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Dec 29, 2012 10:43 AM

The Guardian's great end-of-year rant against the gourmet junk food fad

Aptly listed among the Worst Ideas of 2012, the restaurant critic for the Guardian, Marina O'Loughlin, skewers the endless, boring, puerile chatter about pigging out on junk food

"It's not about food snobbery (try that on for size where I come from, and you'll be slapped across the chops with a smoked sausage supper), but I'm becoming literally and metaphorically fed up with the whole "gourmet" fast food movement. Even the drooling terminology is suspect: "dirty", "filth", "food porn", "evil", "sick". Like this is a good thing?

It's not hard to figure out the popularity: ramming a grease-oozing, cheese-dripping, squidgy meatgasm into your face is the gastronomical equivalent of a one-night stand – not at all good for you and makes you feel grubby afterwards but, boy, it works at the time. And these sleazebags are coming tarted up in the Victoria's Secret lingerie of organic, or artisan, or rare breed, fooling us into thinking they're a whole lot classier than they actually are....

Gourmet junk food is easy to blog about. You can have the palate of a navvy and still be able to tell a good burger from a bad one... The whole movement has somehow become shorthand for cool; why, I don't know. It's not as if we're eating like style mavens; we're eating like children."

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  1. Mercifully, this new "craze" in the UK seems to be restricted to London. At least for the moment, the rest of us can carry on eating good food, leaving the junk food as, erm, junk.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      In Italy, it seems to be mainly confined to Rome. Adds another layer of meaning to globaloney.

      1. re: Harters

        I live in London and really like this trend. It means that when a friend and I want to grab some comfort food on an evening out we can do so easily and cheaply (for London) and it will be delicious, and won't involve going to a Wetherspoons pub.

        MOL may claim this isn't about food snobbery, but it totally is, and she's undermined any claim to this point by referring to 'where she comes from' i.e. making claim to her working-class roots which you have to do in as many sentences as possible if you write for the Guardian so she can't be accused of anything classist, even though she totally brought it in first.

        I like the Guardian. But really, this is excruciatingly typical.

      2. Wait a minute … on what planet is fried chicken "junk"?

        6 Replies
        1. re: Will Owen

          Yeah........or a burger...or fries. "Bar food", simple food, American food, is not automatically junk food. Food that tastes great, but that is not "health food" is not junk food either.

          1. re: sedimental

            I get really tired of pizza being held up as the ultimate junk food. People especially love to say this about pizza fo school lunches. Certainly there is bad pizza, but the concept of bread, tomatoes, cheese, and possibly meat and vegetables combined into one dish as not an unhealthy thing.

          2. re: Will Owen

            Fried chicken in Italy is junk food. You can only get it as junk food from fast food places that are not Italian.

            1. re: Will Owen

              on planets where the first place to fry chicken was the colonel

              1. re: Will Owen

                If it's American, it's by definition junk according to the trained seals of the British tastemaking establishment. It's kinda like pornography; what Brits look at is "erotica" but what Americans look at is "godawful porn."

                1. I think this should be taken with quite a large pinch of salt. The Guardian Website is full of the worst travel, fashion ides etc of 2012 right now. Also Marina has reviewed many ramen, burger and dog places and liked them. The gourmet burger thing hit London about 3 years ago and if u search the UK board it wasn't the lack of ramen that was an issue in London but the lack on decent tonkotsu that has now been addressed soles at. M O reviews below.

                  1. Actually, it *is* about food snobbery, isn't it? And anti-American food snobbery at that, if you get into the specifics. Even ramen came to them not direct from Japan but via generations of American college students who lived on the stuff. Or maybe I missed a rant about "gourmet" makeovers of fish and chips?

                    34 Replies
                    1. re: John Francis

                      Yes, of course, it's about snobbery. And, also in respect of my contribution, an anti-London feeling. And, as much as there is mercy that this new craze has not affected the rest of the country, so any "gourmet makeover" of fish and chips has also passed the rest of the country by. It remains solidly working class food that you go to the chippy to buy, usually eating it out of the paper it was wrapped up in.

