Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The commodification of cooking skill in a food-as-fetish culture

In a recent forum on Facebook, a friend and fellow food blogger initiated a discussion that raised some questions for me about convenience cooking products and about how the market for those products is being developed and presented.  The discussion was about Saute Express, a new product from Land O' Lakes that is a prepackaged seasoned butter and olive oil "saute starter," and it centered mainly on whether or not this product appealed to those who were pressed for time in the kitchen (this is who convenience products appear to target), and how many additives and preservatives might be in the product (one of my concerns as well).  So far, our discussion has lasted over two days and I expect there will be more lively reactions and comments trickling in about Saute Express and its existential importance and/or meaninglessness in the food world.

So why does this product and others like it get our backs up?  In the foodie community, we are likely to be perplexed (or even disdainful) about consumers that lack or use a shortcut to execute what we consider a basic cooking skill.  In regard to the recent Facebook discussion, this skill would be a rather simple one: combining oil and butter with various seasonings in order to saute something.  Have you noticed that the simpler the procedure for which a convenience food product is offered, the more the disdain among foodies toward the people who use it? 

We foodies also tend to think that non-foodies lack initiative and creativity if they purchase convenience items.  After all, how many working synapses does it take to combine a little olive oil and butter in a skillet with some shallot, or garlic, or plain old salt and pepper?  And, tending to be purists who are rather finicky about what we put in our mouths (read: snobs), we also cringe at a product that might be loaded with chemicals, preservatives and other 32-letter ingredients not spontaneously found in nature, while other consumers tend to just see the convenience and welcome a change in their weeknight dinner routine.

And--prepare yourself--Land O' Lakes isn't the only company marketing these convenience products.  Two relatively new products that help consumers "create" meals are also found on supermarket shelves.  One of them, Philadelphia Cooking Creme, is an "easy-melting" cream cheese product marketed by Kraft Foods that comes in several varieties.  And then there is a product called Recipe Inspirations, packets of premeasured spices with accompanying recipe cards, marketed by McCormick.  I'm sure there are other convenience food products like these, but these are the most mainstream items I've noticed in recent months.  And for me, they generate the same "ick" response.

It would be easy for those of us with kitchen proficiency and a love of all things food to judge that the people buying these convenience products are lazy and lack creativity.  Those of us who enjoy cooking are usually darn good at it and wouldn't dream of putting such things in our shopping carts, much less on our dinner tables.  We would call on our imagination and skill base to create a great meal.  Because we enjoy doing it.  And I think we lose sight of the fact that there are people who do not enjoy doing it all all.  Some of these people don't have a clue about how to do it, either.  Most of them will admit that.

So I think there's another mechanism behind the production and marketing of these convenience products--one which caters to the ego and, at the same time, to the primitively enjoyable experience of eating, especially in a social setting.  Arguably, the culture of foodie-ism is all about the enjoyment and experience of food, the preparation of food and an almost pathological need to determine the source of the food, as this clip from Portlandia shows.  For those of us who are serious about it, cooking and food acquisition consume time and financial resources roughly equivalent to the ownership and maintainence of a small yacht.  We venerate chefs and restaurants, some of which have acheived a status formerly reserved for athletes and rock stars.  We view myriad shows about cooking, read a plethora of food magazines brimming with recipes and glossy photos, and produce a cornucopia of food blogs in which food is primped, pimped, pushed and photographed in such a way that this phenomenon is now referred to as "food porn."  We call ourselves "foodies."  We have our own language and we memorialize the food we eat with our cameras.  And we have--don't deny it--considerable ego needs.

A culture that elevates eating, cooking and food to such high levels has done at least two things: it has created a subculture in which the kind of food you choose to buy, cook and eat is thought to be equivalent to your social status, intelligence and moral values, and that subculture has made of food a fetish, "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion" as Webster states.  I am unabashedly in this subculture and I am fluent in the language, trade in the currency, am fully socialized in its customs and worship at the altar on a frequent basis.  But I do also recognize that there are people who are not my people.  Those people, non-foodies who have perhaps created a fetish out of something else--yes you, dear husband the golfer--are, in my mind, divided into three groups:  those who don't care about food (the eat to live camp, like my husband the golfer), those who enjoy good food as long as they don't have to prepare it (the unmotivated, like some people in my extended family), and those who are what I think of as foodie wannabes, or people who wish they could prepare stunningly brilliant food but lack the skill and time to do so.  I won't name names here, since some of them are a bit delusional about their capabilities.

Foodie wannabes, arguably, may be the most important target group in the production and marketing of products such as Saute Express, Philadelphia Cooking Creme and Recipe Inspirations.  People naturally want to be recognized and applauded for their efforts.  If they lack cooking skill, they can "live the dream" and purchase skill and effort in the kitchen in the form of these products.  They can, for a few minutes, enjoy the accolades of their family or dinner guests, and have the satisfaction of having prepared a meal that was appreciated, perhaps even complimented.  In this way, cooking skill has been commodified in a food-as-fetish culture. 

Foodies curl up and die at these notions, but there is, I think, a very real desire on the part of others who do not belong to our special club to be considered as part of its membership.  To be seen as someone who might have some chops (forgive the pun) in the kitchen in a culture that idolizes food and food preparation is tantamount to a Kardashian getting her picture on the cover of People Magazine. You have arrived.  And the world knows it.

But real foodies would never believe nor accept that.  And it's not being on the cover of People Magazine but rather the cover of the "Best New Chefs" edition of Food and Wine that we want.


  1. Nicely described, my foodie friend (or shall I say snob?). ;) I know that I am often too quick to judge, particularly in the way of food products, yet I fully recognize and appreciate (and have in my pantry) a product like Bisquick. As much as I am a purist about many aspects of my food "religion," and am fortunate enough to have many friends who share my beliefs, I know that I am generally in the minority. I wonder what the purists first thought about minced garlic in a jar. But I would welcome anyone to our club who at least is TRYING to make an effort with a home-cooked meal, even if it includes Saute Express. You can't learn to cook until you try.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We all have something in our pantries that is a convenience product--no shame in that. I agree about at least making an effort to cooking at home. It starts with baby steps.

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