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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Food culture as Religion

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Aug 29, 2012
By Thom Nickels

The exploding foodie culture is everywhere; it is a world where dining out has become a daily ritual-- almost a religion, in fact-- especially at those restaurants and cafes that extend out onto city sidewalks with tables and chairs that often make walking in Center City difficult. And it is not only in Center City. Even the most obscure and unpretentious restaurant with nothing but dumpsters on all sides, will arrange a pop-up sidewalk café.

But the viral sidewalk spread of tables and chairs and attending wait staff darting between pedestrians is the new urban traffic jam. Philadelphia sidewalks tend to be narrow, meaning that more often than not it is difficult for two people to pass one another without bumping elbows, but add a plethora of sidewalk cafes to the mix, and you have uncomfortable congestion.

In Europe, of course, the wide avenues, trees and old buildings seem an appropriate setting for these outdoor cafes, but at 13th and Samson or in most city streets where trucks and traffic stall or spew their pollution into the faces of passersby and foodies alike, the scene is far from ideal.

Occasional sidewalk cafes are wonderful, but does every block have to contain several? Should walking through the city always be like walking through a crowded reception area, squeezing past wait staff, saying "Excuse me" over and over, bumping tables with shopping bags or satchels, or waiting on the sidewalk while some maitre de seats a party of ten, including one of the guest’s German Shepard and his special restaurant bowl?

It used to be that sidewalk cafés were only in special areas. Near a public square for instance, like Rittenhouse, or on a very wide street where there is lots of leg and vehicle room. Not anymore. Today they are more likely to be in highly inappropriate places like next to a firehouse or parallel to an alleyway with a dumpster. The foodie philosophy seems to suggest that a sidewalk café automatically ups the appeal of any new eatery, be it humble Jamaican sugar shack or a Stephen Starr show place.

We live in a food-obsessed age where going to brunch, lunch or dinner has become an important cultural ritual. In Center City on any given weekday night you see foodies gathered at outdoor tables eating specialty entrees on square plates, bottled water, a bottle of Jack Daniels or wine nearby. Dressing up for the occasion is important. The diners are almost all in their twenties or thirties. The restaurants I’m referring to are not cheap diners that used to dot the urban landscape, but expensive places often specializing in minimalist food and chic portions (you leave hungry) where the art of food presentation is almost more important as the taste of the food itself.

I love to go out to dinner as much as the next person, but the culture foodies seem to go to extremes. At Honey’s restaurant in Northern Liberties on any given Sunday afternoon, people line up like people do at Macy’s for a Black Friday shopping spree. The wait line to get into Honey’s extends on both sides of the street, and waiting patrons often lounge in the street level windows of Saint Agnes-St. John’s Nepomucene Roman Catholic church until their names are called. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that maybe these weekly brunchers are all children of parents who used to drag them to church on Sunday and so they grew up feeling that Sunday is special. When they left home (and lost their religion), brunch became a kind of marker for the Sunday is special tradition, a replacement for going to church.

A life of restaurant indulgence can be expensive, so of course my next question is: where do these foodies get their cash? I thought we were in an economic Depression. Well, you’d never know it passing the outdoor café tables in Center City and seeing what some of these foodies order. (A glass of wine = eight dollars).

I cannot believe that their parents send them food allowance checks so that they can be seen at all the right places. Or do they?

I tell you, watching the foodoholics cram, every nook and cranny of the city, and having to look at hundreds of people stuff their faces every time I walk through town has given me a new respect for food disorders like bulimia, anorexia and fasting, Karen Carpenter, where are you? When I lived in Center City the foodie element was much more contained; it was a time when writers and artists and students went to luncheonettes and diners, but not the slicked over $40 a plate Martini places they call diners today. They were real diners with real homespun waitresses who had personality, not the mostly zombie "I’m really a career actress or actor, NOT a waitress" attitude that’s all too common today.

So how do we fix this, and do we fix this? How do we get foodies interested in something else besides eating?

(Don’t say dogs, because they are already heavily into that).

Last week I lunched with a friend in a popular "foodie" restaurant near 8th and Walnut. The place was so avant garde they served coffee and tea in small cereal bowls. We were both disappointed. Later I found an online critique of the place from a serious foodie type. I present it here as an example of foodie-cult-talk:

"…An atmosphere constantly reminding you of LPQ’s environmental awareness (organic ingredients are proudly touted). Stylish, international and yet with an informal vibe that makes anyone feel welcome. We had an octogenarian and a 2-week old nearby, and it was wonderful. This place is definitely setting a new standard in Philly…"

When I read ‘octogenarian’ I nearly choked on my Wawa coffee.

Why can’t they just say ‘grandma?’