“No, I do not want a beer. I just got back home to San Francisco after a week in the South and the Midwest. I want a ridiculous, pretentious, overpriced cocktail with a lot of stupid crap in it.”
Yes. When it comes to food and booze, I am one of those pretentious hipster douchebags. I’m one of those people who creams in her jeans when she sees the word “local” on a menu. I’m one of those people who pisses themselves over artisanal everything: artisanal bread, artisanal donuts, artisanal ice cream, artisanal coffee, artisanal chopped liver. I’m one of those people who gets all excited about weird flavor combinations that seem like they were randomly grabbed out of a hat: donuts with chocolate and rosemary, ice cream with bourbon and corn flakes, salted lavender shortbread, gazpacho with strawberries, raspberry and red pepper sorbet. I’m one of those people who will happily pay twelve bucks for a cocktail if it’s made with basil and cardamom bitters and a single-barrel whiskey I’ve never heard of. I’m one of those people who will happily pay eight bucks for a chocolate bar if it has smoked salt and was produced by a worker-owned collective. I’m one of those people who will walk an extra ten blocks to Rainbow Grocery for coffee, because they have decaf French roast that’s fair trade. I’m one of those people who wants the bartender — excuse me, the mixologist — to invent a cocktail for me on the spot, based on my suggestions of base liquor and flavor profile. (Typically “bourbon” and “spicy.”) I’m one of those people who grills the waitstaff (politely, of course) on the exact provenance of the meat, and whether it was raised and killed in a manner that befits my ethical standards. I’m one of those people for whom “Portlandia” is a documentary.
And yes, I will grant you just about every criticism you care to make, trivial or serious, about this pretentious hipster douchebag culinary culture. Yes, it’s pretentious (obviously). Yes, it’s smug and full of itself. Yes, it’s relentlessly trend-hopping. Yes, it often takes itself way too seriously (although to be fair, most of the pretentious culinary hipsters I know have a pretty good sense of humor about the whole thing). Yes, it has more than a whiff of classism and snobbery about it. Yes, the hipsterization of food contributes to gentrification, and thus to pricing poor and working-class people out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years. (I once read a definition of a hipster that was so scarily accurate it made me cringe: “You complain about gentrification even though you’re one of the people responsible for it.”) Yes, in a blind taste-test, I probably couldn’t tell the difference.
I will grant you all of that, and more, with no argument. I will simply ask you to grant me this, or at least to consider it:
I spend a lot of time traveling around the country doing public speaking. When my hosts ask, “What kind of food do you like?”, I typically answer, “If there’s a local specialty, I’d like to try it. If there’s a great local barbecue joint, a local diner that’s been here for decades, something along those lines… I’d love to go there.”
And all too often, they look at me blankly, and take me to a chain restaurant.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for their hospitality, and the company is the main point anyway. And I don’t blame them for taking me to a chain. Because in much of the country, that’s all there is. In much of the country, there is no local diner anymore. In much of the country, when you go out to eat, your options are Chain Restaurant A, Chain Restaurant B, Chain Restaurant C, or Chain Restaurant D. In much of the country — especially (and tragically) in the South and the Midwest — local food culture is being crushed into the ground by the gargantuan Godzilla foot of corporate monoculture.
And in much of the country, when there is an alternative to corporate monoculture restaurants, it’s the pretentious hipster place.
These are the places that are supporting small local farmers. These are the places that are networking with other small businesses. These are the places that are reviving and perpetuating local specialties. These are the places that care about tradition, and ritual, and the ways that food connects us to our homes and our ancestors. These are the places where the waitstaff doesn’t turn over every three months; where the waitstaff sticks around long enough to get to know your name, and for you to get to know theirs. These are the places where the waitstaff are often the owners. These are the places that are building neighborhoods. These are the places run by people who give a damn about serving their customers a fresh, delicious, nutritious, high-quality product. These are the places run by people who think food should be prepared, and eaten, with love.
It’s funny. These used to be classic American values. Old-fashioned, conservative, Norman Rockwell values, even. I’m not sure when they turned into the hallmarks of pretentious urban hipster douchebaggery. Probably around the time that sucking the dick of multinational corporations became the hallmark of American patriotism.
And that’s exactly my point. Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” mutated into “abandoning everything that actually makes America special and kind of cool.” Somewhere along the way, “American patriotism” started to mean “handing everything over to our corporate overlords, so they can grind it into a mass of indistinguishable mincemeat and sell it back to us at three times the price.” And pretentious as it is, smug as it is, self-conscious as it is, artisanal locavore hipster food culture is pushing back against all that.
If the choice were between the artisanal hipster place serving locally sourced cheese plates with spelt bread and pepper jam, or the unpretentious family-owned diner that’s been serving the same pancakes and fried chicken for three generations… this would be a different conversation. But increasingly, that’s not the choice. Increasingly, the choice is between the artisanal hipster place, and Applebee’s. Bennigan’s. Boston Market. T.G.I. Friday’s. Increasingly, the choice is between homogenized, manufactured hominess… and the unique flavor of a place, self-conscious though it may be, that actually turns a location into a home.
I’m not going to pretend that eating lavender shortbread is a revolutionary act. I’m just saying: I’m happy that this choice exists. I’m happy there are people making this choice available. And I want to give them their props.
Preferably with a rosemary garnish.