One of the undoubted pleasures of living in the Bay Area is being able to enjoy the fruits of its pioneering food movement — whether it’s savoring the freshest, sweetest organically grown peach or dining at restaurants where sustainability and relationships with producers are taken seriously.
But there’s also a risk that such enthusiasm can turn into evangelism — that we can veer into being a little worthier than thou. A recent cartoon in the New Yorker summed it up nicely — in a depiction of the Bible’s story of the feeding of the 5,000, a recipient asks a helper, who is proferring a basket of loaves and fishes: “Did Jesus create these locally?”.
Author John Harris understands this fine line all too well. In the 1970s, Harris worked in the thick of Berkeley’s food revolution with jobs at the Cheese Board, Chez Panisse and The Swallow Café, among others. He went on to write two books about garlic and to co-produce a documentary film about the kosher delicatessen trade.
His new oeuvre, “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History”, takes a new direction again as he chooses to “celebrate and skewer” the new American food culture in the form of a selection of “gastronomically incorrect” cartoons.
Nobody is safe in “Foodoodles”, whether it’s the doyenne of California cuisine Alice Waters, the venerated food critic James Beard, coffee purveyor Alfred Peet or French cooking connoiseur Julia Child.
“Foodoodles play with and satirize our American obsession with food and the culinary arts,” says Harris, who describes his drawings as more complex than a doodle or cartoon. “They are closer in style to 19th century cartoons than contemporary ones. A typical Foodoodle has a caption, often either a pun or double entendre, and some of them have a French culinary theme, like Batterie de Cuisine or Sloop a l’Oignon.
Harris reserves a section of “Foodoodles” for eating disorders, a particular bug-bear of his, and he feels we take many of our food obsessions too far. “We are way over-diagnosed in this culture, from eating disorders and food allergies to psychological pathologies. And on top of all that is the increasing politicization of food today, which I think is a neurosis in its own right.
“We are being asked to save the food system and, indeed, the planet by ‘voting with our forks.’ I often do vote with my fork, of course, like a good Pollanista (Michael Pollan’s crowd), but I feel like I’m living — and eating — in a foodie looney bin. It’s all very Berzerkeley, God love us, but the truth is, I’d just like to sit down and eat a good meal sometimes without having to think so hard about it.”
Hopefully, the subjects of Harris’ cartoons will respond to the book with the same grace as chef and former restaurateur Joyce Goldstein, whose career was also forged in the early days of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Writing about “Foodoodles” she says: “I am still chuckling. L. John Harris pokes gentle fun at foodie cultists and the chef world, adding wit and levity to a field that has become increasingly self-important and trend-obsessed.”
Harris will be reading from Foodoodles at Mrs Dalloway’s bookstore at 2904 College Avenue, on Monday, November 22 at 6:30p.m. A portion of the proceeds of the sale of the book will benefit the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.