Why I refuse to jump on the Gourmet Fast Food bandwagon

tumblr_mdbp1pA3qN1qjcl1qWishbone in Brixton has recently opened; another notch in the bedpost of the gourmet fast food trend that has become so prevalent in the last two or three years. They serve fried chicken and drinks, and pretty much nothing else and I suppose I am rather grudgingly looking forward to trying it.

I come from the nation of fast food. I grew up with it everywhere. I was lucky enough to have parents who chose to feed me properly instead of using burgers and fried chicken as quick and easy meals. And frankly one of the great things, or so I thought, about living in the UK was the sort of middle class British mindset that fast food was not considered really that acceptable. Or at least, it was treated as a bit of a guilt-laden treat, which you ate when you were so hungover that you needed fat, stodge, salt and Coke to bring you back to a semi-normal state. Kebabs and chicken burgers were usually reserved for late nights, when you were so pissed and hungry that there was nothing that could or would hit the spot, and any regrets were saved for the morning.

But somewhere along the way, there became a difference between the dirty burger and Dirty Burger. Now it almost seems that gourmet cheeseburgers, fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, mac ‘n’ cheese, and burritos the size of a small cat are now deemed acceptable and cool, when in reality, they are the same heart-attack inducing, cholesterol-inflating food that has made my homeland synonymous with obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease.

We eat at the Rita’s, the Lucky Chips, the Meat Liquors and we think, “sure, it’s not good for me, but hey, it’s just this once, so it’s probably fine.” But it’s not. The overriding popularity of this kind of food will one day make it part of our vernacular. Those in the know treat this type of dining as interesting and trendy, until it becomes mainstream, when it will then be deemed uncool and the very same food bloggers and elitists will turn to yet another food craze to fawn over. But the damage has been done. The average punters will jump on the bandwagon and assume this type of eating is decent dining. It will trickle down through the masses and “gourmet” fast food will expand into the day-to-day.

Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Looking at the offerings of late in this genre of cooking suggests an indiscriminate obviousness and a strange desire to enjoy American foods that for years have been taken for granted as uncouth. This food tastes good; of course it does. Anything deep-fried or smothered in cheese is going to taste good and it doesn’t matter if you tart it up with free-range chicken and organic beef either. It is still the culinary equivalent of a one-night stand. Eating such clichéd foods as these won’t make us any more ironically cool, it’ll just make us extraordinarily fat, and no free-range, deep fried chicken wing is going to change that. Ever.

Photo courtesy of Serious Eats

Memory and Taste

I have been happily making my way through MFK Fisher’s tome The Art of Eating and came across a small and delightful essay in Serve It Forth called “The Pale Yellow Glove”, which are anecdotal musings about memories ensconced with food. In it, she mentions that people are often loth to divulge stories of pure unadulterated gastronomic pleasure and only two or three times has she been successful in harvesting these stories. This I do not understand. Maybe it was the era she was living in, but in this day and age, with the immediacy of Twitter, every time I look at my feed there is someone talking about something amazing they had at some amazing restaurant. Even so, she rightly believes that “[o]nce in the life of every human, whether he be brute or trembling daffodil, comes a moment of complete gastronomic satisfaction.” For me, the many occurrences of gastronomic satisfaction, circumstantial and unforgettable, but impossible to recreate without transporting myself back in time. I now see this as the beginnings of my own food obsession.

I always had a fascination with taste, even as a child, when our palates are rudimentary and untrusting. At the age of 8, I used to take dried pasta from our larder, pour hot water over it to soften it, then I would chew it. It had a faint nutty taste and I genuinely liked it; in fact writing about it now I can distinctly remember the flavour (though I have no desire to recreate it, you’ll be happy to hear). Or when I used to take bitter chocolate and dip it in sugar. If I grew tired of it, I’d leave it to dry out in a cup under my bed for my health-obsessed mother to discover several days later, much to her horror.

These are not things I remember with the same golden memory as, say, the time I first tried grilled portobello mushrooms at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in Napa. For the first time, surrounded by my family, the sunshine and the grape vines, I had the realisation that a fungus could take on the guise of sirloin and it totally blew my mind. But this memory is nothing without the clinking of glasses, my aunt’s laugh and the surrounding California countryside.

Memory and food are clearly emotional. Think of the silent meals with soon-to-be ex-lovers, the distressing green vegetables your mothers made you eat before you were allowed to get down from the table to go play, or even the late night kebabs which we remember with headachey shame. We feel the meal; we remember it because we are emotionally tied to it. Well, maybe not the kebab as we normally don’t remember it and are only reminded that it existed by the discovery of its remains the next morning.

MFK Fisher was a devoted follower of Brillat-Savarin and his writings are often intertwined with anecdotal musings about meals he had and the circumstances around them, so I am not surprised this little chapter made it in to Serve It Forth. However, in my experience, much of today’s food writing and blogging is more about making things and telling people how to do it. Or, taking photos of food on one’s dining experiences and talking about what it tasted like. To me, this is a waste. How do these writers feel about what they were making and why did they choose to blog about it? Why do these bloggers choose to take a photo of their meal instead of describing how it made them feel to eat what they did, where they did? Perhaps that is not what the masses like. 

These ‘souvenirs of eating’ should be relished and remembered, if only for our own pleasure. Just as Keats did a letter to his friend from 1819, quoted in Fisher’s essay. “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine – good God how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.”

Now there’s a memory in the making, surely.