Ostentatious gastronomy

by Rob Horning

3 June 2008


I’m reflexively skeptical of elaborate menu copy—the lush descriptions of the novel combinations of ingredients (often hyperspecified—not just cucumber but compressed English cucumber) and unfamiliar modes of preparation for which loan words from French are required. Part of this is because this sort of language betokens expensiveness. I start to suspect I am paying for the sumptuous prose, which has set itself as mediating screen for the food, rather than for the food itself. Eating is inherently a democratic activity—everyone has equal claim to being right about what they like—but these menus are trying desperately to obscure that fact, make dining into a region of insecurity, identity formation, and class distinction.

But a larger part of my problem is that these menus make me feel stupid. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary to understand them, and autodidact that I am, I hate to ask for explanations. Confronted with the incomprehensible descriptions that I can’t really ignore, I often feel like a provincial rube, and I feel like this is by design—I’m the sort of person the restaurant wants to feel excluded so that the target audience can enjoy their distinction a little bit more. I don’t aspire to be sort of person who seeks that form of distinction, so I end up feeling completely alienated, annoyed at the existence of people who are impressed with ostentatious gastronomy; and my mouth refuses to taste what’s there in the food as a way of expressing my very pointless protest.

I know that is mostly irrational paranoia, and that this is the sort of situation in which I should be applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s dictum to reserve skepticism for the big questions—not for the ulterior motives of small-time restaurateurs. They have the benign motive of wanting to make dining into an aesthetic experience and sharing the chef’s artistry, but I don’t want to eat aesthetically, so I get flustered by attempts to encourage me to do so. I don’t want the chef to be an artist; I don’t want to be able to discuss dining as I might talk about a movie or a well-written poem. Not only do I lack the discernment to recognize the chef’s effort, but I almost feel negated by the chef’s assertion of ego into my attempt to meet my fundamental need for nourishment.

Aestheticization of eating turns something primal into something that other people can judge you for—if they can deem your ability to eat, to sustain your life, flawed, it is almost like they can reject your right to have any private sensations whatsoever. Shouldn’t some aspects of life be beyond stylization? Shouldn’t there be reserves of experience that remain direct, beyond the reach of self-consciousness, because they are so basic to our needs as humans? Do I have this backward? Are our fundamental needs the first to become complexly intertwined with society’s need to fabricate and perpetuate hierarchies? (Maybe I need to read some Levi-Strauss or something on this point.)

One’s tastes in food are extremely personal; they are perhaps the primary way to assert one’s individuality. When one surrenders fussiness and learns to trust in the sophisticated concoctions of other self-appointed culinary artists, as expressed in menu copy, one cedes a huge territory on which one can establish identity. When you buy into the complicated menu, no substitutions, no longer can you say to yourself, “I choose what I will eat, for me and me only; my force of will alone will decide what’s appropriate to stick in my body approvingly.” You are trusting instead that someone else knows better than you about those extremely intimate and ultimately inexpressible and unsharable sensory experiences you will have in your mouth and your stomach.

I have a hard time making the leap, which in many ways feels like the leap to maturity. Instead I have this narcissistic view of food (it’s all must be made personally for me, how I want it, because only MY ideas are valid about what I will eat), which requires those who make it to be anonymous, and that their methods be straightforward, transparent, and easily replicable. I want the food’s deliciousness to be a reflection of my own ingenuity for choosing to eat it, not the special genius of the cooks who prepared it.

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