Food & drink

Food fetishism

Food has gone from physical necessity to mental obsession and, since there’s almost nowhere we don’t travel, there’s a world of food to draw on. Apparently the next trend is Filipino: adobo, lechon, sisig and bulalo. If you don’t know what they are, you soon will. But when is this kind of ‘food adventuring’ going to stop? And why do we do it?

Top chefs and foodie culture dictate the next food fetish. But while there’s nothing wrong with sampling someone else’s cuisine, there’s a danger people will think they are now ‘expert’ in somebody else’s culture. The idea of ‘food adventuring’ suggests that people can learn about somebody else’s culture just by eating their food.

This is more like ‘cultural appropriation’. Cultural appropriation is when somebody has a meaningful holiday somewhere exotic and comes back with a traditional headdress or musical instrument, which only trivialises the culture. The person who wears or plays it becomes an expert in the culture when in fact, all they have done is purchase a souvenir. The souvenir becomes a substitute for deep experience.

A recent book by Jennifer Jordan about the power of food to evoke memory says the sense of smell is close to the place where we hold memory in the brain. This is why immigrants like to cook food from the old country, as it helps to bring them closer to their memories of that place.

Foodies grabbing on to the next new trend in food do not have these kinds of memories. As one comic artist recently said: “We are a people, not a cuisine”. She also says wisely, “Eat, but don’t pretend that the food lends you cultural insight into our ‘exotic’ ways”.

Another problematic term is ‘authentic’. What is authentic for one person is not for another, depending on their age, the region from which they come, or how tightly they define their influences. Authentic Chinese, in New York, for example, would be different from authentic Chinese food in a village in rural northern China. editor, Joshua Stein believes “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity”. Perhaps it’s just the word ‘authentic’ has been overrused. While there’s nothing wrong with sampling a new kind of ethnic cuisine, be careful about making it more than it is for you: just eat it.

Ref: The Guardian (UK), 2 June 2015, ‘Stop thinking and just eat: when 'food adventuring' trivializes cultures’ by A Stevens.
Edible memory: The lure of heirloom tomatoes and other forgotten foods, by Jennifer Jordan
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Search words: authenticity, cultural appropriation, foodie, fetish, heirloom, memory, obsession, heritage, regional, ‘food adventuring’, realness
Trend tags: Authenticity

Don’t judge food by its packaging

One way to look at what a culture values is to look at its packaging. In this busy, consumerist culture, we judge food by its packaging, whether we want to or not. In a split second, our brains take in the form, size, colour, language. So if today’s packaging is anything to go by, we value anything small, homemade, authentic, warm and friendly, conversational, informal, empathetic.

A Finnish manufacturer of meatballs was chastised for putting insufficient meat in them, so it decided to call them ‘balls’. This is just an obvious example. The majority of language on packaging is absurd, ridiculous and downright untrue.

Who has not seen ‘homemade’, ‘handmade’, ‘handcrafted’, ‘carefully crafted by hand’ pushed to the limit? Bacon has been ‘handrubbed with sea salt’. What can we make of ‘authentic’ Cumberland sausages that are vegetarian? Do we need to know about the philosophy or mission of every item we buy? One brand even says, “where words like taste and trust stand side by side”.

So much packaging is not even selling the food inside it. We are urged to “give in to happiness” and other vacuous commands. This is, according to S Poole, a new “gastro-imperative”. The food packet becomes cookbook, telling the reader what to do and how to do it – even to turn off the phone while he does it! As if the reader has no idea how to eat anything anymore.

Some packaging sells what is not inside (fat-free, gluten-free, cruelty-free, salt-free) because it sounds better than what is inside (brussel sprouts). Today even a spade is definitely not a spade. Especially if it is handcrafted and made with a great love of shovels passed down through countless generations.

