After being hyper-vigilant for a few years, i fell off the blogging bandwagon for most of 2017. I can probably blame a universal shift or some other cosmic phenomenon but it’s mostly because I got jaded and lazy. I won’t spend much time on the laziness but will focus my efforts on the former. I’m prone to jadedness…some say it’s in my DNA. Perhaps it’s that I’m a disciple of Darwin and his theories of natural selection and the theory doesn’t seen to working at the moment.
I’m not about to go off on a general social commentary but I will bring my observations and feelings back to what I love to write about…food. What we eat and the industry surrounding it has not been immune to the utter stupidity that has infected the world over the past half decade. Whether it be social media, the deprioritization of what we eat as part of a dining experience or the utter ignorance of everything wrong in one of the most corrupt industries in current society, the relationship between who are and what we eat is at an impasse. Unless we really evaluate what we are doing and rethink things, we may end up severing a relationship that has been evolving for thousands of years.
To this day, one of the most important books I have ever read has been “You Eat What You Are; People, Culture and Food Traditions” but Thelma Barer- Stein. I first read it during a university course as part of my nutrition degree. It opened my eyes to the wedded yet delicate relationship between humanity and what we eat. It used to be quite simple; you ate what was around and developed a culture around that. With the advent of transportation, increased exposure to foods from all over the earth and a rapid fusion of many cultures in a span a few decades that strong cultural history is being forgotten, opening the doors to those with creative business minds to redefine and reinforce new ways for consumers to belong to their definition of food culture. Unfortunately, Dr. Barer-Stein left us in 2017 but I would have loved to sit down with her just for a few minutes to get her reaction to how, in a matter of a few years, managed to destroy our relationship with what we eat in the same fashion as what we have done to our precious environment.
Social media has been one of the biggest catalysts in the destruction of our relationship with food. At one point establishments survived based on word of mouth and quality of their menu as opposed to their elaborate social media platforms which are endorsed by hipster zombies who know how to use hash tags. Speaking to a friend, reading a review in a newspaper by a food critic (with proper prose and complete sentences) or getting you hands on a hard copy of a Zagat review has been replaced with uncensored bias reviews written in broken English by people revered for the quantity as opposed to quality of what they post. Yelp, for example, rewards those who post glowing reviews about every Tim Horton’s in town, citing things like “The coffee was priced similar to the other Tim’s across town” or “I saw they had maple dip donuts which is amazing because we live in Canada”.
Instagram is probably worse. True..a picture does speak a thousand words but unfortunately these photos are usually selfies representing “look what I have and how cool I am” versus “look at how good this looks”. Take the Starbucks unicorn frappuccino for example. Anthony Bourdain called it “the perfect nexus of awfulness. Just add pumpkin spice to that mix, and you can nuke the whole county”. I couldn’t agree more. In addition, I would argue it was one of the biggest reasons for truancy in 2017. High school students flocked to their local Starbucks instead of math class to get their hands on one and the main driver was bolstering their social media status. Being one of the first to post yourself looking like a giraffe sucking back heavily dyed 400 calories (complete with 10 g of saturated fat..the same as a Big Mac) and adding a clever hash tag like #iskippedschooltodrinkthisshit or #sweetthensourjustlikeme elevated your profile to new heights (at least for a few hours or until somebody posted a new puppy or something). In other words, food has become an accessory in a fashion similar to a designer purse or a pair of Hunters.
In the restaurant industry, food has slowly fallen from the centre of attention. At one point, people went out to have a good steak or the best eggs benny in town and actually communicated with those around them. Now it seems an experience out has become synonymous with heading to the CNE for Medieval Times in which you enter a rambunctious environment and watch a bunch of costumed knights put on a show while you wear a crown and slurp cold tomato soup from an iron bowl before tearing dry chicken off a leg bone with your teeth. Now, instead of jousting horses, you can go to most restaurants and be surrounded by similar barnstormers. Whether you are into pretentious aristocrats with fake accents or sullen hipsters with the menu tattooed on their arm, you can choose your own adventure. What’s even better is that in most cases the environment is so loud that you don’t even have to have a conversation with the person or people you are with. This is a definite advantage when you have to hang with annoying friends or family members or maybe with a match.com date that just isn’t working. Listen, I not saying that I don’t appreciate spending my money on a good overall experience which includes great service and a cool vibe but it can’t come at the experience of the food. I don’t think too many people have left medieval times saying the show sucked by the food was great. We can’t be lead to believe that the reverse mentality should exist for a place where sustenance should be the primary objective. Furthermore, we have succumb to the mentality that, unlike medieval times when servers were servers, it is acceptable for us as patrons to accept and encourage the sadistic attitude of those we pay as part of our bill. In other words, the acceptance of the current culture puts yet another barrier in the longstanding and evolutionary relationship between humans and the food we eat.
