Friday, November 2, 2012

I Read Mitchell Davis' Dissertation...

...So sprinkle some confetti on me! Having written an unpublished dissertation, I know from experience that no one save for the author reads dissertations, even dissertation committee members, spouses, friends, and admirers. If you are thinking about gaining a PhD, be prepared for the fact that your dissertation chair will likely not think about your dissertation as an intellectual product, but only as a laundry list item that needs some stylistic critique and armchair quarterback-, backseat driver-type comments.

Yet after a brief email exchange, I was motivated to read Beard Foundation Executive Vice-President Mitchell Davis' doctoral dissertation in Food Studies.

His thesis goes like this: Food, like other cultural products, exists within a discourse that is both structured and structuring (Bourdieu). People are affected by food enough to write about it and food writing affects what chefs cook, and what diners believe about what they are eating.  Davis' paper provides a history of the food writing industry, especially New York food criticism, and in particular food writing at The New York Times.

Davis finished this monograph around 2008, and reading it in 2012 gives one the sensation of looking at the last fifty years of American food writing as a prelude to our current moment of a Food Network Society.  The dissertation creates a theoretical framework for what (I hope, at last) is the zenith of American food fetishization circa 2011-2012 (can it get any more crazy than it is?).  It is as if as Mitchell Davis created his theories, the gustatory landscape was self-propagating his conclusions an an exponential rate.  The unanswered question, of course, is, what was the revolution that could condense 50 years of food writing into a hyperfestishization of food in 2011-2012?  We have certainly been building up to it in the years after the downturn of 2008 (did the recession increase our awareness of what has value in the world (i.e. food?); are more smart people underemployed now and as a result turning to the previously "dirty" industry of food service?).  But if gastronomy writ large (and especially food writing) is some kind of complex system, the system has reached a threshold state and proliferated, pollinating and expanding exponentially.

Though Davis' restaurant review analysis is thorough and edifying, I would enjoy the opportunity to counter his thoughts (collected in the last twenty pages) on American cuisine.  This question is frequently brought up on his very fine podcast, Taste Matters: What is American food?  Though many would ascribe American food to our ideology, traditions, aesthetics, and general "American" disposition, I would argue that deep structures and regional tastes exist in and apart of our cultural production.  What I mean is that on some kind of biological level, our palate and other sensory organs differ in such a way that American tastes can be defined, even when accounting for regional differences.  The palate, like the psyche, is symptomatic of pathological behaviors of taste.  What could be the cause of this I don't know (the water?).  But I do know that specific attributes of American food demarcate it from other international foods in such a way as one could compare and contrast: the density/lightness; the colors; the blandness/piquancy; the flavor combinations; the degree of saltiness; the oiliness; the brightness; the char; the consistency/inconsistency of the flavor palette (do the flavors come through like notes or like a chord?).  This is a difficult question to attack, but I think Pandora has already done a pretty good job of it with regards to music -- why not food?


  1. Well done! Growing up we always thought the Brooklyn water was responsible for the superior taste of our local food. Do people from other cities have similar memories?

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