Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jonah Campbell and the Profane

Jonah's Campbell's interesting collection of essays on food has been following me around the last week or so and I've pulled it out of my bag at odd times, just enough time to read one or two essays and consider them carefully.

What I find interesting about this book is one that represents a trend that has been happening the last few years in the gastronomie world: pairing the sacred and the profane. For example, a restaurant I recently went to in Toronto, The Gabardine ("Fine Grub and Libations!"), or dishes at Joe Beef in Montreal which include spam and foie gras on one plate, just two of many examples.

When one picks up a book "about" food, one expects a certain kind of gravitas but Campbell subverts this almost instantly (even in the title with its nod to Kiekegaard) in his first essay by exploring the condiments required to make a perfect BLT (his point: the bacon isn't really necessary). And throughout the book he takes obscure French culinary terms and defines them in practical, humorous and even irreverent terms. Anyone who walks around representing "the old school" (if such people actually exist) would hate this book.

    It is a fixture of my insufferableness that if, when embarking publicly on an analysis of some  quibbling feature of language or social reality, I am met with skepticism and (supposed) indifference so fervently avowed as to border on the venomous, I take it as an indication that I am on the right path, and my resolve is strengthened  accordingly.
    You know, I'm like "Hey, you ever think about how blah blah blah?" and they're all like "that's stupid, who cares, please shut up," and so, inevitably I'm all "Whoa ho, methinks thou dost protest too much!" and I become even more interested in whatever the fuck it is--cabbages or something ... more specifically the currency and polysemic richness of chou (cabbage) in the French language...

He then goes on to consider the word chou and all its significance to the French language in idiom and turn of phrase and how its use in the language reflects the reality of class distinction. Again, this pairing of the sacred and the profane allows Cambell to explore language and class and cuisine with serious intent in his sometimes stiff and sometimes loose prose without coming across as stuffy or dowdy. An interesting technique if not wholly original.

A few months back in the summer when that children's book Go the Fuck to Sleep was making the rounds, I heard a very interesting analysis of why it had suddenly hit a chord with parents and society generally (I forget where I heard this) which basically was that parents today want to be parental yet still subversive. They want to be parental with all that implied authority but they want to be the "cool" kind of parents who use the word fuck and have a sense of humour about the shared experience of being a parent. As if the very tradition of reading a child a story itself required some kind of rebellious shakeup.

Step off, Grandma.
So, too, with much of the writing about and general approach to food culture. Julia Child was a genius in her green cupboarded kitchen with her upper class East Coast accent but she doesn't exactly jive with our modern sensibilities in terms of her style. She's not cool, in other words, and god knows we all need to hang on to our cool at any cost. Perhaps she's not the best example and this trend in subverting food culture has more to do with some reaction to the highly formalized and stiffly ritualized French cuisine traditions, but the point is the same.

Cambpell's book is funny but with serious intent holding it up. Significantly, the book is a collection of blog posts from his site Still Crapulent After All These Years and often the writing feels "bloggy" (lots of parenthetical inserts which I am also guilty of indulging in, I am often told) and though the tone is relatively consistent, the writing gets a bit loopy at times. But I have to say that I quite enjoyed reading it: in addition to being funny, it's insightful, intelligent and interesting. In my view, one of the only unforgiveable crimes is taking yourself too seriously and I can tip my hat at what Campbell has done in carving out this defiant niche for himself in a world that often does take itself (or has taken itself) deadly serious.

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