Monthly Archives: July 2013

Poole’s ‘You Aren’t What You Eat’

Not long ago I read Stephen Poole’s biting little book You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture. In the final chapter I scrawled in the margins ‘I am drenched with sarcasm’. Truly, it drips from every page. Still, despite the lasting damp, Poole’s critique should be heard.

Poole takes aim at the current cultural obsessions with food. In his view, these obsessions are seriously misplaced, verging into the foolish territory of an ‘ersatz spiritualism’. Today’s chefs, he says, have become our priests and food writers our gurus. Those who sit at their feet are enraptured with a masturbatory obsession that distracts from issues of real concern.

For Pool, this obsession represents a kind of perversity or decadence, an inward-turning dissipation of psychic and intellectual resources.’

We are crowded and harangued by people of evident thoughtfulness who are infatuated with food when they could be doing so much else with their time and creative energy, were they not alternately salivating like excited dogs and sluggard-brained with the vicious blood flow of over-challenged digestion.

For Poole, the ubiquitous term ‘foodie’ should be changed to the more accurate ‘foodist’: ‘Like a racist or sexist, a foodist operates under the prejudices of a governing ideology, viewing the whole world through the grease-smeared lense of a militant eater.’ Once more accurately named, Poole says, these cultural obsessions can be identified for the ridiculous things they are.

No doubt, there’s  truth to Poole’s words. Certainly, I am often despondent at the narrow focus of much food writing and at the self-indulgent conversations around food that seem more concerned with the provenance of the verjuice that with the larger issues of hunger, justice and social inclusion.

Trouble is, to hear Poole’s arguments, one one has to get past his often mean-spirited dismissal of particular chefs, food writers and proponents of a more reflective eating practice. In many cases he lacks the slightest appreciation of what motivates these people and of the depth of analysis that many do provide within the genre.

Sadly, I fear that all Poole’s approach will do is ensure that the people who need to hear his critique never take their fingers out of their ears long enough to do so. Unknown-1

Stephen Poole, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture, Brunswick: Scribe Publications, 2012.

Southern Fare III


With my beloved far away in rural Texas, I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions, a delightfully written memoir of food and family in the South. It makes me wish even more I was there with her.

West’s personal observations about gender in the kitchens of her Tennessee childhood illustrate how much has changed in our expectations around food and yet how much is still the same. This is so not just in West’s small corner of the world, but in places I know more intimately.

In the second chapter, West muses on the place of frying in the Southern kitchen and, more significantly, on the place of cooking in feminine self-assessments of role and worth.

The power of food is daunting to ponder. Cooks of any region are bearers of a culture and a tradition; they are oral historians, not to mention sustainers of humanity. When it came to kitchens, my Mimi believed that larger issues were at risk; if a woman didn’t fry, then perhaps she was failing in some crucial way. This made an impression on my tender brain. If I failed as a chicken fryer, then I might fail as a wife and a mother. I might end up alone, rebuffed, unloved.

In chapter three West picks up on the theme, observing the roles played not only in the kitchen but in the adjoining dining room where the food is consumed. She describes the Sunday gatherings of the extended clan, men, women and children congregated separately: the children ‘corralled in the kitchen,’ the men seated at the dining room table and the women moving from kitchen to table and back again as male needs dictate.

Seated in the kitchen with the other children, West remembers:

We all looked up when one of the aunts came through the door, carrying the ham on a blue willow platter. She set it before Great-Uncle Charlie, Estelle’s firstborn son. Carving was an inheritance, passed from father to son, from brother to brother. Women, including Estelle herself, were excluded from this ritual, as if we couldn’t be trusted with knives—at least not outside the kitchen.

The male role was to pay appropriate compliments, flirtatiously perhaps. The female role was to serve, one embraced with great seriousness:

In the days before microwave ovens and antidepressants, it was a challenge to serve a hot meal, much less a feast, but these women were specialists. And they had a mission. It was imperative that the men be fed, as if more was at stake than the filling of stomachs, the soothing of appetites, the quenching of all thirsts. As soon as the last amen was uttered, the men began passing bowls, ignoring the ladies, who glided around the table, anticipating needs before they were felt.

