View from the Loft 

war and peace, politics, books, rants, the passing parade ...


Friday, January 09, 2004

Let Them Eat Imaginary Oysters

Once upon a time, until I became a vegetarian, I subscribed to Gourmet magazine.

I suppose it was a necessary step for me on my way to becoming a more adventurous and more knowledgeable cook. And I discovered some wonderful recipes on the few pages not devoted to advertising spas, luxury cars, and purses that cost more than some people's rent.

But it was the ads that disturbed me, in the same way that the thought of Las Vegas disturbs me. It's the emblem of America's Great Divide, the one between the haves and the have-nots. Las Vegas has always seemed obscene to me, although admittedly iconically American: the worst of our hedonism, consumerism, materialism, grab-ism, worship of money. Magazines like Gourmet, with ads aimed at the very affluent, are more tasteful, perhaps, in their valorization of the display of wealth, but they nonetheless perpetuate the notion so dear to American hearts, namely, that it is the height of achievement to amass money, with the corollary that the wealthy deserve their wealth and should display it. Perhaps not as ostentatiously as Vegas displays it, but at least insofar as the knowing can notice, approve, and envy (Thus is snobbery added to the mix.)

Last year my niece was selling magazines for some fundraising project or other at her school, so I obligingly looked at the list of magazine. You know how that goes: either there's not a magazine on the list that interests you, or the ones that do interest you are those you already subscribe to. So I thought, well, I'll try Gourmet again.

Actually, I don't think the magazine has quite as many ads as it used to, or perhaps it's my memory that's faulty. But there are still the ads for Rolex, high-priced art galleries, Infiniti, and spas, these last all too often those fold-out pamphlety ads. An ad that particularly scrapes against my husband's sensibilities is for a Toyota Solara. The ad shows a luxurious interior and exhorts the reader "DO UNTO YOU AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS DO UNTO YOU."

James mentioned this to me last night at dinner. "It's just ... it's just ..."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "It's so wrong."

But it so perfectly captures the "me, me, me" mentality. Whereas the original injunction, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," urges us to realize the common humanity between ourselves and others, the one in the ad focuses solely on the subjective self. The original invites us to ask ourselves how we would like to be treated and then advises us to behave toward others on that basis. It asks us to realize that others have a center of consciousness, that it's not all about me. It implies that we should embody kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, for these are the traits we would like others to show toward us.

The Toyata ad, however, eliminates any thought of the other from the equation, except insofar as those "others" might be in a position to give me something material. It dispenses with those complicated intangibles altogether and places "do unto you" squarely in the realm of the material. There is no suggestion either that I might affect another's life, only that "others" may affect me. My doing something unto others disappears entirely, because "I" am not interested in others, only in myself.

This sort of narcissism is not unusual in an ad, and indeed, most, if not all, ads are predicated upon self-centeredness. The viewer is told that s/he needs something, that something will make him or her more attractive or desirable, or that s/he deserves something special. But the Toyota ad, and many others similar in their unstated message, also plays upon snob appeal and the idea that the affluent indeed should be rewarded for their accomplishment. The message is conveyed by the careful arrangement of the visual elements as much as anything, with the focus on luxury, sensuously curved surfaces, high-tech dashboard, and, at the bottom of the ad, two gorgeous young women (of course! because they're part of the spoils, too!).

It's the twisting of the Golden Rule into something opposite in intent that I think my spouse found so disturbing. And I think he found it disturbing precisely because, as put forth in this ad, the selfishness is made to seem not only acceptable but laudable.

And in our society, selfishness is considered laudable. How else explain the near-worship of figures like Donald Trump, or the willingness of working-class people to vote for those who clearly have at heart only the interests of their partners in corporate crime?

But it's not just the ads in Gourmet that produce in me a kind of queasy discomfort. In this country, 11% of families worry about having enough to eat. Eleven per cent! These are people who need the staples of life in sufficient quantities that they don't have to miss a meal. In addition to concerns about hunger, questions about the energy costs of transporting food over thousands of miles so that we can eat them out of season should be of some interest to us. Yet thumbing through the latest issue of Gourmet I come upon an article about "new wave French" cooking that extols the delights of such things as diablotin de boeuf au parfum de banane, "a rolled slice of rare beef filet filled with corn kernels, chopped cucumber, fine rounds of banana flower, tamarind seeds, and cardamom and garnished with a tiny breaded beignet of garlic and a small ball of mushroom ice cream." The article also gushes about this chef's "imaginary oyster," a composition of "a borage leaf, a rectangle of sweet butter on a lozenge of toast, and a shot of warm, slightly briny raw milk."

Okay, it was ever thus, I know: think of the Roman emperors eating flamingo tongues. Nor am I saying we shouldn't have magazines that showcase this sort of cooking. What I am saying is that perhaps we need to maintain our awareness of the disparities between, say, those who dine on new wave French cooking and those who can't rustle up even a dinner of potato soup on some night of the week. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if getting those banana flowers to the chef's kitchen is really necessary, in light of the limited nature of our resources.

And maybe we ought to toss out that Toyota ad and think about the implications of the original "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Perhaps, if we were very hungry, we might hope that there was somebody out there capable of imagining not just faux oysters, but of imagining what it would be to feel such hunger--and to act on the viscerally understood reality brought to our attention by such identification with "others."

I'm Baaaaack!

I see it's been an entire month since I posted at all, and even longer since I've posted anything of substance. Sigh.

I came down with a bad case of the blues before Christmas, the kind of blues that just kind of paralyzes a person, sapping all energy and motivation. By the time I got my act together for the holiday, I was waaay behind on everything and had to devote all my time to Christmas: cooking, cleaning, making gifts, wrapping ... didn't even have time to send out Christmas cards this year. And so it goes.

But I'm determined to stay with the blog, so here I am. In the spring when my account with Blogger is up for renewal, I'm thinking of changing to a different service, one that makes comments easier and offers other advantages. We'll see. I'm also thinking of merging my other blog, Feast or Famine?, with this one. It's been over two months since I've written anything there, and I think it would just be easier to address all my concerns on a single blog.

Okay, I'll stop thinking out loud now and get on to my first real post in many weeks. I hope you missed me!

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