Monday, December 05, 2005

More on Food and Fashion

Virginia Postrel, like the Manolo, knows about style. She's written a book called The Substance of Style and looks at aesthetics from an intellectual angle that appeals to the research analyst in me. Recently, on her blog, she defined fashion this way:
In TSOS, I define fashion as aesthetic changes purely for their own sake,
without underlying functional reasons. (You could broaden that definition to
change for change's sake.) Fashion in this sense isn't limited to personal

At first glance, "change for change's sake" could be applied to food trends, both the aesthetic (shoving all types of food, even salad, into the dreaded ring) and the culinary (pasta in the 80's, the ubiquity of, say, sundried tomatoes today). Sort of.

This definition of fashion might be too narrow for my taste. While no one will convince me that there's functional value in presenting food in a squishy cone shape, the very nature of food makes it difficult for me to separate function from the other qualities of food.

I'll use the 80's pasta phenomenon as an example. It absolutely had the elements of a trend, of faddish food - it was everywhere all at once, infiltrating California restaurants the way jelly bracelets overtook my elementary school. But was it purely function-free?

The answer to that question is yes, in that pasta does not necessarily improve upon other foods in terms of actual nourishment. But the answer is no if food is not a black and white subject, which I'd like to think it's not. First, there are the health benefits of pasta over other traditional restaurant foods. And, less tangibly, the benefits of taste. People liked the taste.

In this case, I suppose taste might be reasonably compared to people liking the look of, say, skinny pants one season. Or, as Postrel mentions, the sound of a certain baby name. Postrel explains that subcultures tend to unconsciously adopt certain new fashions, all at the same time. So it fits that the taste of pasta dishes would blossom, resulting in thousands of successful restaurants.

But my question is: isn't food different? Isn't taste - actual, literal taste that happens with the tongue - somehow less subjective than taste in clothing or baby names? Shouldn't culinary trends be somehow more connected to nourishment - to function?

And the answer is...I have no idea. Our likes and dislikes in terms of food are learned, which suggests that my revulsion at storebought mayonnaise is no more logical or objective than the way I cringe at acid-wash. At the same time, objections to food are so deep-seated that often they are difficult to change. Hearing a new baby name over and over again or seeing a new style on a thousand models help the brain become accustomed to something new without much conscious effort. But in this case, food is different. We must make the choice to try something new.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I'm not sure if I agree with Postrel's definition of fashion, at least when it comes to food. Then again, I'm not sure I entirely disagree either. I'm not sure where "function" begins and ends when it comes to food, and I'm not sure how changes in food trends are adopted. But it does give me a lot to think about.

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