman notes, “parlour people claimed to live on a higher plane than the coarse populace, excelling them in their inner beings”.

The food snob is the parlour person of the early 21st century.

A crucial aspect of food snobbery is that it is cultivated. The virtue of learning has always been part of the snobbery process. It is not so easy to buy knowledge and an appreciation of the authentic farming habits of Mediterranean tomato farmers is something that only the well-travelled, well-read and ultimately well-heeled can aspire to.

So if one is a great lover of fashionable Italian food, then an appreciation of Tuscany, it’s cooking, flavours and ambience is the next best thing to having a gaff just outside Siena. Thus food snobbery can place you squarely in a rarefied class, quite distinct from the vulgarians that still ask for plates of “dinner”, or worse still, McDonalds.

Now McDonalds is interesting because for the first time ever, opening a McDonalds franchise is not a one- way bet. Apparently some 175 outlets are to be closed. Many herald this as a victory for the anti-globalisation movement whose incessant portrayal of McDonalds as the evil empire has done for the fast food industry what Angus Deayton did for TV presenters.

Equally, environmentalists will claim that the peaking of McDonalds’ mania is indicative of a new-found awareness of the plight and filth of the poor battery hens before they became Chicken McNuggets. Health enthusiasts will claim that the reversal of fortune for McDonald franchisees is a victory for common sense. People are waking up to the fact that the more you fill yourself with fries and Big Macs, the more likely you are to suffer terrible rashes in later life as your flabby thighs fail to separate fully when walking. You therefore walk less, reinforcing the problem until you are ultimately bedridden, living off takeouts.

So, while the travails of McDonalds may be welcomed by many, it will terrify the food snob. The existence of McDonalds and more importantly its popularity, is essential to the food snob in the same way that crowded council estates are a godsend for the suburban middle classes with our garage extensions, rented TVs and begonias.

Food snobbery or indeed snobbery of any kind occurs when there is too much money around and not, as some would argue, too little. When there is no cash, there is no social mobility and therefore no threat to the status quo. In contrast, in a boom (even at the tail end of one) the proliferation of cash confuses the landscape.

When the educated classes are being outbid by their traditional lessers for status symbols such as houses and fast cars, an inaccessible barrier has to be thrown up. So they might not be able to afford a house in the area they were brought up, but they can still read the menu in a fancy restaurant without having to ask what a “timbale” is.

The problem with food snobbery even for the snobs is that it costs. The other week I was fleeced in a Dublin restaurant. I am not over it yet. The bill was bad enough, but the food was very average even to the undiscerning palate. The place was cramped and the wine exorbitant. My fault for being such an eejit as to give a charlatan a fortune for dressed-up tripe.

It struck me that everyone else was getting fleeced too. So were we all there to be seen? Was the whole purpose of the place the price? Possibly both, but as the conversation drifted from flavouring to basting, to country markets, back to fresh coriander, I began to feel like a woman in a sports bar: isolated, tricked and ignored. And that was before I paid the bill.