A Culinary Golden Age—but for Whom?

In the 17th century, nostalgia was considered a disease. Today, nostalgia has shifted from an individual illness to a collective malaise. It is now often ...

In the 17th century, nostalgia was considered a disease.1 Today, nostalgia has shifted from an individual illness to a collective malaise. It is now often considered ethically suspect, something shameful, a pervasive form of “history without guilt.”2 This suspicion of nostalgia makes sense in a political landscape where the dominant rhetoric aspires to a return to greatness and includes fervent attempts to preserve Confederate memorials and Yelp reviews where plantation tours are dinged for talking too much about slavery.3 Yet even as nostalgia works most overtly on the political right, it also animates strains of discourse on the left. It’s visible, for instance, in Joe Biden’s calculated references to Obama, or in the invocation of the 1970s as a golden age of antiwar protests and voter registration drives.

Nostalgia also animates the contemporary food movement, an ostensibly liberal cause that often lauds concepts like the “family farm” and “locavorism” without interrogating the extent to which they rehearse nativist ideology and a romanticized pastoral lifestyle.4 Kevin Alexander’s recent Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End attempts to navigate these suspect versions of nostalgia. Yet for all that he celebrates the progressive development of contemporary food culture, Alexander’s book also serves as a eulogy for what he sees as “a—perhaps the—golden age of American dining.”

This golden era was somewhere between 2006 and today, as financial downturn, online food media, and the rise of the celebrity chef combined to restructure the American restaurant scene. Suddenly more chefs in more areas were experimenting with more ways—both new and old—of making and serving food. But according to Alexander, as greater capital has entered the former playgrounds of experiment and entrepreneurship, some of that initial energy has faded. A golden age is coming to an end.

Still, Burn the Ice closes with a sense of qualified optimism. In the inevitable waning of the economic boom years, Alexander predicts that weaker restaurants will shut their doors and many customers will lose interest. As the market becomes less saturated, “we’ll again see, as we did in 2008, … that in times of austerity, creativity reigns.”

This ending puts Burn the Ice in the slightly odd position of waxing poetic about economic downturn: The recession is coming! There’ll be new tasty lunch! But there’s also another problem: Alexander locates the collapse of dining’s golden age at precisely the moment that the industry is beginning to reckon with its structures of gendered and raced inequity. Despite the pleasures and insights offered by Burn the Ice, the book’s ending raises questions about the politics of Alexander’s nostalgia.


On Writing and Restaurant Labor

By Patrick Abatiell

If the golden age is already ending, the first question is, naturally: When did it begin? Alexander suggests that 2006 marked the beginning of a sea change for eating out in the United States. This cultural shift was characterized by a wave of gastronomic experimentation, which saw cities like Portland, Oregon, and Nashville, Tennessee, establishing themselves as food capitals outside the traditional hubs of the Bay Area and New York.

After the 2008 financial crisis that decentralizing energy picked up, with the onset of what Alexander calls the “great food truck insurrection.” Short on capital and long on talent, a generation of professionally trained chefs “took to the streets,” creating an explosion of “intensely creative, singularly focused, cheap, delicious foods.” Following chefs like Gabriel Rucker, Mashama Bailey, and Roy Choi, Alexander pieces together a personality-driven portrait of the last twelve years.

Food truck culture—along with the concurrent rise of craft cocktails, food blogs, nose-to-tail cooking, and a more diverse range of available cuisines—makes up the stuff of Burn the Ice’s “veritable food Valhalla.” And to hear Alexander tell it, Valhalla it was. “God, it was glorious,” he writes. “At its peak, this movement—this social upheaval—was truly beautiful to behold, a serious step forward in connecting Americans with the food on their plates and educating them in what it would mean for their health and that of the planet too.” The last decade contains a “heroic, tragicomic, utopian story of American self-invention—the story of a culinary revolution” that has radically changed our collective relationship to eating.

But as this “golden age dims like the Edison bulbs in its signature restaurants, something new is appearing on the horizon.” For Alexander, the painful end is that the victors of the current culinary scene are no longer the most creative or the “true talents.” Instead, we’ve entered “the era of the operator,” a time when people with capital, social media prowess, and business savvy identify trends and swoop in to convert them into profit. Rising rents, cities saturated with restaurants, and back-of-the-house labor shortages mean that inefficiencies are being squeezed from the business. That might be seen as a victory “if you’re on your Ayn Rand ethical egoism capitalist grind,” laments Alexander, but it also means that the industry loses some of its romance.

The phrase “burn the ice” evokes this twinned sense of ending and beginning. In restaurants, the phrase refers to melting down the ice left in the machine at your station at the end of the night. In bars, “burning the ice” happens when someone drops glass in the ice-storage well and you have to burn off the ice to find it before moving on with your evening. The first of these, for Alexander, suggests a way to close, while the second suggests a restart. But as he draws a boundary of specialness around the last ten years, both of the title’s resonances veer into the territory of troubling nostalgia. Celebrating that decade as a “utopian story of American self-invention” reinforces both a misguided bootstrap mythology and the right’s rhetoric of return.

