Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ramblings on Food Culture

As long as I remember "Old New York" has been trendy. People miss the grime, the ethnic neighborhoods, the old architecture, the cutting-edge culture... all things that have been worn away by gentrification, corporatism and post-modernism. I'm no exception, but I'm starting to wonder if this nostalgia can't be equally destructive. For example,
the New York Times has this article about a "beefsteak revival". Things like this, like "newfangled speakeasies and revived stickball leagues" are mired in irony. It's not a revival, it's a theme party, and it doesn't sound hip, it sounds ridiculous, even sad (as when one participant bemoans the modern world's lack of "camaraderie"). They may want to revive the feeling of old New York, but there's no way to do that- no matter how hard they try they're still post-modern ironic hipsters, trying to keep ahead of the trends.
If we want to revive the spirit of old New York, copying the trappings of the past isn't going to help. Traditions like beefsteak are probably better left dead rather than trivialized, unless they are enjoyed for their own sake rather than because it's "like the real New York, man". If you want to combat alienation and commercialization, you should aim at the roots of those problems, whatever you think those are. Ironically I think Taipei does slightly better than New York. Even though tangible history is usually either neglected or disneyfied here, and the economy has a whole is extremely corporate, corporate commercial culture hasn't spread as much as in the US. For example, even though chain convenience stores are a big thing, there's also a huge and vibrant range of street food, just as there always has been. There are a few old Taiwan themed restaurants, but they are mainly aimed at tourists. Wealthy people go to hip places, but as far as I know no one eats at stalls outside temples just because it's "cool"- they eat there because it's good, cheap or convenient. It's also less alienating- I can get to know the local vendors, who run their own stands. It's no accident that Taipei has preserved this culture, while it's much rarer in New York: there are laws and regulations in New York that make it difficult to have a wide variety of small eateries, and even though supporters of these laws may think they're rational and necessary, the fact that Taipei doesn't seem to be worse off for not having those laws suggests that New York doesn't need them either. My guess is those laws rather reflect New York's own cultural and social priorities, or those of people with political power. If we want to revive the spirit of old New York, or make New York a less alienating place, we have to change our politics or even our society, not just reenact dead traditions.