Mythologies: Josh Ozersky

Melanie Dunea

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Cultural studies without tears. For the “Former Semiotics Major at Brown” in everyone.

Though he earns his daily crust as a food writer (not a restaurant reviewer) for Esquire, Time, and Rachael, Josh Ozersky began as a cultural historian: his study of ‘70s TV, Archie Bunker’s America: TV in an Era of Change, 1968-1978 (2003), is authoritative, deeply embossed with the stamp of his mentor, Mark Crispin Miller, whose influence is legible in Ozersky’s respect for historical context, his prickly wit, that little curveball spin he puts on his wry phrases. In all the essentials, he continues to be a cultural historian, whether overtly, in books like The Hamburger: A History (2008) and Colonel Sanders and the American Dream (2012), or covertly, in his columns.

Poet laureate of the lardon, author of the food-trend neologism “lardcore,” unrepentant carnivore (the comeuppance of gout notwithstanding), Ozersky is a man of generous proportions and outsized opinions. He is what feature writers like to call “perpetually rumpled,” sporting a bedhead-y haircut that looks like a beveled version of Laurie Anderson’s fauxhawk on the cover of Big Science. In his Ozersky TV Web series, he has a fretful air, existentially put-upon yet seriocomic, as if he knows he’s doing shtick, albeit Beckett’s idea of shtick. (That’s it: Beckett at Katz’s Delicatessen.) When I think of Ozersky, I think of a line in “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” Joseph Mitchell’s ode to the joys of the New York steak dinner, or “beefsteak,” a long-vanished all-male institution of the pre-war years: “The life of the party at a beefsteak used to be the man who let out the most ecstatic groans, drank the most beer, and got the most grease on his ears…”

Yet Ozersky is no muggins. He speaks, and writes, in a voice that owes something to the culture of kvetch; something to the wiseacre, corner-of-the-mouth knowingness and street patois and quirky, autodidactic erudition of New York newspapermen like Mitchell and A.J. Liebling; something to his grad school days at Notre Dame; and something to G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and Samuel Johnson, all of whom he reads devoutly. He has the ruminative wisdom of a barstool philosopher (a “poor man’s George Trow,” in his words), which allows him to pull off disquisitions like,

I was thinking the other day about hamburgers. Frequently asked, “Where is the best hamburger?” …I have to have a ready answer — a soundbite, if you will… The truth of the matter is that the real answer to it is one that would strain the credulity of any listener, even myself, when I say that it’s two blocks from my home [in New York City], at the Brindle Room. Now, it makes me think of Chesterton, in Orthodoxy. He wanted to write a book about a man that got lost on a boat and went back to his country, thinking that it was a strange and exotic new place, and saw everything for the first time with fresh eyes, y’know? … The hamburger at the Brindle Room, objectively speaking, is the best hamburger. … The Brindle Room is two blocks from my house, and yet when you think of the succulence, the salt burst, the Maillard flavors, the crust, the cushy buns, the rivulets of fat, the little trickle of olive oil and butter on both sides, I mean, it’s not better than that at any of the places Oprah goes to… I know it sounds crazy…but I believe in it and I’m happy to believe in it; I see it with new eyes, and I am renewed.

I asked Ozersky about food and gender: The Galloping Gourmet, Playboy ‘s role in changing men’s perceptions of food and cooking, the post-‘70s shift in American attitudes about the unmanliness of men in aprons, the gender politics of gluttony, and the cultural significance of “dude food” stars like Guy Fieri, self-styled “kulinary gangsta” and bloviating host of the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives

Click the link to listen to our hour-long telephone interview, which Ozersky insisted we conduct while he walked his dog, on the roof of his building, in what sounded like gale-force winds. (It’s a New York thing.) Or read the highlights that follow.

“The Great Playboy Shift: From James Beard to Manly Men Eating Manly Things”

Mark Dery: I remember coming home from school, as a kid in the 1970s, and stumbling on The Galloping Gourmet. Cooking, then, had more than a whiff of effeminacy about it. Graham Kerr’s audience was almost exclusively women. Now we live in the era of what you’ve called “dude food,” and food TV is awash in manly men eating manly things: Guy Fieri, Anthony Bourdain. What happened? How did this culture shift come about?

Josh Ozersky: If you want to get into classic American gender archetypes, cooking and not just cooking but any pronounced interested in food was perceived as not only effeminate but unnatural, and for that reason American food writing, which of course was the primary American food medium before the advent of television, was dominated by women — for example, Clementine Paddleford and M.F.K. Fisher and later Julia Child — and when there was a man, they tended to be flamboyant queens like James Beard or Lucius Beebe. Graham Kerr was practically the Anthony Bourdain of his time. His audience was women but they weren’t Liberace women; they were women that found him to be virile and charismatic and if you go back and you watch those shows he definitely has the swaggering roué vibe. He was closer in spirit to The Playboy Advisor than to Duncan Hines.

