Full disclosure: I have a folder named ‘Food’ on my laptop. It has some memories, which I shall not be apologetic about. Like the first chocolate cake I baked (a disaster, it reeked of baking soda), a drink with a naughty name I tried by a Goan beach, meals special for the people I shared them with, and such like. What it doesn’t have are Instagrammed shots of this unpronounceable dish or that. I like my food fresh-looking and not like something Marie Antoinette threw away and someone auctioned centuries later. Now that it is done, I shall turn to the task at hand: dealing with that growing and irksome tribe of fanatics that goes by the name of ‘foodie.’
Not that I have anything against food itself; I like it well enough to enjoy cooking and feeding people, apart from feasting on it myself. But food is food, right? A basic necessity, something you need to get by from one day to the next, that’s what food was, when I was growing up. Sure, when you think of summer holidays and festivals, food has more to do with fun and nostalgia. Later, with city life, food became something you toiled over in a hole-in-the-wall kitchen, or if friends were around, something you bonded over. I loved each of these phases. I wrote a regular food column once, something I thoroughly enjoyed.
Then, Masterchef happened. For a whole season, I religiously watched Masterchef Australia, every night. And some reruns. Yes, I am a recovered MA junkie, and now I’m left with a bitter aftertaste in my mouth where the imagined flavour of cheesecake or penne arrabiatta used to be.
For food isn’t any longer something you eat, or even enjoy, but a source of obsession, something to be dressed up, like a posy of fake feathers on an anorexic model, painted on, put on a glass plate, photographed, and the photographs then edited to make the dish look better than it was, and shared on every social media platform, and then eaten, if not already cold or melted. Tiresome.
But it would be unfair to blame just Masterchef for this explosion of food obsession, which seems to be about everything to do with food except the eating of it.
No, this obsession with food did not start with pressure tests and invention tests and pink clothes that we know the judges and chefs on MA for. Somewhere along the way, and I hope to get to the bottom of it, food became the next top model. Only when you were done with admiring it could you pick at it gingerly.
My friend, let’s call her M, lives abroad, in one of those Mideastern countries, I forget which. Good girl, good cook, known her for years. Even a papad that she makes goes up on Facebook, stylishly heaped on a plate, the background cleverly blurred; you can do these things these days even with mobile phone cameras. The recipes go up as status messages.
There are a bunch of equally bored other girls who ooh and aah at each picture and scream and whine and want-a-piece-of-it-right-now! I don’t know who told them that the whole world is interested in what their breakfast looks like or how they licked the sushi off the plate. But boy, is it tiresome.
Every time I’m in a restaurant and find that my own group or the people at the next table hold up a meal because they are not done taking pictures yet, I want to shake them up. But no, you haven’t eaten a meal if the proof isn’t on social media, right?
Too many cooks and broths
I miss those days of Doordarshan when all you had was Chitrahaar, Rangoli and the 4 pm movie on Sunday to keep track of. After all, you didn’t have to endure this shrill (or subtle) propaganda that says, “consume, consume, buy, buy, spend, spend, waste, waste.” If you are not watching TV, the newspapers are writing about it, your colleagues are talking about it, and if you go online... well, you better not go there is all I’d say.
Television is the chief culprit: if you don’t come across some wannabe tough guy grappling with the meanest, weirdest food from around the planet, then you’re sure to bump into some out-of-work model prancing about with a put-on accent teaching you how to make salad and salmon in a manner that guarantees you a similar waistline in two weeks. If not these, it’s a cookoff between good looking men and women, preened and made up with cues as to when to gasp and when to shed a tear. Those things make for great TRPs, I’m sure, nothing makes for great TV like watching other people embarrass themselves and insult each other.
Reality television apart, you have hundreds of cookery shows, destination food shows, competitions, baking shows, food challenges, healthy cooking, dessert cooking, salad making, food appreciation and wine and cheese shows, in every language on every channel at all times of the day and midnight. Some are good, I grant them that. But you need some serious determination to sift through the chaff and get to the good stuff, which I’m increasingly unable to summon.
Not tonight, Nigella
Have you ever watched Nigella Lawson go through the motions in what is marketed as a cookery show? Cooking isn’t her USP, fool be whoever expects that. When I asked a friend why he watched her show, he gave me that indulgent look you give simpletons and very slowly explained how no one really watched her show to copy down recipes. She has famously, and often, been criticised for peddling food porn. The manner in which she kneads store-bought dough before pouring in thick dark chocolate that oozes from between her fingers flirts with camera angles and clever editing to look rather suggestive. That is the whole point. I won’t be surprised if it turns out that the food stylist of her show makes more than Lawson, the latter being the most replaceable of its ingredients.
When did food start getting talked about as much as sex at salons and dinner parties? Or is food the sex for Indians, who find it safer in family circles to exalt the beauty of food and discuss every olive, every strand of saffron? The tradition in most cultures, ours included, is to bond over food, to make every meal special by sharing it with family and friends, to carry cultural ties ahead by tying another round of the thread with much-loved dishes, especially during festivities. But none of it explains this sudden upsurge of food obsession, an epidemic you cannot escape from.
The ladies that lunch
A lady with a Hermes bag and seven-inch heels, while at Sunday brunch with the designer kids and the rich husband, won’t be caught dead eating anything as prosaic as the biriyani, even one that’s fit for the nawabs. It has to be bland pasta in white dressing perhaps, coated first with glistening olive oil. Or some such.
Tiresome, like I said. The sheer endurance of the phenomenon makes you wonder—these things called fads are meant to rise and fall quickly, are they not? So, when is food’s turn coming? None too soon, I think.
It is just food, people. The thing our cavemen ancestors scrounged for, that thing mothers forced us to swallow, and the same thing our grandmothers indulged us with. A basic necessity. Eat food hot. Don’t wait till it is done with its photoshoot. Eat rasam and curd rice even if risotto and penne are in fashion. Sure, bright food paint and fancy Chinaware add to the charm. But food is food. Put it in your mouth where it is meant to go and get over your pretensions!