                      1. re: Harters

                        There are high-end makeovers of fish and chips in towns in Cornwall ;)

                        1. re: limoen

                          and if you're really, really lucky, you find one that never changed...still hand-cut, hand-dipped pieces of very fresh fish, served alongside hand-cut chips.

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            Where, please? On our visit to London last summer, we could not elicit one rec for great fish and chips. Used to be so easy to find, now seems to have disappeared. Back in the 1960's, we lived in a village in East Anglia; there were three fish shops to choose from, all of them good. What happened?

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              Just ask a local.

                              I would always take the view that it is much more difficult to find good fish & chips in the south east, rather than the rest of the country. There's something of regional pride in saying that but it is, generally, a truism - there has not been a London winner of the national fish & chip shop awards since the very first one, some 25 years ago. Whereas, I can take you to four, or five, places within 15 minutes drive of where I live, that have appeared in the finals.

                              1. re: Harters

                                Best fish and chips I've ever had was in Leeds fairly near the university but blissfully out of the way of the god awful student junk food places.

                                1. re: UrsusArctos

                                  Presumably Brett's or Bryan's - which are, literally, just up the road from the uni.

                              2. re: pikawicca

                                For central London I really enjoy The Friar's Delight, though it's probably not the holy grail of fish and chips. I have recommended it to tourists though since it's accessible as well as good. The Fish Club in Clapham has been recommended. And there's always TimeOut London to provide a recommendation.

                                Edited to add Randall and Aubin in Soho if you want to eat it in a restaurant.

                                1. re: limoen

                                  The exception to my "down south" rule would be Masters Superfish. So good, it could be northern.

                              3. re: sunshine842

                                this one was in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere in the Peaks District. A lucky find.

                                In London, the Calthorpe Arms on Gray's Inn Road (not far from St Pancras station) served up a stellar hand-dipped cod and chips on a Friday night for something like a fiver...and lots of fresh, well-cared-for beers and ales on tap.


                          2. re: John Francis

                            No, I don't think it is "snobbery". I think it is a rejection of global corporate marketing strategies that promote industrialized food and how the blogosphere aids and abets it.

                            I also don't think it is "snobbery" to point out that American college students have some of the worst eating habits and worst palates on the planet. What you see in Rome is American and British under-30s not only looking for "best" burgers, but also anything that delivers high amounts of fat and high amounts of sugar. More than one of them is blogging about it maniacally (in the language of porn) as this being a "foodie quest", but it isn't. It's extended adolescence, palates that can't understand much beyond the immediate gratification of fat and sugar.

                            But like the article points out, you get a lot of hits and echoes if you keep tweeting "mmmm! Yummy! OMG! Pigalicious!!!"

                            Other people come to these cities looking for food guidance via their cellphone apps, and what they are guided to is those aspects of local food culture that most quickly satisfy the American "yum" idea of fat and sugar. Increasingly, they are also just guided to burgers and beer. No pretense it matters you are in a foreign space at all

                            1. re: barberinibee

                              "Global corporate marketing" evades the anti-American slant of the writer's examples and attitude. England's and Europe's love-hate relationship with American products and culture is an old, familiar story - they love what we produce and buy it in quantity, but hate that it's we who produce it. Why? Because they consider their tastes better than ours - which is what snobbery means, pretensions to superior taste.

                              And if we're talking non-gourmet junk food, Americans abroad are not numerous or influential enough to support McDonald's global reach to London and Paris and everywhere. Nor are Londoners and Parisians so passive and blank that they can be hypnotized by "global marketing" into buying Big Macs and Coke. They like the stuff.

                              As for ramen, which doesn't "deliver high amounts of fat and high amounts of sugar," I'm not aware of a global marketing strategy to foist it on the U.K., nor is its popularity among American college students reason to condemn it, whatever you may think of the kids' palates.

                              1. re: John Francis

                                John Francis is absolutely right. Young Britons have very much adopted the high fat, high sugar foods that are perceived to be American - and, usually, perceived as American fast food. They have taken too it with more enthusiasm than in other European countries. It is why our young people are now the fattest in Europe and that we have rapidly growing problems of diabetes. There have been remarkable changes in the last 30 years. It has been an extremely successful, and profitable, marketing campaign by American companies.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  I think John Francis is denying there is marketing campaign by American companies.

                                  I agree with you that there is and that it is winning, to the detriment of the health of young people. I don't think it is "snobbery" to point that out.

                                2. re: John Francis

                                  I just don't have a problem with anti-American food attitudes. I don't consider it snobbery. I consider it good taste! It's not just American fast food that lacks flavor. The fundamental ingredients found in supermarkets lack flavor as well. There are real problems in farm and distribution methods that diminish natural flavor.

                                  Marketing works. People can be persuaded to override their genuine reactions and buy fashion or fad. What people "like" can be manipulated and is.

                                  The insta-ramen I've tasted has sugar. Is "gourmet" ramen different?

                                  I think it is healthy that Americans and the British have begun seeking natural flavor to their food. That's really a lot different than pandering to the childish habits of seeking out comfort-junk food and pretending it is food savvy because it is hand-made by self-promoters.

                                  1. re: barberinibee

                                    Insta-ramen also has huge amounts of salt (often a full day's worth) and surprisingly high amounts of fat thanks to the noodles being deep fried into their block shape.

                                    I don't think it's just the sugar and fat that defines junk food and makes it so addictive, it's the salt as well.

                                    1. re: barberinibee

                                      "I just don't have a problem with anti-American food attitudes. I don't consider it snobbery. I consider it good taste!"

                                      Wow. Just. Wow.

                                      1. re: barberinibee

                                        The kind of "ramen" you're talking about (the pre-packaged, salt-soaked kind American college students eat) has as much in common with real Japanese ramen as South Korean pizza topped with sweet potato has with a New York slice. I liked the article, and largely agree; ramen is a Japanese working man's quick lunch, sure, but there's nothing "fast" about cooking that broth! (Then again, she did write this:

                                        It's weird and unsettling, as an American, to see domestic trends ripple so suddenly in other major cities throughout the world. I say this as an American who loves food culture, who knows there once was (and remains, in some corners) a lot more to our food than jut burgers, and doesn't want the food of Italy to be pillaged by our corporate deities.

                                        Marketing or not, there's only one to stop the onslaught of McD's and the Colonel. Sorry, but you've got to choose Britain over our easy crap.

                                        1. re: NewYorkNewHaven

                                          I've been visiting America on holiday, since 1980 (about once every five years - it's a very expensive trip). I've eaten some really poor food - two of the worst meals of my life have been in the States. But, the last couple of trips, we've eaten well. It's the internet that's changed things - allowing easy research that enables the tourist to discover the "great little place where all the locals go", rather than be eating in the places mentioned on the Days Inn website.

                                          Last trip, earlier in the year, was to New England. We managed to eat three meals a day, for three weeks, without paying a single dollar to The Man. Not a chain burger, not a Subway sandwich, not a Denny's dinner. Now, I'm actually not totally averse to a Wendy's burger now and again - and I quite like a Denny's meal (can't abide Subway - even the smell turns my stomach). But most visiting Britons are not foodies, like we are. Nor are they generally travelling to parts of the States that we visit - they're going to Florida and enjoying cheap, all-you-eat buffets and cheap Big Macs. Of course, unsophisticated tourism, in food terms, works both ways. You only have to look at Chowhound's UK/Ireland board to see that the vast majority of American tourists are only visiting London and, even then, only wanting to eat at very limited number of places (or styles of food). They never see the rest of the country; never see the restaurants that we go to on a regular basis; never see our local cuisine. It is as if I said I had been to Washington DC and, therefore, knew all about America and American food.

                                      2. re: John Francis

                                        absolutely -- a McDonald's coming to a town in France is suitable for a write-up in the local paper -- and the lines are out the front door (even in long-established locations)

                                        And you won't hear a single word of English in most of them.

                                        France is McDonald's largest territory outside the US...and it's not because of tourists -- far larger than Quick, the homegrown crudfest.

