Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

20/20 hindsight on all things food

Appetites still crave the best commodity of all



When I think of Pique 20 years ago, I like to think of Bob and Kathy Barnett, novice idealistic publishers that they were, staying up all night to get the first issue onto the necessary SyQuest cartridge — a piece of hard-disk technology as big as a coffee table book that resembles something from a bad Star Trek set — to deliver it to the printer in Vancouver on time.

Bleary but still bushy-tailed, they worked on it through the dark of night into the wee hours of dawn on that auspicious Thursday morning, only to have some clueless driver crash a tree into the power lines, knocking out all the power to Function Junction. Now truly in the dark, Bob and Kathy moved everything, which in those days meant all three computers, to their little condo in Nita Lake Village, where they carried on, SyQuest and all.

The first paper came out a day late, on Saturday, Nov. 26, rather than on the Friday, as was intended back then, and more than a dollar short. But nobody ever cared, missed first deadline or not, since such a great publication resulted.

A food column was part of it all on Day One, written by the Bobster himself. Running under the header "Opening up: Table hopping for pain and pleasure," it featured a giant photo of a bottle of wine and two empty glasses.

It was a no-brainer to cover food and drink, Bob says when I dial him up. There were so many people working in the food and beverage sector it was a huge part of Whistler's economy. Besides, nobody else in the local media scene was covering it then.

At one point — Bob and I can't remember when, fumbling about in the soggy mists of history as we all do when there's no digital memory assist (Pique wasn't posted on line until 2001) — the food column standing header changed to "Get Stuffed," which always made me laugh.

Twenty years on, the importance of "food and drink," if I can self-reference, has only grown in economic terms on the local scene.

But what really fascinates me is the attention a certain aspect of food and drink has commanded over the same time frame in what I call privileged cultures. These can be defined geographically, as in North America and Europe, but it's actually more accurate to see it in terms of classism and a certain homogeneity, namely privileged upper classes anywhere, whether Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Bamako or Burnaby.

While we humans have always been fascinated by the exotic, the expensive, and what passes for the erudite in what we consume, we have become crazily so over the last 20 years.

Yes, exclusive, privileged food-ish things were fascinating during the great Persian and Arab empires when European travellers to the Middle East couldn't get over the quality white bread the upper classes enjoyed. Yes, in Elizabethan times people killed, sometimes literally, for a pound of pepper or cloves or some such exotic spice costing in the neighbourhood of several hundred dollars by today's standards.

But what I'm thinking of now is the kind of gilt- and guilt-laden oligarchy-inspired food fetishes Paul Mathews and Roger McCarthy told us about after touring Russia in advance of the Winter Games at Whistler. A seafood resto with a glass floor where the fish you choose for your dinner swim under your feet?!

To be fair, what's exclusive, expensive and exotic is often delicious, too. And some times not even expensive, really. But the hooking of food and drink merit onto monetary value and social exclusivity is now more pointed and barbed than ever. As in, I can afford this $200 bottle of truffle oil, and you can't.

But here's the catch — it's also come in our consumptive world to mean this truffle oil cost a lot so it must taste unbelievably good. Which it may or may not. The subtext, old as the emperor's new clothes, is that, expensive or not, if it's exclusive and you're not in on the game — what, you didn't know the best sushi in town is at Sushi Bar X?! — you're a pariah, an ignoramus, a social loser.

A decade before Pique rolled out, Ann Barr and Paul Levy put foodism on the cultural map with their 1984 The Official Foodie Handbook. They didn't start the phenomenon; they were simply describing it in the 1980s disco glitterball world of New York City.

"Be Modern — Worship Food" is the cheeky subtitle with a photo on the cover of a mini Greek temple made from food, complete with pillars of asparagus and a corona of kiwi slices. (No, the image isn't Photoshopped — remember, this was the days of SyQuest or, worse.)

It took awhile for foodism to hit the West Coast, but hit us it did like a Pineapple Express. It stuck like a bamboo skewer.

I started writing about food about the time Pique was born, but for another publication. I swung onto the Pique food wagon maybe 15 years ago.

By then we, and by that I mean the broader collective of we, were already building on our food-obsessed culture, adding "health" elements like a preoccupation with fat — which fats were good for us? Which ones were bad? And organic foods — were they really better for us? Would we be eating more organics in the future? (We are.) And on we went.

If you know me, you know I'm no foodie and never will be. For that reason, and more, it never struck me I'd be writing a food column all these years after pitching Bob, and he said yes. Not because I was some great food columnist. As I recall it was more like a tree hitting a power line. Their food writer had just quit.

What's kept me going— mercifully the drink side got spilled over to someone much more capable than I, Anthony Gismondi — is this: Food is a keystone in culture. And it's the perfect trope to talk about all kinds of things as embedded in culture as food itself: Politics. Science. Art. Philosophy. Economics. You name it, there's a food angle there somewhere.

So here's to 20 years of food and 20 years of Pique-ishness for giving us all a forum to meet up in when we want to really go nuts and share in that rarest and most valuable of all commodities — good ideas.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who never takes her food or writing too seriously.

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