Welcome to a new feature, called Jack Explains It All, in which I share the most insane (or perceptive?) ideas about how society and human nature interact — jb
“It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.” This sentence, from “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies”, made a big impression on me six years ago, serving as it does to place the “refined palate” in its proper place next to gold-plated toilet fixtures, exotic pets, and the repugnant Bentley Continental GTC as a blank-faced sigifier of mere wealth, independent of education or authentic refinement. “The Roman historian Livy,” gripes B.R. Myers in the article, “famously regarded the glorification of chefs as the sign of a culture in decline.” It’s a great read, vicious and contemptuous by turns, and as perceptive today as it was when it was published. (Mr. Myers is also responsible for another one of my favorite sentences: “…when feminists are denouncing marriage, the last thing they want is a happy bachelor chiming in.”)
Traditional art and literature have no place in the mind of the truly dedicated foodie, something that is reiterated for me about once a month when some would-be critic of mine stammers his way through a borderline-illiterate rant about how my well-documented fondness for the Ruth’s Chris steakhouse chain places me very nearly beneath his contempt. I have unbridled disdain for people who think they are cultured because of what is currently making its rotting way through their bowels. The concept that we are defined by what we eat and drink is a relic of pagan antiquity and Jewish desert hygiene; Christ takes care to specifically reject this in Matthew 15:11. The later Christian intellectual tradition abandons even the custom of fasting, which was once held to have immense spiritual benefits.
Note that I have nothing against the idea of enjoying a meal. I simply believe that your preference for a particular sort of wine is no more intellectually elevated than my preference for Sprite over 7Up, and that your rigorous approach to rating and categorizing cheese is in no way morally superior to my belief that Guns N’ Roses was a better band than Motley Crue. It’s all low culture, and you can prove it to yourself by considering this question: If you had a time machine that would give you thirty minutes to talk to Issac Newton or the Apostle Paul or Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan, how much of that time would you devote to a discussion of what you had for dinner last night?
Speaking of Caesar: I come not to bury foodies, but to explain them. More precisely, I come to explain why being a “foodie” is a big deal with Millennials and other young people. Turns out that it has very little to do with the actual merits of gourmet eating. It’s better understood as an issue of hydraulic pressure.
If you’re a regular reader of this site, you have probably picked up on the fact that I’ve done a lot of buying and selling in the past year. Hello, Fiesta and Corvette; goodbye, Boxster. Welcome to seven BMX and mountain bikes since January; adios to perhaps fifteen Tahoe-loads of books, magazines, clothing, electronic equipment. I’ve listed more stuff on eBay in 2017 than in the decade prior. Last but not least, I’ve sold more than a dozen guitars recently and plan to sell perhaps two dozen more this year if I can find time to do so.
Since I don’t have unlimited fiscal resources, it’s easy to understand the reason for some of this. The money from the two Heritage “Marvbirds” paid for the BMX bikes. The Boxster covered my Lynksey, a couple of watches I’ve bought lately, and some expenses for our race season. Yet I’ve been motivated by something more than just balancing the books: After sixteen years, I’d finally reached my storage limits.
It wasn’t easy. My basement is something like 1500 square feet and is literally lined with steel shelving units that can each hold forty guitars or a thousand books. I have another 800 square feet of rental space down the street for wayward sports cars and winter motorcycle storage. I don’t even have secure possession of all my possessions; My VFR800 is in Atlanta, and my Neon is in rural Ohio. I’ve loaned so many items to friends that I’ve long since lost the ability to track those loans. (If you are reading this and you also happen to have my Brazilian-bodied Electra X340, please return it.)