What does it mean to say a golden age has drawn to a close when, for the first time, over half the James Beard Award winners were women or people of color?

Read more generously, Burn the Ice could be seen as what critic Svetlana Boym identifies as “reflective”—as opposed to “restorative”—nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia yearns for straightforward return. Reflective nostalgia, by contrast, “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging.”5 Burn the Ice largely dwells in this space of detail and ambivalence, and it offers many pleasures.

There is, for example, the fantasy-book pleasure of a sweeping history told in character-based installments, a multistrand narrative that swaps dragons and elves for encounters with chefs and their neighborhoods. There’s the lyric-essay pleasure of fragmentation, the little frissons of disjuncture when hotel press releases or David Chang’s fig feelings are dropped in between sections. And perhaps most of all, there is the gossip-magazine satisfaction of the overheard and the rumored: tattoo backstories, offstage falling-outs, love affairs that blossom in the cramped space of profit margins and walk-in fridges.

Alexander is at his best when he leans into this kind of multigeneric experimentation, exemplified by the chapter on Guy Fieri written entirely in questions. “How do you really feel about Guy Fieri?” Alexander asks. “Do you have opinions on his flame shirts and American muscle cars and bleached hair stuck up in a sort of real-life Bart Simpson impression? Do you have strong feelings on goatees or Evel Knievel tattoos?” Further, “Would you care to posit a guess as to what so angers food elites about Fieri?” Might it have something to do with the fact that his supporters tend to “use their vacation money on Caribbean cruises” and favor calf tattoos? Might it be that anyone who “so willingly dyes their hair unnaturally” and “seems to be having fun in public too loudly (especially at that age) is part of the American experience they wish didn’t exist?” Alexander’s sudden shift into direct address is refreshing, a form of narration that leverages biographical details to launch a pointed critique of the class dynamics of food media.


Can a Recipe Save Your Life?

By Catherine Keyser

Elsewhere, though, the opportunity for critique falls through the cracks. While the body chapters tell a story of ambivalence—appropriation, gentrification, and addiction alongside manic creative energy and flourishing food scenes—the framing narrative does often slide into the dangerous, restorative form of nostalgia.

What exactly does it mean to say a golden age has drawn to a close when for the first time, well over half the James Beard Award winners were women or people of color?6 When Alexander cites “an obsession with paying homage” as the unifying thread of this culinary revolution, one wonders: Was the right homage being paid to the right people? The answer, it seems, is no. In fact, the contemporary food movement’s obsession with origin stories and traditional craft, Lauren Michele Jackson suggests, often stops short of acknowledging the time and labor of people of color, which historically laid the foundation for these reclaimed culinary practices.7

Alexander cites the renewed interest in “crafting something by hand” as another defining feature of the recent food revolution. Everything, he writes, “had to be hand-crafted. Hand-distilled spirits. Hand-butchered whole hogs. Hand-churned ice cream. Hand-pickled … pickles.” Hand-pickled things, to be clear, are delicious. There are good gastronomic reasons to celebrate this trend.

But the coolification of these practices is part of the nostalgic discourse of the “family farm” and local consumption mentioned earlier. The rhetorical myth of these small farms obscures the fact that most farm labor today is done by low-paid, itinerant migrant workers.8 And the vogue for the handcrafted recalls an era of arduous domestic labor, before frozen vegetables and canned soup freed up some time for other business, especially for women.

In writing fondly of a late-2000s dining scene that traded on selective homage to a romanticized past, Alexander’s book sits uncomfortably in a register of doubled nostalgia. Burn the Ice longs for traditional foodways, perhaps as to be expected. But it also longs for a time when celebrating the chefs and restaurants invoking those foodways felt uncomplicated.

What Alexander longs for, in the end, is a culinary culture that need not be moved by considerations of late capitalism and intersecting oppression. But for a new golden age of dining and food writing, considering those complications is exactly what we need. icon

  1. Derived from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), the term was first coined in Johannes Hofer’s 1688 medical dissertation. For Hofer and his contemporaries, nostalgia was an illness of afflicted imagination, a condition where all aspects of everyday life called up a longing for home. This affliction was dangerous—it was thought to result in high fevers and lung problems—but it was also curable. Patients might be healed with leeches, opium, purging of the stomach, or a return to the Alps.
  2. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory (Vintage, 1991), p. 688.
  3. See Michael Twitty, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” Afroculinaria, August 9, 2019.
  4. See Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (NYU Press, 2012).
  5. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001), p. xviii.
  6. See Helen Rosner, “The Oscars of the Food World Finally Give Women and Chefs of Color Their Due,” New Yorker, May 9, 2018.
  7. See Lauren Michele Jackson, “The White Lies of Craft Culture,” Eater, August 17, 2017.
  8. See Chad Lavin, Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 108.
Featured image: Group of People Gathering inside Bar (2017). Photograph by Marcus Herzberg / Pexels