Someone had to say this. I’m glad it was Rohit Brijnath. From today’s Straits Times.
Once upon a lovely time, men were simple: We drank, burped, watched sports, picked noses, tossed back chips and thought John Coltrane was cool. We sank into our couches, yet travelled widely on the literary coat-tails of Hunter S. Thompson.
But men have evolved, if you can call it that, and it is all rather disturbing. The aftershave as a default gift has died quietly: Now one friend craves only a particular brand of hair-moisturising mousse and another vain fellow is partial to facials and scrubs. Who are these people?
Men are changing. The rugged hero of the Marlboro ad is long forgotten, and even Clint Eastwood doesn’t spit as much in his movies. Now men would tire Mrs Imelda Marcos while shoe shopping, inhale cigars with the authority of chaps who have just lunched with Mr Raul Castro, window shop for spectacle frames and shrink from any whiskey unless it is 18 years old.
Of course, when I blind-tested my friends once, at least one such connoisseur picked an Indian whiskey that could run a truck as tasting finer than a Lagavulin.
This world is hard enough to navigate for a man like me, who has more skin tags on his face than he has shoes. But it is the new foodies who are unbearable. The metrosexual can be handled, the ‘gastrosexual’ is intolerable.
These are men who gently marinate pig’s testicles, toss around words like “sauteing” and are found by women to be irresistible. Evidently the kitchen is the new bedroom. Chef Nigella Lawson once told a newspaper that “the notion of women eating makes men lascivious”, but sweaty men in aprons are evidently even saucier.
Making an omelette that didn’t explode was a triumph, but now a man must know his cinnamon from his cardamom and his Chinese from his chinois.
TV chefs, mostly male, are the new celebrities and Hell’s Kitchen is no longer a tough New York neighbourhood but a cooking show with a theme song.
In a way, it is rather beautiful. The kitchen has become an equaliser (hey, I wash the dishes) and salad tossing has its own masculinity. Even in The Godfather, a roadside execution is followed by the immortal words, “leave the gun, take the cannoli”. Only the deep-fried chauvinist will argue against this delectable division of labour.
But must I applaud the amateur male cook because he’s vaguely dextrous with a saucepan? And much worse, is it beholden on me to join this elevated middle class, of both sexes, who view chatter on recipes as high conversation and aim their camera-phones at their restaurant plates to preserve a culinary memory?
It is the fetishness of foodies, and their attendant superiority, which makes me want to broil them. It’s one thing when a friend buys meat for his steaks with the finicky care with which his wife chooses handbags; it’s quite another that when I want mine well done, I am labelled a “culinary caveman”.
Among these folks, a fellow’s sensitivity index is now determined by his palate. It scarcely matters what you think of Saudi Arabian women drivers, but can you taste that sprinkling of sesame? And if you don’t know the best neighbourhood shop to buy aubergines from, well then why are you on this planet exactly? There is almost a fake religiosity at work here sometimes, with its accompanying pressure to conform.
I like Luciano Pavarotti, Rafael Nadal and Akira Kurosawa; I just find Italian food uninspiring, can live a complete life without paella and am very happy for you to drape yourself in seaweed sheets. Food is a necessity for me, not a hedonistic pursuit.
Maybe the simple eater – daal, bhindi, naan, paneer and, yes, I could eat it for every meal – is becoming an endangered and disdained species. Being a basic hunter-gatherer – hunt down familiar restaurant, gather takeout curry – is to be boring. And worse, irrelevant, for constantly there is a sense of people around talking in a foreign language called Epicure.
Emu, said a male friend to me the other day.
Fine beast, I said.
It’s for dinner, you idiot, he replied.
I requested butter chicken instead, he – with great pain, one must admit he is a decent cook – countered by slandering me in his food column as a “loud, loutish, Punjabi intellectual”. Not a word of that is true. Alas, not even the last.
People have always enjoyed food, and as Oscar Wilde once wrote: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”
But it’s the pretentiousness that’s slightly overcooked on occasion.
At one level you have the courageous eater, whose machismo is inflated by his ability to digest teriyaki cockroaches. To not nibble, one presumes, is seen to be timid. At another level is the fellow who reads restaurant menus as if reciting Shakespeare, with its “sliver of celeriac”, “lightly kissed by a lemongrass sauce” and its “delicately balanced fusion of flavours”. This is a shrine to the supercilious.
And that’s even before it arrives on the table, where you need a microscope to find your food, which is arranged in a design that suggests the chef is a failed interior decorator. And yes, I look at the right side of the menu, for I was born in a nation where malnourishment still thrives.
No disrespect is intended to chefs – whose mushrooming headgear is evidently intended to make them seem even more stately – for they genuinely see food as an art form. But the act of eating, and what we digest, need not be everyone’s pursuit. How we indulge our various senses is a uniquely private pleasure. Taste can’t be dictated to, for that carries with it a certain conceit. To paraphrase the great Louis Armstrong: “You say parmesan, I say paneer.”
That said, emu-eater and associated gourmand friends are soon descending on Singapore for my birthday. E-mail messages have flown, dinners debated, instructions given. It may be my day, but butter chicken is uninvited. I might just sulk and sit in a corner and eat risotto and raita. Really, it isn’t as grotesque as it sounds.