Yet compared to some of the people I know, I’m an amateur, a piker. This fellow sat next to me in my high-school homeroom. His house would swallow mine thrice over and he has nine garages. Danger Girl and I know someone who has a sufficient quantity of open-wheel race cars in his warehouse to fill a whole SCCA grid. Virtually every local racer I know has an extra garage, a few storage units, concrete pads behind the house for additional cars, pole barns for motorcycles. I met someone a while back who owns forty-three dirt bikes for no particular reason. He just likes buying them off Craigslist whenever he has a few spare bucks. They live in a shed that grows tumor-like with the addition of frame and corrugated panel on an irregular basis.
Here in Ohio we have the luxury of Lebensraum. We have basements, garages, empty yard space. We have the freedom to pick up an extra guitar or motorcycle without getting too anxious about where we are going to put it. As with all luxuries, we have become gradually insensate to this. As Maya Angelou famously and stupidly said about electricity, we don’t understand it. We just use it. (She may have been referring to static electricity, which is not as well-understood a phenomenon as the AC current in your outlet.) When a young man in Ohio gets a better job or receives a financial windfall, he buys a Hayabusa or a jetski or Camaro and he does not worry too much about where it’s gonna go.
Of course, better jobs and financial windfalls are in short supply here in Ohio. Money lives in the city now, to a degree unprecedented in human history. My day job would pay twice as much were I to do it within shouting distance of San Francisco or Manhattan. It would also be far easier to change jobs, to find new work if I wanted it, to advance in my career. It’s true that you might get rich if you stayed in a small city. It is also true that you might be struck by lightning. The likelihood of either event seems similar.
Everybody wants to live where the money is. The market has adjusted appropriately. Here are your one-bedroom rental rates in the most-desired cities. The average one-bedroom rental rate in Tribeca (the neighborhood, not the Subaru) is $4,100 a month. At current mortgage rates, that is an $850,000 house.
The above house is for sale in my neighborhood for that kind of money. It has fifteen times as much space as the equivalent-cost unit in New York.
Imagine, if you will, two forty-year-old men, each alike in dignity and salary. One lives in Powell, one lives in Manhattan. They work for the same company and do the same job. (Yes, it’s a stretch.) The company gives them each a $50,000 bonus at the end of the year. Let’s say that both of these men are determined to spend the money frivolously.
The Suburb Mouse in Powell can buy all sorts of things: a Corvette, a Harley, a boat, a pair of jetskis or snowmobiles. He might furnish a new home gym from scratch. He might buy ten Brioni suits. He might buy five Paul Reed Smith Private Stock guitars. There are all sorts of possibilities.
The City Mouse in Tribeca can do none of these things. Obviously things like boats and Corvettes are impossible for a city dweller of sub-Illuminati wealth, but even something like buying a few extra guitars or suits can pose a problem. Five guitars on stands? That’s twenty square feet. Meaningless to the Suburb Mouse with six thousand of those square feet. Miserable for the City Mouse with four hundred square feet of living space.
When you live in a city, you are possession-constrained. You can’t spend money on things that do not fit. Yet you’re earning more money than those jetski-riding hicks in the sticks. What’s a member of the Eloi to do?
Surely the popularity of luxury watches in the modern era has something to do with the fact that you can easily store a million dollars’ worth of mid-tier Pateks and Rolexes in the space of two shoeboxes. The ever-skyrocketing price of art is driven by this as well; if you have just one showcase wall in your loft then you’re going to have some very high standards for that wall. The same is true for refrigerators and stoves: might as well get a Sub-Z and a Viking, because you have unlimited budget for that limited space.
At some point, however, the city mice run out of ways to spend money within their cramped lofts and ateliers. They are under pressure, the hydraulic pressure of money that has been earned and must be spent. They have no children, no charitable interests, nothing outside themselves. The preferred vent for this pressure is travel, no-expense-spared jaunts across the Continent and jet trips to island paradises. But you can’t spend all of your money that way. There isn’t time. The masters of our universe can’t take a month off every year. They work eighty hours a week trading insider information and doing email.
