pointedview (pointedview) wrote,

A Foodie too Far

I don't inhabit this particular cul-de-sac of obsessiveness, but I will confess to living in at least the same neighborhood. My perfectionist streak gets a little out of hand sometimes, but I like to think I've mellowed in recent years.

Dinner at the Foodies’: Purslane and Anxiety

Dinner at the Foodies’: Purslane and Anxiety
The New York Times
June 6, 2007

RICHARD FAULK still recalls, with a twinge of shame, the day he and his girlfriend, Jeanine Villalobos, served store-bought tortillas to guests.

“We were mortified that we hadn’t made our own,” he said.

The two, who live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, make most of the elements of the meals they serve from scratch, and spend whole days going to farmers’ markets, cheese shops and specialty stores. They would no sooner dress a salad with a store-bought vinaigrette than serve a suspicious-smelling piece of fish.

“We’re a little self-conscious about being the foodie couple,” said Mr. Faulk, who teaches at Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. “But we don’t make everything. I haven’t started curing my own olives or making my own cheese.”

Dinner parties have been fraught with performance anxiety for as long as people have given them. Soufflés, cribbed from the pages of glossy food magazines, have been attempted and botched. Painstakingly wrought amuse-bouches have received lukewarm receptions.

But for some hosts in the age of the armchair Boulud, even a laid-back dinner with friends can be a challenge to their sense of self-worth. They may not care whether they wear Gap or couture. Their place in the Hamptons might be a share. But they would no sooner serve their guests grocery-case Drunken Goat cheese than a Vogue minion would wear an Ann Taylor dress to a party given by Anna Wintour.

Especially in New York, where there are fewer status indicators (like cars and landscaped lawns), adjectives like local, organic and free range are signifiers of taste. In some homes, primarily midcentury modernized homes in metropolitan areas with his and hers subscriptions to The Art of Eating and an embargo on iceberg lettuce, the pork, the mesclun, the salad dressing — they’re all under scrutiny.

“Entertaining and cooking have become an integral part of how certain people demonstrate their cultural cachet,” said Joshua Schreier, a history professor at Vassar College who lives in Harlem and says he is a victim, and a propagator, of culinary anxiety. “There is a specific cachet that only a fiddlehead fern can convey. Saying, ‘I got this olive oil from this specific region in Greece,’ is like talking about what kind of car you have. And people don’t want to be associated with the wrong kind of olive oil. It becomes less about having people over and more about showing off your foodie credentials.”

Colleen McKinney, a freelance food writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn, said: “Food is cocktail party conversation. You cook it and then you talk about it all night long.”

Ms. McKinney is generally confident in the kitchen, except when it comes to one particular couple. When they have her over, dinner might be asparagus three ways, fresh pasta with sausage they made themselves and rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream — homemade vanilla ice cream. When they go to her house for dinner, they take their own pickled ramps.

“It’s become very important to be all Alice Waters,” said Serena Bass, the Manhattan caterer. “Everyone wants to know where the poor pig you’re serving came from.”

Ms. Bass also pointed out that the new strain of entertaining anxiety extended well beyond food. “You can’t just serve purslane,” she said. “You have to serve purslane on Limoges you found in a Connecticut consignment shop with a fork that has a carved ivory handle you found in a flea market somewhere.”

Andy Birsh, owner of a letterpress print shop in Brooklyn, would rather make a mad, stressful dash to Brighton Beach for smoked sturgeon an hour before guests arrive for dinner than serve the kind he can buy from a market around the corner. And for him, serving a dish that is on the menu at several good restaurants in the city right now — a fava bean salad with shaved pecorino, for instance — would be like being caught reading “The Lovely Bones” right after Oprah Winfrey endorsed it.

“As soon as something becomes overpopularized, I don’t want to serve it anymore,” Mr. Birsh said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to identify something I made as being from a book or a restaurant. I don’t want anyone to be able to say, oh, I see where he got this idea to put microgreens on top of his fish fillets.”

As a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and restaurant critic for Gourmet in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mr. Birsh may have above-average pride when it comes to his cooking. But it is not out of the ordinary for hosts in this intensely food-cognizant dinner party circuit.

For them, home entertaining can become the white whale. It turns docile cooks into aggressive obsessives, the way an engagement can turn a well-meaning woman into bridezilla or how fatherhood can make a laid-back guy an apoplectic soccer dad.

“My ex got caught up in it,” said a Brooklyn woman who is going through a divorce and asked that her name not be used. “For a while, it was great. Until it wasn’t. We had a birthday party for our 1-year-old son and I ordered pizza. He spent another $1,000 on food. There were plates and plates of cheese and cured meats from this gourmet place. For a 1-year-old.”

Alan Palmer, co-owner of Blue Apron Foods, a specialty store in Park Slope, has seen the new strain of culinary anxiety in all forms. “Some people come in and ask for the most expensive cheese because they think it’s going to be the most impressive,” he said, recalling a time when Carr’s was the must-have brand of cracker.

“But a lot of people come in and ask for help because they’re afraid they’re going to make a mistake. They want raw-milk cheese because they heard it was better, or something local because that’s the new byword. I say: ‘Look, there really is no right or wrong here. People aren’t going to throw rocks at you if you serve the wrong cheese.’ ”

Wise counsel from a cheesemonger. But there is a flip side to this breed of home entertaining agita. Serve the right kind of cheese often enough, and you can end up holding the oven mitt for life. Professor Schreier, the self-proclaimed olive oil zealot, has found that certain friends of his, cowed by his Chez Panisse-style presentations, have given up trying to compete with him in the culinary arena altogether.

“People see the potential conflict and bow out,” he said. “If you’re the biggest foodie in the group, people will have you over and say, ‘So what should we get?’ We went to one couple’s home and they hadn’t even gone to the store yet.”

Tags: food
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