Soul Food

Why cooking isn't art


I wrote a piece not long ago about foodism as the new culture. Food, I argued, has replaced art as the object, among the educated class, of aspiration, competition, conversation, veneration. But food, I concluded, is not art, is not narrative or representational, does not express ideas or organize emotions, cannot do what art does and must not be confused with it.

One response, among foodies, was outrage. My argument was shallow, insulting, and too black-and-white. Of course food is art! Even, said one correspondent, narrative art. Imagine a curry, he said, that is made with palm sugar as opposed to the refined variety, thereby localizing the flavor geographically and historically and referencing the whole cultural and technological context in which refinement occurs. Imagine further that the curry is served with mangoes candied with the other kind of sugar, thereby separating and juxtaposing traditional and modern flavors and drawing out “the implicit cultural narrative in an ordered, beautiful way.”

Well, that’s quite a lot of weight to balance on a single point. I can put a spoiler on the back of my Honda—how’s that for a complex cultural-historical-technological reference?—but that doesn’t make it a story. And note how carefully my correspondent had to contrive his example to produce a narrative at all, and only, even then, in the weakest, most indirect, most rudimentary sense—more something the food refers to than actually expresses. If food were really a narrative medium, then all food would be narrative, just as the clumsiest and most simplistic story is. If food were really a narrative medium, it would also be able to speak about anything, to whatever degree of detail and specificity you want—not just, as with the curry, itself. Any made object can, in that sense, “tell a story,” but only about its own making. A tall, green-eyed astronaut fell in love with a lawyer who recently lost her job: when you can cook me a dish that says that—and tell me how you’d change it if the astronaut were dark instead of fair—then we can talk about food as a narrative medium.

Food is ordered: but so are spreadsheets, or even regular sheets, when you make your bed in the morning. Food evokes emotions: but so do sunsets, or train sounds, or the cigarette smell of a bar. Food embodies ideas: but so does everything that’s made. To evoke is not to represent, and to embody is not to express.

Arguments about the nature of art are usually pretty pointless, but to a first approximation, I would say that art is necessarily symbolic. Food can be symbolic, too, but its symbols cannot be combined within a syntax. Pineapples equal hospitality. Apples equal sin. Pineapples plus apples equal fruit salad. Still, music is not exactly symbolic, and mathematics certainly isn’t art. So what makes art what it is? It is spiritual, said another correspondent—a problematic term, but one that points in the right direction. Art addresses the soul. It integrates the sensual, the emotional, and the intellectual into something we call the imaginative, and it does so consistently, as the condition of its existence. It deserves the prestige that it has in our culture, but that prestige itself is the source of the problem. Everybody wants to be an artist now, and takes offense if you call them a craftsperson (a perfectly fine thing to be, in my view, especially since it’s what I’d call myself). But if art is everything, then it is nothing.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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