In D.H. Lawrence’s superb The Rocking-Horse Winner, the child hears the house whispering “There must be more money!” Today’s aristocracy, bombarded with money that just appears from all sides, hear the chant “There must be more spending!” How do you spend a half-million dollars or more per year of disposable income if you don’t have a lifestyle that accommodates a Ferrari or even a fractional jet share?
Enter the ur-foodie, the Manhattan resident who thinks nothing of a five-hundred-dollar dinner because he has no other way to spoil himself. Life finds a way, as Jeff Goldblum once snarked. There is a never-ending variety of new restaurants, meals, bottles of wine, rare delicacies. Novelty is prized above all else. The hot restaurant reservation is the new-Cadillac-in-the-driveway of the urban upper-middle-class. Every night a fresh hyper-expensive meal, carefully photographed so news of the coup may be distributed to ones social circle.
There is room for one final irony. It’s not acceptable to be fat in the city or in the Bay Area. So you can’t simply gorge on hundred-dollar steaks every night. The food has to be expensive and insubstantial all at once. Often the menus are not announced in advance. This is because they are irrelevant. The act of spending and the fact of presence make up the whole of the meaning. The less food you actually eat, the better. The prestige of ones meal rises dramatically as it veers away from serving any true purpose, the same way that cars become more valuable as they become less generally useful.
The Millennial generation finds itself uniquely susceptible to trickle-down propaganda from this late-Roman lifestyle. They don’t have steady careers, because we sent the jobs to China. They don’t have homes, because they are bidding against their grandparents in the housing markets and the grandparents still have all the money. They don’t have children, because they swallowed whole the idea that it was more fulfilling to suck a hundred anonymous cocks than it would have been to raise three children.
Why not have a meal, then? Why not put your money into dinner? It’s the perfect twenty-first-century spending plan. If you buy a new Mustang, you won’t be able to make the payments when your job is outsourced. If you buy a house, you will be so far underwater you won’t be able to breathe. Go have a fifty-dollar-a-plate foodie date. After tomorrow’s trip to the toilet, you will have nothing to show for it — but you’ve been raised to expect that you will live an itinerant, cash-strapped urban lifestyle from birth to death. “Here’s something Nineties kids won’t get: Social Security! HAHA!”
Long-time readers of this blog will recall that your humble author did a bit of OKCupid dating a few years ago. I quickly learned that it was a waste of time to schedule a dinner date, because the woman’s attention would be on the food the whole time. And if she managed to stop looking at the food and photographing the food, it would only be because she had a story about food she wanted to tell me. With one singular exception, every women under thirty I met was absolutely obsessed with food. It didn’t matter how fat or thin they were. They were utterly captivated by the whole lifestyle associated with eating.
The most disappointing night of all was with a young woman who was an editor for a well-respected publishing house. In our early email conversations she had proven to be frightfully well-read, by which I mean that she’d read one book for every two dozen I’d consumed at her age. I was so excited about the possibilities of this intellectual matchup that I agreed to meet at a hip little sushi restaurant.
Our first twenty minutes together were lovely. She had ideas. But once the food showed up, I got an hour-long running live-blog of her meal experience. On the drive home, she talked about food nonstop. I dropped her off and went home because I couldn’t stand to hear another word. Yet in retrospect I have sympathy for her. She was twenty-eight years old, with a stellar career, but she still couldn’t afford anything besides a tiny apartment and a used Toyota. What else was she going to have in her life, if not the foodie lifestyle?
It can only get worse. The trend is towards lower wages and denser housing, higher cost of living and lowered expectations, fewer children and more ennui. Crammed into micro-sized rabbit warrens in future dystopias, we will welcome anything at all that serves to distract us from the unpleasantness all around us. Replaced by robots, rendered irrelevant by expert software and systems, overwhelmed by a demographic tide that will eventually remake the entire world in the images of India and China. Freed from the need to make decisions or even the need to be relevant, we can await the sunset of our society with just one question on our lips: “What’s for dinner?”