One of the signal shifts in the ‘60s was not directly related to food, per se, as it was what you could loosely call the democratization of hedonism. Food became something that was part of a nicer, richer lifestyle, enabled by the postwar boom. I think that The Playboy Advisor is actually a more meaningful indicator of that cultural shift than [The Galloping Gourmet]. Playboy was a very important cultural force, and aside from giving people a fuller appreciation of giant tits, it also had the added benefit of explicitly and more or less effortlessly linking high culture — wine, food, jazz — with the very epitome of masculinity, virility. And food, in terms of what could loosely be called the Great Playboy Shift, was not one of the main things, [whereas] wine or stereo equipment was up there. When they talked about food, they put it in the context of tool of seduction, rather than something you liked in your own right. At the same time, I can’t imagine Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin whipping up a soufflé to impress a hot girl.

MD: Isn’t fondue the quintessential Playboy food? It comes from Europe, and European things are hallmarks of sophistication, and you can feed it to each other, so it’s a prelude to seduction.

JO: That’s exactly right.

Dude Food: Guy Fieri, Anthony Bourdain, Adam Richman, Andrew Zimmern

JO: One of the things that you’re talking about with dude food, whether it’s explicit or implicit, is that the people you’re talking about — Fieri, Bourdain, [Adam] Richman [of the Travel Channel show, Man v. Food], [Andrew] Zimmern [of the Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods] — are virile guys that get boned all the time. That’s why none of them are fat. The only one of them that’s not implicitly a Hef figure is Zimmern but his masculinity is unquestionable. They’re all hot bundles of love. Zimmern looks like a chef; he’s overweight, but he’s not a fat, waddling tub of lard, he’s, like, avuncular. Tony is a sexy guy, Richman and Fieri are menschy everymen who have a certain life force that they emanate which is kindred to virility. They’re guys’ guys; they’re not a numbnuts like The Frugal Gourmet.

MD: Obviously, for the bulk of human history, layering on fat was an emblem of power, because you could afford to eat. And then in the Twiggy era that gets reversed. It sounds like you’re saying that these guys radiate power in that Tony Soprano way by virtue of their girth.

JO: It’s not about power; none of those guys really radiate power. Those guys are beefy, guys’ guys; they’re not tubs of lard.

MD: You distinguish between beefy and fat.

JO: I do. The phrase that comes up is fat slob — an indolent person who’s let himself go.

MD: And within our Puritan culture, and the Judeo-Christian legacy, there’s the implication of the loss of control, which is always castigated in the public square.

JO: Right. That’s one thing that I think is the key to understanding the specific appeal of Guy Fieri and Adam Richman is that it’s okay for them to be beefy; they’re full of life force and berachah, they’re happy, they’re open-hearted and open-faced. They carry a few extra pounds but so what? They’re okay with that.

MD: How much of the appeal of these shows is about them acting as surrogates, expiating our guilt for overindulging?

JO: I wouldn’t call it expiating. Guys have always been able to get away with being fatter; Steve McQueen and Twiggy were never equivalent cultural figures, even if they were roughly equivalent physiologically.

Double Standards: Paula Deen versus Guy Fieri

MD: A question about gender: it seems to me that it’s the women who get the brickbats for reveling in precisely the [same] sort of guilt-free gluttony. People like Paula Deen are practically stoned in the town square doing what the Guy Fieris and Adam Richmans of the world are doing. Do you think there’s a gender hypocrisy, here?

JO: I don’t think so. I mean, Paula Deen was widely loved until this diabetes thing, which revealed a level of hypocrisy and disingenuousness worthy of Richard Nixon. Also, she played up the shtick about the butter and everything.

To me, the person that represents the real experience of American women from a food point of view is Rachel [Ray]. [Full disclosure: Ozersky writes a column for Ray’s website, and is, in his own words, “friends with her.” – M.D.] Rachel is someone who’s not naturally thin, she’s short and Sicilian, somebody who’s not naturally built like a supermodel, she’s not tall and leggy.  She’s a regular woman who has a regular and she tries to make things that are healthier but she’s into food, she loves cooking, she loves eating.

The very best television personalities are not eaters but the cooks, and they’re the kind of cooks that relate with a kind of intuitive and organic and whole-hearted relationship with the food, like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Rachel, like, they don’t really have recipes per se, like, Jamie Oliver cooking, it’s like Lee Marvin with guns or Steve McQueen with motorcycles, y’know? They’re constantly touching the food. All of those people are okay with the physicality.

