Guests should leave the sermon, more at least until dessert, writes Helen Razer.
THERE she was at my pantry. Just as bold and bolshie as a runaway train. As a runaway train fuelled by High Principles and biodiesel. There she was in my pantry with no trace of shame.
“Can I help you?” I spat with malice. “No, I’m fine,” she answered equably. “I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
In one hand she held my cheddar and fresh pea salad. Partially dismantled. With the other she clutched my apple cider vinegar.
“It’s not certified organic,” she said. “But it’ll have to do.”
As she doused my dirty peas with purifying cider, she explained that she ate only organic produce. Or, preferably, biodynamic. And local. And GM-free. Years of ethical eating, she said, had made her VERY sensitive to the foul taste of agribusiness. “There are contaminants in your salad,” she said.
There’s no book of etiquette to prepare the hostess for a food snob’s first aid. Beyond curbing the urge to stab my guest with a cutting-edge Global knife, I’d no idea how to respond. Should I drench her peas in trans fats? Or should I simply lie about the provenance of my potatoes? Yes, these heirloom kipflers were drawn in burlap sacks by rustic, cruelty-free donkeys from behind my shed.
Gastronomic snobbery is nothing particularly novel. The princess and her pea are but the latest in a long historical line of snotty food wowsers. There have always been those who consider your pantry an index of refinement.
They snigger if you pronounce “l’ancienne” or “conch” inaccurately. They consider your pantry the register of your moral condition too. You know the sort. They’re gluten intolerant and bring their own nut-meat and herbal tea to lunch.
Nonetheless, there is something about the new hybrid snobbery that makes me pick up my paring knife. It’s as if the most abhorrent ’70s health nut met the most abhorrent ’70s food tosser and, after assiduous programming by the mavens of purest Slow Food, they had children who settled in Melbourne.
Let it be plainly said: I’m a part-time ethicurean. I’ve read Michael Pollan, dammit. I am keenly aware that petrochemical companies own everything including my soul and that we’re all headed for hell via burger drive-thru.
It’s true. I am occasionally funnelled into the supermarket by a desperate hunger and poverty of time. But I (a) NEVER buy processed foodstuffs and (b) always pull my hoodie up for fear that I will be recognised by a maker of artisanal cheese. I do often shop at untainted markets. I wear the dirt from Collingwood’s Children’s Farm as a badge of credit two Saturdays a month. But I’m never going to ethically cleanse my entire kitchen. I don’t have the time and, honestly, I don’t have the money.
Try this latter rationale on a gastronome of the type who cooks in biodynamic tallow and they’ll look at you with a blend of evangelical pity and disgust. It’s a look that says, “The planet is dying” as much as it says, “You’re about as chic as a pair of factory-farmed Ugg boots, aren’t you?”
I’ve the greatest respect for locavores and I’m even prepared to concede that Steiner was on to something when he first crammed animal poo into a cow horn. It’s not the ethical impulse to which I object. It’s the discourteous way it plays out.
“I’m assuming this is not a farmstead cheddar,” my guest trilled.
Shame heaped onto me by staunch foodies will not help me change my ways or the world. The road to sustainability will not be paved with piety. The networks we need to outrun agribusiness are hardly helped by high-born cheese elitists. Don’t tell me how to behave, lady. I’ve little inclination to behave when it is just politesse that decrees that I must. The temptation to pop my Christmas lights up during Earth Hour was something I felt very keenly. And I’ve fantasised about sucking cheese from an aerosol can in front of the Belted Galloway stall at the market. Because I don’t need others’ puffed-up disapproval. I need logic and education. And fellow travellers who don’t mind irreverence.
And luncheon guests who’ll leave the sermon. At least until dessert.