Isabelle de Solier (2013) Food and the Self: Consumption, Production and Material Culture. Bloomsbury, [London].
1A timely addition to theoretical debates over practices of defining the self in postindustrial modernity, Isabelle De Solier’s Food and the Self provides a comprehensive discussion of the production and consumption practices that shape what it means to be a foodie. The term foodie is used globally as an identifier, particularly among the middle and upper classes in westernized countries, to refer to someone who is interested in food beyond the normal quotidian practices of eating and cooking. Despite its widespread use as a colloquial and popular term, the related scholarly literature on material culture, consumption and production, and particularly from food studies has ignored the complexity of the term and its importance in modernity. De Solier’s major contribution in Food and the Self is the careful and expansive analysis of this term as it is used by some to describe others, but most importantly how those who identify themselves as foodies understand the term themselves.
2Originally defined in 1982 by British style magazine Harpers & Queen, the term foodie referred to a person who uses sophisticated culinary consumption as a means of social distinction (p. 7). De Solier expands this definition to include a variety of productive activities as they relate to food as central to the contemporary shaping of the foodie identity. Production in this sense means the “work like approach of professionals” to the amateur cooking, shopping, eating, education, and writing of foodies. Referring to this as a form of “productive leisure”, de Solier argues that although the production of material goods has lost its significance in work for much of the postindustrial world, the acts of production and of producing things retain importance, or perhaps are creating their place, as important aspects of our leisure time. Furthermore, it is the acts of consumption and production during leisure time, not during work, that play a role in formulating identity in a postindustrial society. Bringing Veblen’s original theory of leisure (1934) into the 21st century, de Solier demonstrates that the wealthy no longer participate in the leisure activities of “conspicuous consumption”, the public demonstration of wealth and status through the spending of money and purchasing of luxury goods. Instead those with the financial means to do so are defining themselves through processes of production in their free time whether it be do-it-yourself (DIY) craft projects, home renovations, or in this case, food writing, cooking etc. Furthermore, because of the nature of this “production”, consumption itself takes on a work like characteristic, as more care is spent educating oneself in culinary arts and ingredients, decision making in shopping, and deciding what restaurants to dine in. Therefore, the foodie today is someone whose leisure time is spent both consuming and producing food, not particularly or specifically in a conspicuous manner, but rather with the purpose of self-improvement or the creation of some sort of home-life identity.
3The author draws heavily on the theoretical contributions of anthropologist Daniel Miller, whose work on material culture in modern metropolitan settings has demonstrated that the neoliberal individual is not isolated, but rather forms new identities and relationships with other people and material objects through practices of consumption (See for example Miller 1987, 2001, 2008). De Solier builds on this approach in order to question many of the theoretical misconceptions and assumptions that affect contemporary understandings of foodies, which often depict them as frivolous, consumerist, gluttons. Instead the author argues that through a variety of modes of consumption and production including taste, education, shopping and cooking, foodies build relationships both on the local level and on the global level with people and things they have direct relationships with and people and things they can only know conceptually or through commodity chains. Furthermore, the author argues these relationships are guided by a particular morality of what it means to be a foodie. This concept is pursued in Chapter One, which explores relationships with material objects through the idea of “productive leisure”. The “productive leisure” inherent in being a foodie, takes on the moralities of work life including skills and values but it also is a response to the individualization caused by neoliberalism- it is a way to work on the self and create an identity through the use of material culture in a postindustrial world with few other opportunities to do so (p. 22).
4Based on fieldwork conducted in Melbourne, the culinary capital of Australia, between 2007 and 2009, de Solier gathers data from participant observation in homes, kitchens, at dining room tables, as well as restaurants and cafes. However, the bulk of data seems to come from interviews with twenty self-identified foodies. The author’s informants come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and the majority stem from the middle class who work in white-collar jobs. The resulting analysis, reflects some of the challenges of conducting research in modern metropolises, including the difficulties of gaining access, making appointments, and being with your informants at the right place and time; although quotes from the informants are interesting and detailed, they often reflect what the respondent says he or she does and de Solier does not, or perhaps cannot, corroborate with what he or she actually did. For example in Chapter Seven, de Solier argues that cooking is a creative form of production and uses informants’ descriptions of using molecular gastronomy, making “ingredients” from scratch, and reimagining recipes during cooking to support her claim. Yet there were no examples of what cooking amongst foodies actually looks like. What does this creative process entail? How is food actually produced? What are the creative and practical negotiations during cooking? And finally, what makes foodie cooking more or less creative then a non-foodie home chef who is experimenting with a new food processor or makes their own chorizo because they avoid packaged nitrates for health reasons? De Solier explains that it’s the education, the moral approach, and the intentionality leading to the creativity of the cooking that make the foodie’s production different than the average home chef. Yet without a clear picture of how this education, moral approach and intentionality are practiced in the kitchen, it sometimes seems more like the informants self-reflection than actual production through cooking. This leads to the questions around the private practices that shape foodie identity and behavior, and the limits to which interview data can properly represent the act of production. Despite this, due to the breadth of topics that de Solier covers, this methodological concern does not detract in a serious way from the book’s overall arguments.
