The Sacrificial Butter

Why food became the new religion


Once more into the food wars. I’ve written recently about the way that food has displaced art as the content of culture, and why, nevertheless, it isn’t art. The second half of that elicited a little blowback, to say the least, and I don’t intend to continue to argue the point. There isn’t any term, apparently, that the proponents of food-as-art aren’t willing to deform in order to defend their position: “idea,” “story,” “symbol,” “performance,” “representation,” “meaning.” People clearly take this food stuff very personally, invest a huge amount of feeling in it, which only strengthens my conviction that it has become a kind of new religion. People believe in food, the way they used to believe in art. The question is why.

The answer may have as much to do with what has happened to art as with what has happened to food. In the old, Romantic dispensation, art was understood to be salvific. “The priest departs,” said Whitman, “the divine literatus comes.” Art took you from the dark and brought you into the light. Its purpose was transcendental; its effect, transfigurational. But who believes that anymore? First high culture was dethroned by a popular art that asserted equally exalted claims—think Dylan or the Beatles—then that itself became so commercialized, so commodified, that it lost its position, as well.

Now we’re on to something new. Art has become a kind of DIY affair that’s felt to be in anybody’s reach. Think of the number of people who fancy themselves to be writers or visual artists in these days of technologically assisted narcissism—all those would-be novelists and memoirists, those photographers and videographers. How easy it is to reach an audience now, or to think you’re reaching one. How easy to receive approval for your work, since friends will never tell you what they really believe. And in the case of the visual arts, with all the new technology, how easy to create a beautiful image. I’m reminded of something I heard a music teacher say about electric guitars: that he tries to keep his students away from them until they know how to play, because they make it too easy to produce a sound, to feel as if you’re making music. The new digital cameras are the electric guitars of the visual media; they give you the impression that this art thing really is no sweat.

Whereas food is not and almost certainly never will be easy. Technology can help—those blenders and slicers and so forth—but only up to a point. A decent cook can do a decent job, but great achievement still necessitates great skill. Food is molecules, not bits—which also means it can’t be digitally copied, shared, pirated, or sent across the Web. And that may be the secret of its status now. The more virtual our experience becomes, the more we value the tangible, the sensual, and the immediate. Food is very intimate; we put it in our bodies. It creates and affirms our intimacy with others. Not for nothing do families gather around the table, dates begin with dinner, and religions use food as the symbol of communion.

In the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin famously argued, works of art have lost their aura of the sacred, their irreducible uniqueness and presence. One can only imagine what he would have said about the age of electronic reproduction. Forget about posters or vinyl or film; now we can be anywhere, to look or listen. But food is always unique. You have to be there, have to be present, have to be in contact with the thing itself. You have, in other words, to be here now. If the purpose of religion is to bring us into relationship with reality, perhaps it’s no surprise that food is our religion today.

I will say only this to its acolytes and votaries. Religions don’t stay innocent for long. Churches, dogmas, heresies, schisms, senescence: you have all this to look forward to.

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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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