I want to clarify that I’m not against all social media. In many cases it can be used to unify like minds, promote a business or allow for free expression. The #metoo movement has been one of the best examples of an important use of social media…sort of. The core of the movement is long overdue as sexual harassment by whatever definition you choose to use has been running rampant for years. Part of the magic of facebook and other outlets is to allow the unification of people with commonality regardless of their position on the social ladder. A 50 year-old business executive who hit a glass ceiling because she wouldn’t engage in relations outside her job description has as much clout as a 19 year-old waitress who was inappropriately touched or verbally by a restaurant manager. Unfortunately, special interest groups (including Hollywood and yes, I do refer to Hollywood as a special interest group) have hijacked the cause. I’m not suggesting that making millions of dollars is an invitation to be sexually harassed. My point it that turning the Golden Globes into a funeral for the male species fueled by speeches of presidential intention don’t speak for the thousands of men and woman who may live in a constant environment of exploitation not to live in a mansion on the hills but instead in order to pay their rent in a one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store.
I have a 17 year-old daughter who worked for a local restaurant. A number of months ago she discussed a sexual harassment issue with management. A cook in the kitchen easily 40 years her senior continuing made references about how he would like to have babies with her. When it didn’t stop she brought it up with management and the solution was “he was warned”. The behaviour stopped but she was fired 6 months later. It was shortly after she was promoted to a serving position by one of the managers although she was not yet of the alcohol serving age. She was doing well until the owner came in and complained. The pattern continued…every time he would come in he would complain and harass the staff about an underage server right in front on my daughter. I still remember the night she came home and told me she was fired. I asked her why and she said they told her she was moved to a job she couldn’t handle and her old spot wasn’t available. When I went in to discuss it was a manager I was told it was because she missed work too many times (she called in sick once because she was…ummm…sick and other the time was because our dog of 5 years acutely went blind, fell down the stairs, shattered his front leg and had to be put down). The termination letter stated even a different reason for her dismissal. My point is, sexual harassment or not, employees in food service are treated like cutlery and other inventory and it has to stop. In general, they are at the highest risk of exploitation given the history of the industry, the need for gratuities to survive and the hierarchy and balance of power that exists. Simply making Mario Batali a celebrity sacrificial lamb and wearing black designer suits and gowns while you sip expensive champagne while ignoring the hundreds of other who wear short black skirts because they are pressured to and SERVE expensive champagne speaks to the Hollywood hypocrisy that plagues most social moments that exist. I really hope we see a dedicated movement in the restaurant business which recognizes harassment and even goes as far as to promote a harassment free menu and environment with the same awareness and passion that has been used for gluten and peanuts.
Much like our relationship with the environment, if we do not reevaluate our interconnection with what we eat in short order (pardon the pun) then good food will become as scarce as clean air and water. We need to show some gratitude for the food we eat and the people who serve it to us. I’m not suggesting we bow our heads and say grace (although I’m sure some marketing genius will find a hipster way to do it soon), I certainly didn’t take a selfie of me gorging on Grandma’s jelly salad or give her a slap on the ass on the way past the Thanksgiving table. Maybe we can use social media presence to promote the businesses and people who work hard to respect the food we eat and the people who make and serve it instead of using it to pad our inflated virtual egos. Maybe it’s time to realize that Hooter’s was founded in 1983 and yes, things have changed since then. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that hikes in minimum wage and automatic 18% gratuities do not give us permission to treat food service staff like subordinates (although I’d ask the same in return). Finally, in the words of the late Thelma Barer-Stein, maybe it’s time to think about eating what we are and not whatever the output of the latest, flashy marketing campaign tells us to.