Lee observes without comment or postscript the constant movement of the women, their care of both children and men, and the disdain of the older cousins who watched on from the kitchen table.

‘Look at them in their aprons,’ said Cousin Jeannie, eyeing the aunts. ‘Just like Harriet Nelson.’ ‘And June Cleaver,’ said Nena Grace. Jeannie shuddered. From the dining room, one of the fellows called out, ‘We need some more butter here!’ A second later one of the aunts ran into the kitchen, her head disappearing into the icebox. She sped back to the dining room and was greeted by shouts: ‘Over here, sugar. That’s my good girl.’ ‘Am I going to be like this?’ Jeannie’s eyes blinked open wide. ‘Good girl? Is that the same as good dog?’ That cousin now lives an exotic life, designing intricate jewelry that she carries from Las Vegas to Paris to Greece to Hong Kong. She speaks fluent French. And she changed her name from Jeannie to Beverly.

Southern Fare II


Another installment from Michael Lee West’s southern memoir Consuming Passions on family, identity and recipes ….

Even when I’m all by myself, I never cook alone. My grandparents are dead, along with my father and some favorite aunts …  but my family lives on in their recipes.

I bring Mimi’s chocolate cake to potlucks and Aunt Tempe’s majestic coconut layer cake to holiday parties. I make Aunt Blanche’s pancakes on Sunday morning. The aunts, living or dead, left me with a legacy of food—and the confidence to cook it.

Whenever I’m making biscuits, cutting them out with a child’s jelly glass, I feel my grandmother hovering. She is somewhere over the pot rack, telling me that biscuits are like cats, they don’t take to handling. ‘Am I doing this right?’ I ask her. ‘You’re doing just fine,’ she says. ‘Don’t let me stop you.’

And later …

This recipe was my grandmother’s grandmother’s recipe. Whenever I bake it all my forebears gather in my kitchen. Elizabeth taught Estelle to make this cake, and Estelle taught Mimi, and Mimi taught Ary Jean, and Ary Jean taught Michael Lee, and Micheal Lee taught Trey and Tyler. Every time I break an egg, their spirits guide me. When I stir the batter, I am stirring up these kitchen ghosts. They bolster me; but most of all, they whisper in my ear a split second before the timer buzzes.

Southern Fare


My beloved is in Texas; returned to the place of family, sweet tea and barbecue. In honour of her travels (without me!) I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life. It’s a wonderful book, an easy-to-read memoir of family and food in the South.

For the most part, the stories centre around the women in West’s life—sisters and mothers, eccentric aunts and grandmas—those who held life and family together at the stove. I love it because it’s well written and funny, but even more because it resonates with my own experience of food and family in rural Texas. It’s a world of its own.

A few quotes over the next week

Why, recipes were like kinfolk. Mimi’s mashed potato salad reminded me of a pale, plump cousin who avoided heat and sunlight, yet she always smelled of wild onions; Tempe’s pecan tassies were sublime and nutty—very much like Tempe’s daughters; and Myrble’s lemon cake was like a flirtatious tart, one the menfolk couldn’t resist.

At one funeral, Aunt Hettie pulled me aside and said, “This is a shame! What a loss!.” I thought she was speaking of the relative we were there to bury, the gorgeous aunt who had left a well nigh perfect husband to run off with a rough-edged millionaire.

“She’s taken her gingerbread recipe to the grave,” Aunt Hettie moaned. Then she turned to me, “Men could not resist that dish. And your own grandmother took her biscuits with her, too.”

“No, she didn’t!” cried Mama. “I know it by heart.” “You better write it down,” warned Aunt Tempe. “Young people don’t know how to make scratch biscuits. They just pop open a can.”

“Food is dying art,” said Tempe. “At least in this family. We’re burying our best recipes.”