Not WOWed By Imitation Butter

13 mins read

It’s certainly true that technology and food are irreparably bound up. If you want to be strict about it, the very thing we call agriculture—modern or ancient—constitutes a technological advancement over the prehistoric days of hunting and gathering. Of course, the idea of agriculture, or if you like, “the science, art or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products” (Webster’s, emphasis added), has been around for awhile. By now, building rudimentary irrigation systems, growing and harvesting crops, raising livestock, preserving and pickling things and even breeding plants and animals (providing there are no test tubes or lab coats involved) is pretty kosher—all you Paleo folks can stuff venison shanks in your ears if you don’t like it!

But what about the contemporary fast food industry and the food they produce? What about evolving food culture and social media? What about WOWButter? Are these things merely the latest iteration of the technologically-enhanced food we produce, cook and consume, or is there a tipping point at which technology eclipses food? I think so.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I—like any reasonable person—am wholly on board with taking measures to reduce the incidence of allergic reactions in people, even if that means removing peanut butter from any and all dining facilities on campus. Food related allergies, especially severe ones, are legitimate and serious disabilities, and we should all be willing to endure what amounts to the most minimal of inconveniences for the sake of the well-being of others. (Just go buy a jar of the most expensive, decadent, unctuous peanut butter you can find from the Co-op and keep it in your room for those really tough days).

But I see the solution of WOWButter as an endorsement of an increasingly ominous and malevolent trend: food is getting weird.

If you take the time to scrutinize WOWButter, you might notice a few interesting qualities. For one, the name itself is jarringly exclamatory and sounds a bit like something a late night infomercial might spawn. Secondly, and perhaps more curiously, it tastes very remarkably like peanut butter, except of course it isn’t at all. The fact that it has an incredibly similar consistency (though a little excessively creamy, it sticks pretty effectively to the roof of one’s mouth—check!) and color (a light, “nutty” brown) as peanut butter is pretty amazing, but rather disconcerting. Though I am fairly certain I could discern WOWButter’s whiff of overly smoky flavor (oh how that elusive “roasted” taste has continually beguiled flavor scientists!) amongst a line up of real peanut butters, I can’t shake how disingenuous the whole idea of WOWButter is.

And here lies the crux of my anxiety: I don’t like food to be an imitation or counterfeit because I think that alienates us from our roots and moves us further from a sense of what’s true and real. Sure, what we consider to be “real” is sort of a relative concept, but I’m a capital “T” Truth person who believes in the eternal nature of certain things—like food. As humans with a collective heritage in rearing plants and animals, we should only eat things that are truly, wholly and recognizably products of those things. There should be as minimal of a dilution, distortion or replication of flavors and textures as is possible lest we lose our sense of flavor, taste and even, I think, self.

Perhaps even more troubling is the correlation between the industrialization of food and its tendency to be aggressively—and insanely—marketed. The publishing house McSweeney’s puts out reviews of new foods (aptly titled, “Reviews of New Food”) on their website—told you food and technology were inseparable—which effectively hone in on the creeping sense of foreboding I’m getting at here. Also, these pieces are predictably hilarious and for that alone are worth reading. In Paul Handley’s review of “Envirokidz Peanut Butter Panda Puffs” (they’re a sort of poofy ball of homogenized and indecipherable starch), he concludes that the bizarre nature of the name, “Panda Puffs,” is like “Xmas… which is perfectly nondenominational and recyclable.”  In these products’ attempts to draw us in (KIDZ!), they betray their true essence—which is that of an extruded, mass-produced, sterile item. Or, as a friend put it, as “something which just shouldn’t exist.” The fact that there is even a concept of “new” food (like a new movie or roller coaster) clues one into the latent absurdity of it all.

I concede, though, that the trend itself isn’t new per se. We need only remember the Atomic Age with its fluorescent Jell-O and tickle-me-pink Spam if we wish to shudder over the industrialization of “real” food. As a case in point, Upton Sinclair’s ubiquitous exposé of the meat packing industry in The Jungle, shocked its readers over a century ago, when it was first published in 1906 by chronicling the bubbling vats, fetid flesh and unholy additives that came together to form something that was less meat than it was mutant.

But at the same time, I do think the engine of Big Food (a name, like Big Business or Big Agriculture, which connotes the conglomerate shadiness of the enterprises that churn out a lot of these products) has crossed a new paradigm as it colludes with the philosophy of our information-technology, social-media driven, super-ravenous culture to synergistic effect by producing something uniquely unsettling.

Just as the internet allows us to traverse the world and have access to the infinite knowledge of our entire civilization without going anywhere or authentically learning something, so too does the philosophy of New Food allow us to have any taste, at any time, in any combination with any ingredients—except, of course, the natural ones—all without tasting the real thing. Consider Pop-Tarts’ Frosted Confetti Cupcake, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new deep-fried soup, Doritos’ Jacked Enchilada Supreme, Pizza Hut’s Pepperoni P’zone Pizza, etc, etc. These food “products” are the equivalent of eating peanut butter without peanuts. They’re about as close to cupcakes, soup, enchiladas or calzones as having a friend on Facebook is to having a friend in the real, non-virtual realm. That is to say, they’re holograms. Fake foods.

I should, however, address the elephant in the room: aren’t some of these foods good, albeit in a Frankenstein’s monster sort of way? After all, these synthetic creations and additives weren’t painstakingly engineered, lab tested and steadily perfected for nothing—they do appeal to our underlying desire for certain flavors and textural sensations, however artificially. For the sake of journalistic honesty, I should tell you that Handley’s review, which I quoted for my own purposes earlier, ends thusly: “This shit is the good shit.”

Let’s also not forget that as the popularity of these sorts of foods increases, so too does their cultural staying power. What good suburban kid doesn’t relish the late night McDonald’s run complete with its drive-thru shenanigans? These things become ingrained and ritualized as much as Thanksgiving dinner.

What’s more, tween hooligans aren’t the only ones enamored with egregiously synthetic foodstuffs—lauded and insanely accomplished young chefs are too, but in a way that seeks to marry factory-to-table eating with Haute cuisine. Look no further than Dave Chang—one of the “real chef” celebrities of the moment—who is head of the Momofuku restaurant empire and has two Michelin stars to his name. Chang authored a recent piece in Wired magazine’s new “Food” issue entitled “On the Joy of Cooking with Science.” And he’s not alone in the pleasure he extracts from cooking with science, nor is he the first to wax poetic about implementing new technologies and chemicals into his food. Decades ago, Ferran Adrià and the Spaniards shocked the world with their provocative, mind-bending molecular gastronomy.

So where does this leave us? All things considered, it’s certainly time for people to completely acknowledge that we have entered an unparalleled epoch of singularity in which the line between food and technology is blurred, if not obliterated.

Here is the solution: redraw the line. Agriculture and cooking, as much as anything else, are dependent on innovation and should not be made stagnant by antiquated conceptions of what is and isn’t food. As the globe seems to shrink and cultures defy boundaries, new and excited crops and cuisines emerge and fuse. In this sense, a concept of newness is not only helpful, but essential.

However, it’s when food is treated like mere merchandise in the hands of unethical corporations and sleazy advertising executive, or—in the case of WOWButter and Panda Puffs—becomes a bogus substitute or freaky deformation that it starts to morph into a neutered, lifeless item. It is at that point, even if these sorts of foods taste good, that we have truly crossed the threshold by bastardizing the sacred. Food needs to be whole and unaltered, like our blood and bones, because it is through the act of consuming it that we nurture our bodies and truly preserve our humanity. That connection cannot, in any way, be replicated nor should it be encroached upon.

The Phoenix