x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The foodie culture of one-upmanship

There's a disturbing trend of competitiveness among food writers.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker was dedicated to food, so I did what any literature-dependent food obsessive would do and cleared a morning to read it. A few minutes into an article about a Los Angeles supper club, I was caught, mid-muffin, by this sentence: “The rabbit still had the whiff of trembly, nervous game.”

I’ve been cooking a lot of rabbit lately – and I also tend to view the printed word as sacred – but I was tempted to set the magazine alight, stack its flaming pages into a funeral pyre on which the loftiness of hope could be cremated; a solemn tribute to great writing and rabbits that rest sedately in peace.

To my limited comfort, I soon found that I wasn’t the only person annoyed by the article. “It didn’t smell trembly, nor nervous,” wrote the Sydney-based writer Alex Vitlin. In his blog, he called the author’s description “vulgar” and “indulgent” and cited a disturbing trend of competitiveness among food writers “to demonstrate who viscerally enjoys food the most – who is the best at food”.

Vitlin’s right about the spirit of one-upmanship that has eaten the simple enjoyment of food into an arcane and fossilised abstraction of what it used to be. And I’m not sure when sustenance went from being a basic form of potential pleasure into a lifestyle, movement, or even zeitgeist. But an obsession with food – and certainly dining, too – has become an exclusive venture and one that’s very focused on lavishing preciosity on the mundane. Few things are more tiresome than listening to self-described “foodies” haughtily discuss a collection of recent dining experiences like they’re comparing invisible accessories from couture collections on a distant planet. People wait years longer for dinner reservations now than they used to wait for a Birkin bag. “The death of gastroculture,” ended Vitlin, “cannot come soon enough.”


The Paleo diet, also known as the caveman or hunter-gatherer diet, is hugely popular in Santa Fe right now and I’ve doubled my carb intake in bloated revolt. One current trend for Paleo followers is to blend butter instead of cream into coffee to make “bulletproof coffee” – presumably because “hot buttered coffee” sounds less hard-core.

Bulletproof coffee was adapted from the Tibetan tradition of churning yak butter and salt into tea. Most Paleo buffs I know are a lot tougher than I am, so I don’t want to harsh anyone’s protein buzz by pointing out that butter is just overwhipped cream. The buttermilk lost in the process of making butter from cream may be a perfect protein  but it wards away the sugar-weary, even with a scant 5g of carbs per 100g. The people of the Himalayas don’t make hipster coffee or protein tea to stick it to the nearest Starbucks or bakery disgracing the air with gluten particles. Butter is a way to extend the life of dairy and butter tea’s richness is a way to deliver calories, nutrition and silky, moisturised lips in the cold mountain air.

My reaction to reading about butter coffee was to bake my first mayonnaise cake – and before you start thinking about how gross that sounds, consider that mayo is only eggs and oil. In time of the Paleo proxy blues, why not turn to the wisdom of our honourable Depression-era foremothers who were forced to fabricate treats out of the non-perishables of a scarce pantry? Stirred into chocolate cake batter, the mayo vanished, the cake was awesome.

The writer is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico