‘Be bold’ taunted the sign in front of the Indian restaurant. Normally, a zingy curry sounds appetizing, but these words turned my stomach. Why should my food choices ‘be bold’? Does a hot, spicy lunch identify me in a way that a homemade sandwich wouldn’t? As John Lanchester argued in his November New Yorker essay on food culture, society obsessively imbues food with excessive moral and personal signification. The ad, urging me to eat audaciously was a symptom of this cultural phenomenon. But focusing on society’s desire to make gutsy food choices shields an uncomfortable truth: sometimes we need a boring meal.
The desire for a dull meal isn’t a new; non-taxing dishes have long played important social roles in various cultures. Religious fasting was an important rite in the middle ages, during which the devout would dramatically reduce their consumption to transcend material existence and commune with God. Still today, religious followers around the world eschew certain dishes and foods for simple ones that permit extended focus on spiritual work. Food’s enduring lesser rank can be seen in the intellectual culture that regards taste as an inferior to thought and sight. Consequently, a disinterest in cuisine has become a badge of moral fortitude amongst certain groups that proclaim to be content with a simple sandwich for lunch or to forget meals. Impartiality makes a subordinate meal in which eating an afterthought; it doesn’t make boring food.
Unlike these subordinate meals, boring food allows enjoyment without excess thought and contemplation over process and production. Nigel Slater describes this non-meticulous manner of consumption and production in his newest cookbook Eat: “We are not chasing perfection here. Just straightforward, delicious cooking. For the times we just want to eat” (xxii). If straightforward implies not challenging — as Slater suggests earlier — the boring meal is a combination of known and loved ingredients, prepared in known and loved ways with minimal adornment. It’s the kind of meal to eat on a weeknight when exhausted and in need of a calming, but not excessive, dish. The boring meal relies upon familiar techniques and ingredients to produce familiar taste and experience.
Whereas a boring meal coddles the taste buds with its pleasant flavour, a bad meal taunts them with disharmony. In his no-star review of Tavern on the Green, New York Times critic Pete Wells states: “[I hated] the greasy scattering of mushrooms and gummy, flavorless farro strozzapreti baked under a mound of ricotta that had no idea it was supposed to act like a sauce.” Whether it’s poor technique and texture — such as the mushrooms — or a clashing combination — as with ill-cooked pasta and clunky sauce — the bad dish intrigues for the wrong reasons. Such unappealing preparations may produce compelling reviews, but they don’t provide a satisfying dish. Boring meals and bad meals are distinct experiences: the bad one stands out for its astonishing disharmony whereas the boring one blends into the background, happily overlooked as quickly as it was consumed.
Contemporary foodie culture conveniently ignores the boring meal’s importance because it doesn’t correlate with the food-as-spectacle dialogue. The rise of Yelp, proliferation of food blogs and saturation of food porn on social media have selected for the memorable mirror, lauding it through ornate vocabulary and captivating visuals. With enough florid similes, a Yelp review transforms a workaday plate of nachos into a gastronomic experience. Gorgeous food photos focus on beautifully plated dishes or arrange regular meals in an artful situation to illustrate a reverence toward edible goods. Foodie social media elevates ordinary dishes by removing the boring meal from its quotidian surroundings and filters it through the lens of mindfulness, appreciation and conviviality.
Although food and foodie culture are popular talking points, the discussions emphasis dogma and enjoyment, suppressing a liberating conversation on random eats. To make food shareable, the dish must fit into a current food culture theme and the sharer must actively recognize the dish’s inclusion. This recognition precludes the exhibiting of boring food. Unlike the photographed or described meal, the boring one doesn’t ask for this level of reflection and action. Since social media has become a daily ritual, the pressure to continuously produce impactful “content” through routine meals diminishes the old cultural norm of ordinary meals. This metric-based approach extends into daily food rituals, creating a new hierarchy of meals where every bite must be ‘bold’ to prove that one has the cultural capital to stand out amongst a cacophony of voices.
It’s not only the ingredients that make a dish boring or compelling; the meal’s physical space conditions the eater’s interaction with the components on their plate, inspiring either reverence or apathy. Take the complimentary hotel breakfast buffet with tables filled with cold cereals, hardboiled eggs, bacon under a heating lamp, sugar-coated pastries, toast and teeny-tiny packets of Nutella, butter and jam. None of it is more exciting than what’s in your pantry at home. But it’s free and you’re on holiday. As research on habit formation suggests, this subtle mental shift changes the eater’s attitude toward the presented bounty, permitting otherwise taboo indulgence. If indulgence is the enjoyment of a luxury, the mental and physical space of the hotel breakfast buffet loosens the ordinary connotations of cold cereals and toast, imbuing these ordinary foodstuffs with the special atmosphere. At home, the same bowl of cold cereal or plate of toast and eggs may be consumed mindlessly as the mind loses itself in the familiar physical space of home and harried mental atmosphere of the everyday.
But why would one want to have a meal that can’t be remembered? What appeal would there be in having a meal that’s just okay? There isn’t any distinct reason to have this normal meal and there isn’t any clear-cut reason not to. Therein lies its appeal: the boring meal separates the eater from contemporary foodie dialogue. If the meal isn’t going to be shared on social media, isn’t going to be eaten at a hip restaurant or won’t be instagrammed and hash tagged, then the meal might as well not exist in the collective food-conscious discourse. This separation is more valuable than it might seem. In a culture that constantly promotes new vegetables as holy and healthy, it’s easy to get caught up in what one should be eating. But that spells a recipe for disaster. Although foodies might like to think otherwise, food doesn’t always need thought. Freeing oneself from this hyper-attention to self-nourishment can be freeing. Food can be food. Life can be life. Hype and trend can be beyond daily ritual.