                                          1. re: barberinibee

                                            I really couldn't care less. That's a door I only darken when there's no other viable alternative. (a former colleague made the remark that McDonald's is like death - everyone ends up there eventually)

                                            But the popularity in France is certainly not being supported by tourists or Anglophone uni students.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              I don't go to MacDonalds -- and it will stay that way until I die!

                                              I agree with you that junk food is popular all over the world. That was one of the reasons I re-posted this article. In relating my observations about Rome (which is almost the only place in Italy you see young people eating American-inspired junk food), I was only talking about what I had seen personally there, and making a point about how youth-oriented social media is just an echo of the global corporate food biz.

                                              1. re: barberinibee

                                                (I responded to John Francis' similar comment)

                                              2. re: sunshine842

                                                Something I have always found fascinating about McDonald's is that strong desire for it can be completely separate from eating it in the US.

                                                Israel has a few kosher McDonald's that attain a certain 'high' level of kashrut. And there are observant Jews I know (American and non-American) that have never eaten nonkosher food, and just look forward to eating at McDonald's as a culinary highlight of their trip to Israel. Israel has numerous kosher burger places - some that I'd consider far far better to McDonald's. And cheaper. Yet, the ability to eat at McDonald's clearly has a different appeal.

                                                1. re: cresyd

                                                  but I kind of look at that like collecting flat pennies or airline barf bags -- a quirky's more the novelty of saying you ate kosher McDonald's in Israel, or had a McBeer in Germany (back when that existed on the menu), rather than the actual food.

                                                  But there are tourists, sadly, who will eat at McDonald's during an international trip just because it's a little bit of home (well, they think...the reality is often not very much like a US McDonald's).

                                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                                    I'd get that if it were a one-off, but these are individuals who visit Israel regularly (in some cases multiple times a year) - so whether or not that qualifies as novelty, I dunno. I'm basically talking about the "frequent tourist" who visit at least once a year, and has for years - and it's clearly not in the interest of finding a great kosher burger, just about McDonald's.

                                                    1. re: cresyd

                                                      but those are a pretty small sector of the population -- like the folks go who to Disney three times a year and have for 20 years running.

                                                      (and I'd probably file it more as the folks who just think it's great because it's something from home)

                                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                                        Oh, I wasn't making the comment to mention that these are the reason for the existence of these insitutions. There is clearly a greater Israeli public that wants their McDonald's as well. Not to mention that the Israel/America cultural overlap is its own complex beast.

                                                        My point was more about the ongoing appeal of McDonald's as its own thing. The tourists I'm talking about can't (religiously speaking) eat McDonald's "at home" - and while I get the relation to Disney, it defines going to McDonalds being an attraction on its own. Visiting Disney once just to do it makes sense, going 3 times a year means that on some level you really want to be going to that location.

                                                        1. re: cresyd

                                                          ah, sorry -- I missed the connection between the kosher McDo and not being able to eat there at home (my brain's apparently on vacation this week...hope it's somewhere warm and sunny.....) So I sort of "get" the motivation, even if I find it a little odd (and nobody asked my opinion anyway....)

                                                          Having lived in Florida and now near Disneyland Paris -- there is an enormous number of people who spend all their vacation time in the Disney parks, and the only time they go somewhere different is to visit a *different* Disney park, so it's really not location-motivated, other than for time/distance/cost issues. (I'm sure they don't understand my holidays at the beach, either....)

                                                  2. re: cresyd

                                                    In Bologna, Italy, I've noticed large numbers of Muslim au pairs and nannies meeting and eating at MacDonald's. I've never asked, but I assume it's because they don't eat pork and almost every other type of inexpensive food in Bologna has pork in it, even in the bread or sauce. MacDonalds is all beef.

                                                    My observation of tourists eating at MacDonald's elsewhere in Italy is that they crave burgers after a few days. Although people here think that tourism is not supporting non-Italian food enterprises in places like Rome or Florence, it is. I actually know an American who opened a burger shop in Florence because she knew it would be a hit with tourists. She finally sold it to Italians (after teaching them to make burgers.)

                                                    There are just MILLIONS of tourists coming into Italy these days, and some of them can't go a week without wanting a burger. Golden arches are the international symbol for "burger". (Bologna usually doesn't get those tourists, but it does have a college students, including American ones.)

