Is San Francisco Making You a Food Jerk?

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Food porn from the Edible Selby by Todd Selby, making the rest of us pie-makers look bad

Last summer, I went to a good friend’s baby shower and, keeping in line with my greatest fears at these sorts of events (where the hostess knows the hodgepodge of bodies in the room but no one knows each other), I was forced to make small talk with a new person. When you don’t know people, there are very few topics of universal conversation. One of them is food. Because I had brought a homemade peach pie, I found myself cornered into a nauseating dialogue about peaches. The fact that I made the dough and filling from scratch should have been enough. We should have been able to say “how nice” and move on. But I found myself having to discuss the attributes of varieties of stone fruit with this girl, who seemed like kind of a food jerk. You just haven’t lived until you’ve had this variety dripping out of your mouth and warmed by the heat of the sun straight off the tree. I don't know how anyone could just eat a regular peach. I was clearly not really living, but instead going to work everyday rather than hanging out in peach farms. I swallowed my pride at my beautiful rustic crust and also the dirty, secret truth that my peaches were domestic. Seriously, not only did I not pick them myself, I couldn’t afford to buy organic, and I would have died rather than tell this so-San Francisco of eaters, lest I be shunned and stoned to death by the rest of the taste-buds in the room.

Boring small talk about fruit at a party aside, I realized this whole SF foodie thing was getting out of control when I read an art interview where the artist was asked what he did besides make art. He responded that at the top of his list was “pruning his Meyer lemon tree.” Really? I know Meyers are supposed to be more “lemony,” but do you really need to name-drop your fruit tree? Have we gone so far in our obsession with food that we have replaced clothing labels with food varieties, to be bragged about in totally unrelated contexts? Isn’t boasting about your brand of fruit in an art interview the same as someone asking the question, “How do you get to work in the morning?” and me answering “I put on my Dior jeans one leg at a time before I get in the car.”?

It’s not that I don’t totally value organic/local food, but I don’t really have all the time, patience and money it requires to go farm-to-table constantly. I'm not going to three different stores to make dinner. The problem is, after looking at Bon Appetite, I am convinced that the only thing worth pairing my CSA chard with is a top quality piece of local organic fish that I end up spending more on than I did on my last pair of shoes. What's worse, our current climate of food obsession, intention and pairings makes me feel like I have to abide by Chez Panisse standards even when I am by myself, in case the food jerks ask me what I had for dinner or look at what I'm eating for leftovers the next day.

One of Pollan's many books: You better learn the rules.
One of Pollan's many books: You thought you knew how to eat, but you better learn the rules.

This problem is that people in SF have too much time and money on their hands, driving an elitist city of food jerks. They have replaced all other activities with eating and cooking. Originally, it began innocently enough -- Michael Pollan, and Alice Waters before him, called for a new way of thinking about what you eat. Around the recession, these books, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, started suggesting spending more time in the kitchen and it suddenly became a thing to do to cook food instead of spend money on things. People got romantic visions of raising chickens in their roof-top gardens, and through things like The Selby on the NY Times, it became hip. People started carrying their own gray salt around with them everywhere and discussing heirloom tomatoes in general conversations. How did this spiral into a brand-whoring, one-up-manship sport akin to keeping up with bands and buying the latest labels at the mall? Because the same people who used to go to underground rock shows or Neiman Marcus are now making their own pickles in their state-of-the-art kitchens and then gloating about it on Instagram.

Worse still, I don’t even notice how awful a food jerk San Franciscan I've become until I go visit my mom in her small town up in the gold country. I don’t realize how much money I really do allow myself to spend on food until she shows me all the frozen packaged dinner options she bought from Grocery Outlet and I suggest I take her out to dinner rather than eat them. It’s not her fault; she’s retired and living on a fixed income. I, on the other hand, just paid $16 for cherries to make a pie. I am the food jerk. I am the one talking about what I got in my CSA box to my friends on the phone. I am the one looking up recipes for fennel, while my mom is giving me concerned looks. San Francisco has made me an embarrassed food jerk who sniffs at the hunk of cheddar and hunk of Swiss they call a cheese plate at the coffee shop in my mom’s town. I practically laughed when the waitress handed me the plate -- I really expected at least a bleu veiny wedge I don’t even like on principle. Just like an SF food jerk. How was I supposed to take photos of that?