Chris Ware, Grim Gastronomic Griper

Michael Nagrant / 12.20.08

Chris Ware, Chicago’s comic laureate, does some culinary related hating in the Nov 24th food issue of New Yorker (you have to be a digital or print subscriber to see the actual panel). The panel depicts a fear and loathing organic macaroni and cheese cooking mother (potentially a descendant of Cathy Guisewite’s cartoon Cathy) who must entertain her architect husband’s clients while enduring post-modern style gastronomy dinners of “molecularly reduced cucumber foam”. Ware’s strip says, “I think aestheticizing the sense of taste is a classist, morally, indefensible notion, a function of privilege rather than of necessity, especially when it comes at such expense…”

I think like a lot of outsiders, and many knee jerk reacting insiders, Ware gets modern cooking wrong. While I don’t doubt there are some cooks with dubious “aestheticizing” goals, most of the cooks I know who work in this vein still very much hew to the idea of cooking as craft, and see what they are doing as an exploration of the boundaries of this craft. Likewise, the manipulations they make (i.e. creating textural contrasts, intensifying flavors, and yes, providing interesting visual and aural enhancements) are focused on truly improving your eating experience, i.e. making things taste better.

Yes, generally, to eat this way is expensive, but as with most worthy custom-made low economy of scale high cost endeavors, cooking this way, I think will eventually lead to well distributed lower cost advances in the way we eat. Homaro Cantu of Moto sees certain food technologies, like edible ink, eventually, as a means to deliver nutrition at low cost to starving folks in developing countries.

Ware’s comic strip ends with the mother eating ketchup-laden mac and cheese, something she scorned earlier in the strip, as a means of comfort. The suggestion here is that post-modern cooking can’t be emotionally impactful or comforting. I’ve written the anti-thesis to this idea here, so I won’t go in to that since you can read more if you’re interested.

You could say as a freelance food writer, I protest as an invested insider. But, even when I was an unemployed web designer and before I became a food writer, my wife and I set aside money and saved to dine at Alinea (it was huge stretch for us), precisely because we thought there was something more important going on. We made the investment to eat there because we believed there was something to learn from and also something to enrich our lives. It was not an opportunity to overindulge and cower at the whims of chef Grant Achatz, as Ware might paint it.

That being said, I’m pretty surprised by Ware’s (who I’m a big fan of) personal take (it could be the character’s take only, but I believe artists who claim their characterizations are total fiction are probably lying). I’d think he’d relate to the pursuit of furthering the boundaries of food through creativity and innovation. After all, isn’t that what he does with his comic strip style? It’s not like we’re reading Hagar the Horrible anymore. Ware has taken a vernacular form of entertainment, i.e. the comic, that was once available to every person within spitting distance of a Sunday Newspaper, and appropriated it, and transformed the form at the most exclusive level for his own moralizing and artistic investigation.

The counter-argument of course is that by using a comic, Ware is making seemingly ivory tower discourses on philosophy, politics, and cultural zeitgeist more accessible. But, c’mon, he writes comic strips for the New Yorker. You can’t even read the comic unless you subscribe or you have a computer and a digital registration. While I don’t know the specific demographics of the magazine, as an avid reader, I’m pretty sure his audience is mostly a bunch of overeducated white dudes and dudettes with good corporate jobs, urban hipsters, and people with too much time on their hands. What Ware does and who he does it for is the very function of privilege, especially when you consider that the New Yorker is a welfare organization for cultural writing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good work if you can get it, and I certainly would love to be doing food pieces for them, but everyone knows that the New Yorker supports endeavors (poetry, post-Spiegelman comic artistry) that the wider marketplace barely sustains, if at all.

That being said, even when Ware’s stuff was more accessible, or available for free, it was in places like the Chicago Reader or Newcity (which I write for), niche publications also catering to a certain audience and not quite widely distributed or widely read in certain parts of Chicago. To contest post-modern styles of cooking on the grounds that to cook in such a way is a classist, function of privilege seems a little self-hating.