The real super-thin pro-ana types, your thinspiration types, those people have a Manichean worldview; there’s a hard and damaging split, a toxic rift in the mind-body divide. The Manicheans and various gnostic sects and strands of antinomian Christianity—in all kinds of ascetic religions, there’s a tendency to want to mortify the flesh and to see the spirit as pure, right? That’s an essential, archetypal, cosmic worldview, and we’re all coming from a point of view of loathing bodies that are not sexualized, athletic, supple, and so forth in an almost idealized way. Like with the gay men in New York, it’s not enough to be, like, fit and beautiful, you either have to be a hairless twink or a muscled he-man that makes Johnny Weissmuller look soft. And of course we all know what [women’s] whole spiel is, with their bodies.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there’s no separating food and sexuality. Let’s just take that as a given, bracketing out the M.F.K. Fishers of the world. (She was like Mary Worth with a spoon.) When you talk about how TV [food] people relate to sexuality, I think that both the more popular eaters — Tony [Bourdain], Guy, Richman — the fact that they can eat and embrace food and even be overweight and not come off as decadent sybarites with damaged bodies is a good thing. It’s good for food, it’s good for sensuality, it’s good for pleasure; I see it as a humanistic advance.

On the cooking side, Rachel, to me, is the great heroine of this — I’m friends with her, so obviously I’m kinda biased, but she and Nigella and Jamie Oliver are all relating to food and they’re not like The Frugal Gourmet, some weird, life-hating numbnuts. But they’re also not gross caricatures like Paula Deen. The continuing popularity and pervasiveness of this very visible eating [on food TV] — the wholehearted, uninhibited approach to food — is an aspect of the changing role of sexuality in America.

MD: In a bizarre way, it seems almost as if this ravening orality, in the most Freudian sense of the word, is replacing sexuality, at least on television. The term “food porn” is usually applied to people like Nigella or Giada [De Laurentiis, host of the Food Network show, Giada at Home], who never seem to appear without plunging décolletage and whose delivery is kind of salacious or at the very least sensual, but there’s another, subtler food porn, which is simply the pornography of guilt-free indulgence at a time when Americans are fatter than ever.

I have to play devil’s advocate and say that while I take your point about these [dude food] shows, what I find at least mildly horrifying is that the food is so astonishingly bad. I mean, how many bad deep-fried sandwiches can [Guy Fieri] rhapsodize about? It just seems to me that there’s a bit of hypocrisy in Bourdain criticizing Deen for “telling an already obese nation that it’s okay to eat food that’s killing us” yet Bourdain is rhapsodizing about foie gras and all these absolutely lethal foods (if you eat them on a daily basis), so it seems to me that gender really does play into this.

JO: It’s not gender. Paula Deen is a crass vulgarian of the kind that Tony, as a sophisticated New York guy —

MD: Guy Fieri is not a crass vulgarian?!

JO: Look, people hate Paula Deen not because she promotes unhealthy food (which nobody actually gives a shit about) but because she’s like a “Lonesome” Rhodes of the kitchen.

MD: How is this not about policing the boundaries of class?

JO: It’s all about that, but it’s also about gender, because Guy Fieri is a vulgarian but you don’t hear the same shit about him.

MD: Precisely my point.

You framed things, earlier, in terms of a Manichean binarism; isn’t that what this whole debate between the Anthony Bourdains of the world and vegans and vegetarians is all about? Neither side can see past the symbolism of food—food as semiosis, food as cultural mythology—and it seems to me that [with] Bourdain or Christopher Hitchens inveighing against anti-smoking laws, there’s this horror of Puritanism.

JO: The rebellion against Puritanism, or a perceived or imaginary Puritanism, is a function of affirming masculinity and a kind of automatic and reflexive countercultural transgressive posture that has become necessary to a cool person living now. So, for example, in New York you have all these chefs that went meat-crazy and organ-crazy and pork belly-crazy, like Battali and David Chang. They posited this imaginary Moosewood schoolmarm who was going to make everybody eat lentil loaf and of course no such person existed. If you want to talk about signifiers, that’s why bacon became like a faux-transgressive signifier of bad-boy feeding. Being into bacon is as much an act of aggression as it is an act of pleasure. Guy Fieri lives in a world where there is no Moosewood Cookbook. What he represents and conveys is this magic world of tacos and happy men—a Nacho Land, inhabited entirely by formidable and unworried specimens like himself.

In the remainder of the interview, Josh and I discuss male body images in the ‘70s; the hard-bodied masculinity of Reagan-era action-movie stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger versus what Ozersky calls the “skinny-fat” bodies of ‘80s pop stars like Robert Smith of the Cure and Morrissey of The Smiths; the rise of “health food” in the ‘70s, spearheaded by Euell Gibbons, Adelle Davis, and The Moosewood Cookbook; and the dearth of African-Americans among food celebrities. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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