It was interesting to watch the discussion about culinary elitism evolve over the past week.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, former restaurant critic Frank Bruni used what was otherwise an everyday online spitting match between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen as a platform for a bigger point: That the culinary elite (represented here by Bourdain) should stop looking down on regular folk (represented here by Deen, who hasn’t led a “regular” life in at least a decade) who might not have the access to, education about, money to buy or interest in fancy, organic, complicated or out-of-the-ordinary food.
Bourdain called Deen “the worst, most dangerous person in America” because she’s “telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.”
And you know what that reminded me of? The study that made the rounds earlier this year that blamed the childhood obesity epidemic on working mothers.
When he’s not making a living traveling around the world making one of the best shows on television, Bourdain makes his living by picking on people who sometimes need to be picked on. He’s famous for saying things that people think but no one has the balls to say. It’s a good gig, especially when so few have the equally big balls to throw it back in his face.
Well, Bruni did. (So did Paula, but it’s Bruni’s piece that has everyone talking.)
He brought up some terrific points about class and the social divide that culinary elitism has created that we would be foolish to overlook, but I was also interested in the gender divide that appeared in his article.
There’s a clear delineation in gender between the “self-appointed sophisticates and the supposed rubes.” Bourdain and chefs David Chang and Andrew Carmellini represent the first. Deen, Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee are Bruni’s choices for the latter.
I tweeted something about it being worth noting that the people who are supposedly leading America down the culinary toilet are women who promote fast, easy-to-prepare comfort meals and that the cutting edge sophisticates who think everyone else is foolish are men.
But there are two big exceptions, one who was mentioned by name in the article and another who was conspicuously absent: Alice Waters and Guy Fieri.
In their respective camps — chefs who are trying to change the world one bite at a time and home cooks who are just trying to get dinner on the table — Waters and Fieri are always outnumbered by the opposite gender, but their presence alone doesn’t allow us to treat this as a gender-neutral discussion.
Emily Matchar, who is working on a book about New Domesticity, used this ruckus as an excuse to break down the show on the Food Network by gender:
Female chefs – even lauded professional restaurant chefs like Alexandra Guarnaschelli – are described as being “working moms” or “stay-at-home moms” and their food is described with adjectives like “simple” and “homey” and “accessible” and “healthy.” The food on the male-hosted shows is “intense” and “extreme” and “ultimate” and “fearless.”
This is not a surprise to anyone, but it’s an important distinction to be aware of when one camp is being vilified in such a public manner. Bourdain could have chosen Fieri, the bleach-haired dude’s dude who is about as annoying as they come, or his target fellow Travel Channel host Adam Richman, who has built an entire show around eating three days’ worth of calories in one sitting.
But he didn’t. He took aim at Deen, and then suddenly Bruni was writing about three female hosts who, to the culinary elite, represent just how stupid Americans have become about food.
But in reality, they are sharp business women who happen to have built brands that appeal to home cooks, many of whom are certainly trying to cook and eat more responsibly for their health and for the environment than Deen does (at least on her show). At least one of them, Rachael Ray, is doing far, far more than Bourdain ever thought about doing to try to reform school lunches and help kids eat better. (And she doesn’t even have kids!)
Bourdain isn’t anti-woman or anti-feminist. I was happy to write a piece in his defense last year when, in his most recent book, “Medium Raw,” he reveals his egalitarian attitude toward home economics and takes aim at famous people in food that piss him off with little regard to gender.
But gender is a part of this debate, no matter if Bourdain realizes it. Subconsciously or not, we’re still drawing a line in the sand between female home cooks who are stuck in the bacon jar and the male progressive-minded problem solvers who never think of their actions or words as hypocritical.
Photo illustration via Gothamist and Ray photo from the New York Post.