5Central to de Solier’s argument is the notion that education is crucial to the development of a foodie identity. In Chapters Two and Six, the author focuses on material media, like printed materials (cookbooks, restaurant guides and reviews, food magazines), television (cooking channels, cooking shows, food films), and digital media (online recipe websites, food blogs, restaurant reviews) used as education materials in the creation of foodie knowledge. Chapter Two argues that while these forms of food media are often thought of as purely entertainment, in the context of individualized contemporary life, these resources stand in for family education and create trustworthy educators, or experts in the field, who are key to teaching the information. Chapter Six continues this discussion demonstrating that these experts and media materials do not simply teach consumption, as is commonly thought, but instead teach the morality of “productive leisure”, i.e. how to produce things, and it is through the consumption of these media, that the foodie emerges with practical knowledge and real skills.
6The book argues that morality plays a central role in how foodies define their taste in material objects and Chapters Three, Four and Five look closely at the morality of consumption practices. In Chapter Three the concept of an omnivore is used as a reference to broad and varied tastes in food, though not necessarily the act of consuming both meat and vegetables. De Solier demonstrates that although foodies use the concept as a moral explanation for the expansiveness of their taste, they readily consume expensive haute cuisine and middlebrow ethnic cuisine deemed as “authentic”, yet they turn away from industrial and processed foods found at fast food chains and supermarkets. This demonstrates a morality of openness in the idea of consumption, yet in practice contains another morality of good and bad and real and fake foods related directly to notion of class. Similarly, the author demonstrates that this duality of morality and class concerns applies to how foodies choose to read food texts and watch food television. Chapter Four explores dining out and the fears foodies have of being considered too consumer-centric. As a result, the foodie morality for dining out is to cook more than you eat in restaurants, and to limit eating in fancy or haute cuisine restaurants. Foodies in the study also limited the amount of eating in these types of restaurants in order to increase their enjoyment of the eating out experience, making it a carefully researched and unique experience. In Chapter Five morality is defined through the careful and deliberate shopping for “quality ingredients” in which the philosophies of the Slow Food Movement are put into practice. As foodies shop, they not only consider the freshness of the ingredients but also so their ethical background, yet the these choice foods are compared almost directly with industrially produced and packaged goods, again contextualized decision making within notions of class.
7Lastly, the book concentrates on foodie production. Chapter Seven focuses on, arguably, the most important characteristic of being a foodie, cooking. Cooking is a productive activity that brings together the consumption of knowledge, experience, and goods and puts them into practice. De Solier argues that the foodie’s moral approach to cooking is grounded in the belief that food should be produced from scratch as productive leisure. Therefore, it is not that foodies have to cook their own food, but rather, they cook because they want to do. Chapter Eight concentrates on another form of production, the amateur creation of material media like food blogs. Similar to its consumption, the production and sharing of knowledge through material media embodies another moral central to the self-formation of a foodie. The production of digital education materials that inform and impart knowledge to others allows foodies to become their own sort of expert in the food world, create more relationships, and subsequently complicate the roles of amateur and professional in the food world.
8Food and the Self provides an interesting and broad discussion of the complexities of consumption and production in the formation of identity in postindustrial modernity. It contributes to the scholarly conversation by focusing not only on a particular identity, the foodie, but also by problematizing the relationship between personal consumption and production and demonstrating how they constantly work in tandem influencing each other and formulating relationships between people both physically and virtually. The book’s heavy concentration on theory and each chapter’s long literature review will make this book difficult for undergraduates and perhaps foodies themselves to engage with. Nevertheless, this book should be of great interest to graduate students and advanced scholars of modernity, production and consumption, and food studies. The book’s focus on food and culture among middle and upper classes in metropolises is unique and an important contribution to the literature.