It is often said that Americans are a food-obsessed people (in a rather negative way), which I find an incredibly odd assessment. Personally, I find America to be rather food-negligent punctuated by spastic periods of food-over-indulgent. The minority that actually spreads food around their lives (like some kind of finely herbed butter), integrating it into their daily routines with the love and attention of any human ritual, taking time to learn and explore what food is and can be–get labeled “foodie” and tossed aside as being almost profanely interested in eating.
But living in France, it is safe to say that the idea of calling someone “obsessed,” “irritating,” or even “a foodie” would be absurd. Even the most casual diner is aware of what good bread sounds like when you squeeze it, where to find the best kind, and what butcher will give you the best flank steak to slice and make your sandwich with. Food is an experience that people share in, get excited about, and grow with. Meeting for a meal is more than just sitting around, staring blankly at one another while we chew our chili fries like cud. It is a time to face each other, welcome each other, open up to each other, and put between us something to eat, something that puts us all on the same level–something that says, we’re all still human. We all still need this. There is something comforting and reassuring about eating with others; we feel that warm, welcome feeling of shared humanity. We are all in this together. Pass the asparagus.
And I am not one of those pretentious people that moves to Europe and forever looks down their nose at everything gastronomically American, laughing derisively at my poor country mates stranded on the island of corn syrup. I have had food experiences just as meaningful and as delicious in America, shared with people who are as passionate and excited about food as anyone I’ve met in France. It is just that, on some level, they are obligated to feel slightly ashamed about their interest. They don’t want to be labeled some elitist foodie and accused of being unable to eat anything that isn’t topped with a light dollop of jicama foam. Yet in a country where obesity is a national crisis and more people every day are developing an extremely unhealthy relationship with food, shouldn’t we be praising the people who take time to learn about it and savor it, who treat it like the pillar of our daily lives that it is and not some tawdry afterthought to be disposed of on the floor next to the passenger seat?
Food, especially in conversations like this, is often compared with sex–and rightfully so. Like sex, it is something that ties us together as humans and is a collective itch we all must scratch. We take immense pleasure from these things because, if done right, they not only fill their base requirements but stimulate the very colors of life itself. Try and tell me that the world is not just a tiny bit more pink after a fantastic, filling meal or an amazing lay. Try and tell me you don’t just want to lay back and smile ‘cause, hey, life’s not so bad.
And like sex, if we are brought up in the right way, we are much more likely to have a good relationship with food our whole lives. If your parents were appropriately open and accepting about sex, if they answered questions and taught you what was important to know without judgment–you will be, more likely, a sexually well-adjusted adult. Similarly, if your parents raise you with an appreciation and respect for food and an understanding of what it does to your body, teaching you how to make things yourself and understand where they come from, you are less likely to find yourself tearfully arguing with the box of Double-Stuf Oreos that is glaring at you from the back of your cabinet. Sex and food are often the victims of stigmas and denial. We don’t deserve these pleasures, we feel, so we must squirrel them away and divert them, often turning one into the other.
With all of these difficult relationships with food in America, and with the overwhelming cornucopia of unhealthy choices at our disposal, there has never been more of a time to take a genuine, healthy interest in food. If, for whatever reason, you are not the kind of person who enjoys a long meal with friends and family, or wouldn’t be curious to learn how to make some of your favorite dishes from scratch, that’s fine. We can’t all be interested in the same things. But to shame and ostracize people who take the time and effort to not only make food a pleasurable and fulfilling part of their lives, but introduce it to others as well, is shooting ourselves in the foot. Food should be a conversation, because the more we know about it and the more curious we become as a result, the less likely we will all find ourselves in the Wendy’s drive-thru at 3 AM, fumbling morosely for our wallets as we mumble a thoroughly resigned, “Fuck it.”