January 2, 2005
What is your New Year resolution? Drink less? Exercise? Eat better food, more regularly and in smaller portions? Or are you going to take up swimming, yoga or Pilates?
Why not go for an extreme detox, with nothing but freshwater and asparagus passing your lips for a week or two?
Whatever your good intentions, it is highly likely they will be based on ingestion denial of some sort, and boil down to a resolve to put less of this or that in your mouth in 2005.
Contrast with our behaviour over Christmas. Food dominated. Cooking it, roasting it, baking it, grilling it, frying it, poaching it, blanching it, flambï¿½ing it, marinating it, braising it, sautï¿½ing it, searing it, mashing it, whisking it, spit-roasting it, toasting it, coddling it, scrambling it, eating it, savouring it, tasting it, gobbling it, wolfing it, picking at it, and ultimately, of course, washing it down.
The Irish Christmas is about food.
There’s nothing new in this; Yuletide has always been about eating too much. But today it is different. Food has now ascended into pole position in the starting grid that defines social status in our New Ireland.
Social status is actually more important in a booming economy than in a stagnant one. Years ago, when Ireland was poor, everyone knew his place. Our rigid social infrastructure was preserved by a lack of credit.
Without the lubricant of easy credit, the system rusted into position, the cogs of social mobility seized up and the only way to move up was through patronage, favouritism, professional exclusivity or marriage. Rich Ireland was essentially a club.
Easy credit has blown that club apart.
Now that practically everyone has access to overdrafts, credit cards, remortgaging and loans, most us are richer than we could have ever imagined.
But this brings its own problems. Far from being a rich classless society, we are now a neurotically status-obsessed nation. It is not good enough to be rich ,we now have to be tasteful, so that the Brown Thomaser can look down on the Liffey Valleyer.
Christmas 2004 marked a high point, not only in terms of spending, but also in what was coveted and what was passï¿½.
One of the unforeseen consequences of having – or at least borrowing – loads of money is that, in the daily battle for status in a society, very subtle changes occur just under the surface that distinguish the really posh from the merely rich.
The greatest irony about Ireland’s recent economic liberation by credit is that it has made us into a sophisticated but insecure shopping nation, constantly looking over our shoulders at the purchases of others.
Certain things once coveted are now the sign of such vulgarity that the shopping ï¿½lite wouldn’t go near them.
For example, not too long ago owning a Merc was a sign of wealth, maybe even taste in some quarters. But today any auld Flash Harry can cruise in a Kompressor; there are more Mercs per head in Dublin than Frankfurt. So the status value of a Merc has fallen.
To set yourself apart from the crowd, possessions have been replaced by appreciations.
There is nothing new in this. 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 Irish merchant 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 with such skills as needlework, piano-playing and the like.
Craftsmen were employed to make intricate furniture for the parlour, where the genteel could showoff their good manners.
In a fascinating book, The Refining of America, Richard Busman notes: ï¿½Parlour people claimed to live on a higher plane than the coarse populace, excelling them in their inner beings.ï¿½
This malarkey was repeated in Ireland at the time, and if you go into any real Dublin Georgian house, the parlour is a central and distinct part of the original Georgian floorplan.
A telling detail in Dublin is that, in contrast to all other doors in the houses, the parlour doors are hung to open not against the wall but into the room, providing a screen for the occupants should they be suddenly startled.
This suggests that, in Dublin at least, the parlour was the scene of far more lurid carry-on than piano-playing. Nevertheless, the parlour person was a certain type.
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.
An appreciation of the authentic farming habits of Mediterranean tomato growers is something to which only the well-travelled, well read and ultimately well-heeled can aspire. So if one is a great lover of fashionable Italian food, an appreciation of Tuscany, its cooking, flavours and ambience is the next best thing to having a gaff just outside Siena.
Food snobbery can place you squarely in a rarefied class. If you are a lover of Italian food, then you are in the ï¿½Italiany, virginy oily, Tuscany’ tribe, with other like-minded members of the tribe.
This tribe is quite socially distinct from the vulgarians in McDonald’s, who are in the ï¿½Big Mac, Whopper burger and fries’ tribe. They may well be materially richer, but, in terms of status, their tribe remains, satisfyingly, way off the snob’s radar.
The existence of McDonald’s, 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 their garage extensions, fitted carpets and begonias.
McDonald’s allows the food snob and his tribe to wallow in their own tastefulness.
Nowhere is that tastefulness more essential than at Christmas when the tribe is entertaining and being entertained.
The food snob has certain rules of thumb: turkey bad, goose good; Brussels sprouts bad, fennel good; Christmas pudding bad, soufflï¿½ good. The food snob goes into overdrive at Christmas, keeping scores and settling them.
This strange behaviour is a function of money. When banks are lending hand-over-fist, the social landscape changes rapidly.
This prompts the threatened, educated class to react swiftly. When they are outbid by their traditional lessers for status symbols such as houses and cars, an inaccessible tribal barrier must be thrown up.
They might not be able to afford a house in the area in which they were brought up, but they can still read the menu in a fancy restaurant without having to ask what a ï¿½timbale’ is.
One of the most intriguing aspects of economics is the social and tribal ramifications of economic change. Food obsession, its appreciation and related point-scoring is simply one small example of the social tremors rumbling away just below the surface of our society.
Over the coming years, if the economy continues to grow, this tribal behaviour will become much more commonplace as the really posh tribe tries to distinguish itself from the merely very rich tribe.
In the next few weeks, we will see a related affectation of the food snob. Dieting, self-discipline and denial are part of the same process that spawned the food snob.
The educated, discerning tribe that appreciates the hidden joys of fennel never gets fat. Fatness is one of the classic telltale signs that distinguish the classy from the rich. Posh people are rarely overweight, arrivistes typically are. So in the shifting tribal sands of the shopping nation, girth plays a crucial role, and the serious new year’s denials will come from the threatened educated class.
For those genteel punters who distinguish themselves by what goes into their mouths, fatness is the real giveaway.
So tomorrow, when you go to the gym for the first time in 2005, realise that the poor soul panting on the Stairmaster beside you is not just trying to shed pounds, he is also desperately trying to join a tribe.