food & the ascetic aesthetic @ bloom
If anyone was minded to look at the cultural codes around local food in Ireland, the annual Bloom Festival in the Phoenix Park would be a great place to start (as well as a fantastic opportunity to sample some of the very best of Irish food and drink).
As someone interested in how we talk about food and the broader social context that informs, shapes and reflects our talk, I found it instructive to walk around the Food Village and see the various discourses that local producers drew on to frame their food. These tell us something about what makes food meaningful to the producers and also the type of messaging that producers consider motivational to consumers.
Outside, the celebrity chef cookery demonstrations represented something of a reminder of the traditions of popular food culture, balancing the tension between food as ‘functional care’ (i.e. how to prepare and cook to feed ourselves and families), and food as ‘creative expression’ (i.e. food as a vehicle for entertainment, inspiration and identity construction).
But contemporary food culture has long moved on from concerning itself merely with instruction and indulgence; it is a serious business intervening to inspire us to be better people, not just better cooks. Our food choices are explicitly tied to a broader social context and we are conscious of the potentially negative effects of our choices on our health, that of our families and, to some degree, the planet as a whole. This concern with what and how we consume is, generally, a good thing.
However, as I walked around Bloom last weekend, I noticed - across a number of categories of food1 - how prevalent the construction of food and diet in terms of ‘risk’ was. And I was struck by how insidious this narrative of ‘food as risk’ really is; that it was so ubiquitous as to seem wholly natural and practically invisible in this context.
Regardless of how cheery the packaging and brand voice might be, it seemed impossible to present the food without highlighting (a) what it lacked, (b) what it avoided, or (c) what it prevented: whether it was wheat free, gluten free, dairy free, salt free, sugar free, soya free, preservative free, free from artificial flavours or colours, etc. Within this framework, products are inevitably reduced to the individual ingredients and nutrients they contain, over and above an holistic appreciation of the foods and meals. Some producers had ceded their category to functional discourses of health, nutrition, responsibility, risk and duty.
There is a type of asceticism around food that has recast eating as an expression of discipline and responsibility (whether that is political, social, ethical or even medical). While it clearly motivates producers, and is obviously motivating to many consumers, it does seem a rather limiting, functional, and joyless way to talk about food, and one which is more likely to further feed2 anxiety around consumption than truly inspire people.
Yet many of the producers at Bloom also demonstrated that their food was not merely a functional means to some extrinsic end; they made indulgence and excitement relevant and showed how discourses of creativity, adventure, and distinction can prosper. And that good food inspires, rather than threatens.
Questions, comments to:
Emmet Ó Briain (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. Except the chocolate people, of course. They were all deep into unsubtle signifiers of indulgence and luxury.
2. That was deliberate.