Sometimes, a chocolate bar is just a chocolate bar

Hersheys label for anti-artisan chocolate bar

(Warning: The following rant has not been brought to you by sustainable, artisan chocolate or fair-trade coffee. In fact, it’s been sitting around on ye old to-do list for coming on three weeks now. I guess we can call it a well-aged rant.)

In short, can we please, please stop trying to find meaning in every bite of local, organic, feel-good morsel we eat? It may taste better, it may make you happier, and if you can afford it, eat it and enjoy it. But it’s not changing the world, folks. And at the end of the day, it’s usually not doing much more than keeping you fed and alive. Yes, food has a multitude of meanings. Yes, it brings people together, and so on and so forth. And yes, in our busy, urban lives, we are so easily disconnected from what’s going into our bodies. Yes, and yes, and yes.

But it’s just all becoming so very self-conscious and precious. As we scramble to better the world into sustainability, we’ve swung too far in the other direction. Take this video from Brooklyn chocolatiers Mast Brothers, last seen on the set of Little House on the Prairie. It’s cutesy and quaint, and yes, I’d probably enjoy their chocolate. But, do we really need chocolate with pedigree and the uniqueness of a snowflake?

From the video write-up on Vimeo:

Each bar is handmade with incredible reverence for the process and history of chocolate. They are bound in ornamental papers and golden foil like a collection of rare books. Each bar offers its own story of flavors, and no two are exactly alike.

And from the video itself:

I think that there’s definitely a lot more to us making chocolate and selling chocolate to our customers than just to make chocolate. The chocolate itself represents more than just a candy bar. It represents a new way of hand-crafting food… a new way—an old way—that’s now new again.

Shut Up, Foodies! was quick to point out that those “old ways” weren’t all that great to begin with: “What old days? Feudalism? When the lords in their mansions feasted on hand-crafted foods while poor folks ate crap? Those days are here, my friends!”

I can’t quite figure out what’s driving this obsession over artisanal, hand-crafted uniqueness, which is really nothing more than uber-elitism masquerading as a moral imperative. We have become so accustomed to the equation of local and handmade and thoughtful automatically being a plus on the moral scales, that we’ve stopped thinking about the implications of such eating. We are, in fact, as thoughtless about it as we previously were about corporate food.

Details has a great overview of artisanal America in its current issue, including some lighthearted poking at hipster artisans and their shared roots with fundamentalists, prisoners and the unabomber. Writer Adam Sachs argues that our need to increasingly define ourselves against the mass-produced is driving the “Oregon-ification” of the country (and I’d argue that the same applies to Canada, though to a lesser degree).

But what does it mean when the Olive Garden and Starbucks slap the artisanal label on their homogenized foodstuffs?…What happens when Costco starts selling artisanal cheese by the pallet…? What happens is we work harder to separate the organic heirloom wheat from the mass-produced chaff. What happens is we splinter and specialize, doubling our desire for the unique, the one-off, the authentically original.
Adam Sachs, “Artisanal America,” Details

But I don’t think that tells the full story. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I don’t think this was possible, at least not to this extent, in the quiet days before the internets. I love that we’ve re-discovered eating, that people are beginning to understand that the food system needs to change and that crap food is exactly that—crap. Local and sustainable are buzz words I can get behind, even if I’m not convinced that things are really changing much beyond the bubble of the enlightened. But I can’t buy into the idea that two guys in Brooklyn, with beards, aprons and $8 chocolate bars are going to change the world. And less so, I can’t buy into the feel goodism that comes hand-in-hand with that $8 chocolate bar.

Not to single out the Mast Brothers—I hear good things about their chocolate, and I consider it one of the many blessings of my life that I can afford to turn my nose down at a Nestle milk chocolate bar in favour of something a little more upscale and cocoa-infused (I’m talking to you, Lindt 99% Cacao). But some of the things we learned in school about progress in the world are a little bit true. Things get made in factories because more people can afford to buy them that way. That system has enabled many of us to live as well as we do. It’s also caused all sorts of problems—I’m not trying to be blind to all the garbage our leisurely lives have spewed out.

But, oh-so-precious-and-twee artisanal products are not the solution. Very few people can afford $8 chocolate bars. In fact, I would guess that more people think they can afford $8 chocolate bars than actually can. We should probably be doing something sensible with that money like saving for retirement. (There—did I just blame all our monetary problems on an overpriced chocolate bar? Yes, yes I did.)

Attaching a moral imperative to certain purchases, or pretending that such purchases are a return to superior “old days” is disingenuous. Back in those old days, at least the makers were a little more honest in reminding the little people of their place. Now, we pretend it’s all equal and accessible, when it’s not.

Or, take this example from the Eaton Centre in Toronto, which combines feel-good greening (the food courts will now be using proper plates and silverware to serve up that A&W greaseburger) with food playing at artiste. An article in the National Post quotes that “‘Food will no longer at the Eaton Centre be thought of as a convenience, food will be an experience,’ said Wayne Barwise, senior vice-president of development for Cadillac Fairview. ‘We like to think of food as fashion, food on stage, food as entertainment.'”

I’d like to think that there’s a middle ground somewhere. But food talk online seems to circle among a generally more privileged and educated group of people. I don’t see, for instance, food blogs about feeding a family on food stamps. It seems that when it comes to aspirational eating, the internet is less a democratizing force than one that convinces us that everyone is eating and behaving a certain way. Activities that were once clearly aspirational and clearly relegated to a certain economic class are now meant for all of us. With pat-on-the-back attached.

Blogger Claire Zulkey makes a similar argument over at The Awl, about our attitudes to junk food being based on who’s eating it and who made it. She writes, “…junk food? That’s when we get snobbish. High-class cupcakes, local pop, hamburgers made by top chefs, these are little indulgences for foodies. But gas-station treats, Coke and Big Macs are part of the nation’s nutrition problem.”

Food: Everything but fuel.

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