                                        1. re: John Francis

                                          "The latest junk food trend to land is ramen. At last something lighter and healthier, huh? Not a chance. This is tonkotsu, the Japanese version of dirrrty, with extra pipettes of pig fat in case your bowl of squeezed pig writhing with Pot Noodlyness isn't lardy enough."

                                          But the author would have no problem dining on a plate of crispy pig ear or porchetta or any other upscale, artisinal, locavore, buzzword-laden slab of heirloom swine? But god forbid the poors have their own porky goodness. I'm no fan of gourmet burgers or cupcakes or tacos or what have you, but there's an underlying classist borderline xenophobic undercurrent in this piece that's particularly distasteful. Flush twice.

                                            1. re: barberinibee

                                              No more than suggesting fried noodles and pork is "lighter and healthier" or that the Japanese are "dirrrty" for eating it.

                                        2. Will Self weighed in today on the BBC with his own end-of-year rant about food obsessions in Britain.

                                          He is so fed up with foodies, he calls for the return of vomitorium


                                          10 Replies
                                          1. re: barberinibee

                                            even though he doesn't actually understand the term "vomitorium"

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              Self made it plain in the article that he was referring to the long-standing popular and mythical belief of what a vomitorium was. He is asking for the mythical vomitorium to be made metaphorically real.

                                            2. re: barberinibee

                                              Of course, Will Self's career is based on being contraversial and "having a point to make"

                                              1. re: Harters

                                                Yes. He is a polemicist, in a culture that prizes them.

                                              2. re: barberinibee

                                                He's basically criticised choice of different foods, in shops, in restaurants...while there are undoubtedly issues with the pervasiveness of foodie culture and also of overeating, the variety of foods on offer is not something I would wish to reverse...

                                                1. re: limoen

                                                  I've nothing against people enjoying a variety of foods, but I will point out that the elevation of "variety" as a great value for consumers is somewhat peculiar to Britain and to America and their supermarket cultures.

                                                  In Italy, having a lot of variety in one's eating is not a big deal. You will see that regional cooking sticks very much to limited menus. Most people eat the same food most of the time, and often reject variation. To a great extent, what variety there is comes from the change in season. Many, many foods are only available for brief periods of the year and people prefer not to eat imported foods because they don't taste as fresh and bright.

                                                  I've encountered British tourists who really deride Italian eating, saying they can't wait to get back to Britain and go to the supermarket and have all those choices. I'd rather eat the same intensely flavored food many days in a row than be able to get food from South America or India out of season, and there is something liberating about eating the same food several times a week, not trying to cook up a brand new recipe every night for a month.

                                                  1. re: barberinibee

                                                    But in Europe, over the course of a year, the average person eats an amazing variety of food. The fact that it's seasonal doesn't minimize the dizzying variety of food that's available throughout the year.

                                                    Do I buy plums in January in France? Of course not. The apples from a few weeks ago are in season right now -- as are clementines from Corsica -- and the plums will be heavenly come June or July -- when the apples and clementines are long gone. Every season brings its own basket of dozens of goodies...all we have to do is **choose** -- and I've seen first-hand the same emphasis on local and small produceers in England.

                                                    The sheer variety of what is fresh, local, and in-season is one of the things I love the most about living and eating in Europe.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      I'm sorry, but I live in Europe and that is really not true what you've posted. Might be true where you live in France, but you will not find "dizzying" variety in most of Italy, or Spain. Greece? Austria? Not hardly.

                                                      Moreover, the local eating habits aren't interested in it greatly, which is really my point.

                                                      {Edited: And we could also talk about France adopting an American-style supermarket culture, but we won't! I really haven't the time.)

                                                      1. re: barberinibee

                                                        Please see my post on the other thread.

                                                        1. re: barberinibee

                                                          I'm curious what part of Europe you live in? I have only visited Italy a few times, but have always been impressed with the variety of cured meats, cheeses, fresh vegetables, wine, puts American grocery stores to shame if you ask me. It led me to try to cure my own meats.