Ref: The Guardian (UK), 17 April 2015, ‘The annoying language on food packaging: rhapsodies and philosophies’ by S Poole.
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Search words: ‘gastro-imperative’, language, packaging, food, family, small, homemade, serving suggestion, philosophy, mission, authentic.
Trend tags: Authgenticity, narrative, story telling. trust

The Glutenberg bible

Cafe Free is a cafe in an affluent Sydney suburb that specialises in being ‘free from’ lactose, gluten, sugar, or whatever is currently taboo in your diet. Perhaps the biggest taboo of all right now is wheat. After thousands of years of feeding millions of people, it has become what New Scientist cleverly dubbs the “blame grain”.

A tiny minority cannot digest the gluten in wheat and they have coeliac disease, which affects maybe 1% of the population whether they notice or not. A new ‘disease’ has arisen, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), which includes people who have no immune reaction but do experience bloating, gut pain and headaches after eating foods containing gluten.

An Australian researcher of NCGS said wheat may well cause problems for digestion, but it is not necessarily the gluten, but the sugars in it. These sugars have been called FODMAPS and they are poorly absorbed in the small intestine, producing gas and attracting water.

A low FODMAP diet is quite severe and cannot be continued for too long because it eliminates all kinds of foods, not just wheat. Many people just avoid cooking with onions, which are high in fructans also found in wheat.

Even so, a third of the US population say they want to cut down on gluten, so they must have received a very clear message on how bad it is. Popular books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, suggest links between wholewheat grains and dementia, ADHD and anxiety. The ridiculously popular Paleo Diet rejects all grains on the mistaken belief that none of the ancients ate them. Gluten-free products cost a lot more and often contain more salt and fat to compensate.

Some claim wheat is addictive, but even proteins from milk, rice, meat and spinach act on opioid receptors to make us want more. Wheat is no more fattening, but often occurs in packaged food that contains too much fat or sugar.

Giving up gluten is trendy. But many people claim they feel much better when they give up wheat or gluten. Whether this is the placebo effect or not, surely we should eat what ultimately satisfies us, not what someone tells us to eat. So today at least, there are lots of happy customers (and a happy owner) at Cafe Free.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 12 July 2014, ‘The blame grain’ by L Geddes.
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Search words: wheat, gluten, coeliac, FODMAP, onion, cereal, paleo, intolerance, allergy, fad.
Trend tags: Anxiety

Give fat a chance

Everything you thought you knew about fat is wrong. For a start, it is not wrong to eat fat. No wonder we are so confused, with so many health warnings about saturated fat, combined with the fad for everything coconut (87% saturated fat). Food has become an impossible minefield of guilt and despair.

In 2010, scientists did a meta-analysis of 21 studies and found no significant evidence that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. A further meta-analysis of 72 studies with 640,000 people in 18 countries came to the same conclusion. They found you had the same chance of developing heart disease as a very high or very low consumer of saturated fat.

The trouble with these studies is they do not take into account all factors that could affect health, such as lack of exercise, alcohol intake and the rapid increase in average body weight. They also overstate the importance of a particular kind of fat.

One researcher says not all low density lipoproteins (LDLs) are ‘bad’, even though this is the type of cholesterol often demonised in doctors’ surgeries. Small, compact types of LDL are linked to heart disease but the big, fluffy ones are not. Small LDLs stay in the blood longer, convert into oxidised form and are more likely to damage the arteries.

The meta-studies may simply show the benefits of switching away from saturated fat are cancelled out by replacing it with sugar and trans fats. Fats are often replaced, in so-called healthy foods, with refined carbohydrates like honey.

Another 2012 study found eating lots of saturated fat from meat increased the risk of heart disease but the same amount of fat from dairy reduced it. (You would wonder who financed that one.)

Unfortunately, studies of single nutrients are always problematic because people do not sit down to a meal of one nutrient. Nutritionists usually say if you eat a diet balanced in fresh fruit and vegetables, with plenty of colour, and small amounts of animal foods, you will be healthier.

When you hear an avocado has as much saturated fat as five packets of chips, or nuts are richer in saturated fat then steak, you have to wonder. Always pay attention to who is giving advice: it may be Big Food or Big Pharma.

