Years ago I was at a dinner potluck with a bunch of people. Among the dessert options was a berry pie from a grocery store. One of the partygoers took a bite, purred appreciatively, and said, “This pie is sooo good.”
It was not a good pie. I’d tried it already so I knew. The crust was flavorless and the insides gloopy. I eyed her to see if she was just being polite. As far as I could tell, though, she was sincere.
It was one of those little tiny insignificant moments that take on outsize importance. Maybe because I’m a restless and frenetic cook, food stories stick with me more than other kinds do. (Don’t try to extract a sports anecdote out of me!)
But what’s curious about this particular story is how its meaning keeps changing for me.
The first meaning it held for me was that I was a food snob and proud of it. I knew good pie from bad pie. That poor soul didn’t.
Now it’s important to say that this was just as cooking blogs were on the rise, shortly before the term “foodie” went mainstream, and long before lavish doctored photos glommed up your Instagram feed. So maybe she had some excuse for her ignorance. But I was one up on her—I knew that for sure.
Time passed, and all of a sudden good food was hip and hot. It was OK to spend too much time sourcing your ingredients at the farmer’s market and preparing twee dinner parties with au courant specialty items.
But it took very little to tumble from preferring fresh green beans over those boiled rags from a can, to passing moral judgment on eaters who failed any number of foodie litmus tests.
I remember as a kid being bewildered by the stories about food laws in the Bible. In a typical if regrettable Gentile-Christian move, I assumed those stories were about how weird Jews were. Imagine thinking your morality had anything to do with what you put in your mouth! Good thing we enlightened Christians were way past that.
In fact, by now the Pharisees look positively enlightened, generous, and inclusive. The number of ways to reject other people’s food has metastasized beyond imagination. Health objections, political objections, labor objections, moral objections, environmental objections, quality objections…
So in light of that unexpected cultural development, when I thought back on the bad pie episode, I came to realize that I remembered the bad pie way better than I did the delightful potluck dinner it was served at, or the other people in attendance. My loss.
There are lots of reasons to reject other people’s food. They’re all pretty stupid and self-serving. I like the term “etiquettarian”: eat what’s served to you with good grace. If it will make you vomit or go into anaphylactic shock, then I’d say passing it up counts as “good grace.” But that’s about the limit.
Stopping there with the bad pie incident would please me. I’m embarrassed by my former food snobbery, and I feel keenly the urgency of serving and eating in ways that foster community instead of polarizing it further.
But it really was a bad pie. I figure my fellow guest didn’t actually know what a good pie tasted like. In case anyone infers poverty as an explanation, I can say assuredly it wasn’t that. I just don’t think she’d ever had good pie, so there was no basis for comparison. As far as she knew, bad pie was just … pie.
Now all these years later, the symbolic force of that unnerves and troubles me.
Because how many things do we now know only in their fake versions?
And how long before the fake versions wipe out personal, communal, and social memory of the real versions?
Case study Tokyo
I live in Tokyo, and it’s hard to find bad food here. You will stumble across an amazing noodle shop five minutes in any direction, selling a huge meal for a ridiculously low price. And then there’s the curry rice. And the better-than-Italian pizza. Heck, even the convenience stores are renowned for their takeout.
When I first moved here, I wondered what brought about this culinary miracle. Needless to say, convenience stores in the States are not exactly renowned for delicious, nutritionally balanced, convincing versions of home-cooked food.
In time I figured it was a solution for the crazy long working hours of most Tokyoites. Without time to cook, or adequate kitchens to do it in, or dishwashers afterwards to clean up with (seriously, Japan, where are your dishwashers?!), some other source had to supply good cheap food. What a brilliant solution!
Until, that is, it dawned on me that solving the food problem was also a way of insuring that workers kept at it for longer and longer hours. After all, they don’t have to go out to shop, or go home to cook.
If the shops give you home-cooked food, then you don’t need to be at home to eat. You don’t need to depend on anyone else to see that you get fed. You don’t need to feed anyone else, either. You can live only to work.
7-Eleven can give you good food. But it can’t give you family or community. Or joy or life. Just fuel toward the next demand. As a pastor in Tokyo, I see the cost of this way of life up close and personal.
So many fakes
How many things do we consume in fake versions as fuel, because it’s too much time, trouble, and effort to serve up the real thing?
- Friendship… through valuing many followers over a few beloved companions?
- Community… through dopamine hits in the form of likes and retweets?
- Worship… through passive livestream viewing?
- Movement… through repetitive machine-based exercise?
- Music… through listening to recordings rather than making it ourselves?
- Identity… through carefully tailored avatars and curated selfies?
How much of our lives is even real anymore?
And do we still have the ability to tell the difference?
It’s easy to be a snob about food. It’s easy to be moralistic about food. Both critiques of bad pie miss the point.
Food is never just fuel. It’s always symbolic. It’s worth examining our food just to find out if we even know the difference between the real and the fake anymore. And not just at the table, but also in church, at home, and in life.
If we find we’ve been living off fakes, maybe it’s time to start climbing our way back toward reality again.
It’s worth the effort. The reward is pie. Really, really good pie.