Ref: New Scientist (UK),  2 August 2014, ‘Fat or fiction’ by J White.
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Search words: steak, butter, fat, cardiovascular, saturated, lipoprotein, HDL, LDL, cholesterol, heart disease, trans fats, Mediterranean diet.
Trend tags: Anxiety, fear

Reservations about the price of reservations

Some restaurants do not take bookings and force you to turn up and stand around until a table becomes free. At the other end of the spectrum are restaurants that are so sought after, they can charge for reservations.

In the US, Table8 and Resy, charge up to $25 for a table and split the fee in half with the restaurant. One unfortunate contender, ReservationHop, went out of business when it sold reservations without the restaurants knowing about it. Meanwhile, Killer Rezzy shares revenue with some restaurants and not others, depending on whether they agree or not.

It sounds strange that a restaurant would not want to sell reservations. They are willing to sell food and drink, but not the space where people sit (even the toilets are free). Yet in many restaurants, some tables are better than others. Who would not want to enjoy a massive, uninterrupted water view while eating? Who wants to sit near the door and feel the draught each time it opens? If restaurants give away reservations, it seems as if they have no value. Restaurants could even charge extra for reserving tables at busy times.

Reservation apps and peak pricing would make more money for restauranteurs and create more restaurants, tables and competition for diners, according to the Economist. People on a budget would find eating out more affordable at less popular times. This is a very similar strategy to the one adopted by Uber.

So why don’t restaurants like charging for reservations? One restauranteur says: “Balancing the reservations book is a challenge and a joy” and believes selling the table “cheapens the experience”.

Once again, it’s a battle between the economists and the humanists. Sadly, people get used to paying for anything after a while – even to book tickets that they have to book themselves.

Ref: The Atlantic (US), May 2015, ‘The modern price of getting a table’ by T Harford.
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Search words: restaurant, toilets, reservations, Table8, ReservationHop, Killer Rezzy, Shout, meal, discount, pre-theatre, peak pricing, Uber.
Trend tags: Dynamic pricing

Who wants real food anyway?

Everyone is bombarded with advice and what to eat, and when, and what you can eat now that you couldn’t before. No wonder it all looks too hard. One way to avoid the problem of choosing is what to eat is to take away the choice. Enter Soylent, the drink that contains everything you’re ever likely to need.

In our last issue, in Note-by-note cooking on the menu, we noted the early introduction of Soylent and animal-free replacements for eggs. Khosla Ventures, for one, is investing in Hampton Creek Foods, a tech start-up in the process of turning the $US60 billion egg industry “into what Apple did with CDs”. Its CEO claims there’s no point in keeping chickens in tiny spaces and feeding them on antibiotics in the dark for a few weeks, if you can make eggs without them.

Bob Rhinehart, 25-year-old creator of Soylent, has much the same argument. Why bother with food, hunger or nutrition, when you can just drink formula? Apparently it tastes like unsweetened custard.

Soylent has the same nutrients as a balanced meal and doesn’t degrade or go off like fresh food. It also creates very little waste, because there is no fibre. Rhinehart says people think because something is natural, it is good, and they are too attached to food culture and tradition. He says, rather oddly, the natural state of man is “ignorant, and starving and cold”.

Apparently, Soylent appeals to younger, educated males, lots of grad students, single parents and business travellers (all probably ignorant, starving or cold at one time or another).

There seem to be two wildly opposing camps predicting the future of food sustainability. One is the technological camp, which says we can create all the food we need from plant or chemical sources – and save the planet that way. The other is the greenie/Slow Food/gardening camp, which says there’s enough food for everyone on the planet if we all grow our own and eat mainly vegetables.

Ref: The Atlantic (US), April 2014, ‘The man who would make food obsolete’ by R Morin.
MIT Technology Review, Vol 117:4, ‘The next startup craze: Food 2.0’ by T Greenwald.
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Search words: Hampton Creek Foods, egg, Khosla Ventures, plant, Soylent, formula, nutrition.
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