Eating in the Age of Shame

I got caught with a bad croissant-wich last month and felt the kind of shame only a serious eater can know: I was eating beneath myself.

Struggling with late-morning motivational drag, I'd slipped out for a bite: a turkey-cheese croissant from a bakery that exists to sell hulking, sugary cookies to office workers seeking comfort out of greasy paper bags. The gastronomic me knows to shun the turkey croissant’s ribbon of lunchmeat, sticky cream cheese, and heavy, almost weirdly buttery pastry. The human me craves it—especially since I don't have to walk far from the office to find it.

Soon after I returned, my boss—prepared to be awed—approached to see what I'd gotten, making me regret that I didn't eat it on the walk back, wearing one of those handy McDonald’s shame masks (pictured) to take refuge behind.

The shame mask reveals just how polarized food has become at a moment when our choices are cleanly split between conventional and organic, big box and farmers' market, feedlot-raised and free-range. Julia Child once confessed a liking for McDonald's fries, back when they were cooked in beef tallow. Nowadays it’s less likely for an establishment figure—the ones on Colman Andrews's list of the 50 most powerful people in food, say—to admit a liking for anything as colorless as the Extra Value Meal, even Guy Fieri or Rachael Ray.

Chefs, food writers, Chowhounds: We're all more likely to apply the notion of fast food to Shake Shack burger reinventions or the idlis at a neighborhood dosa truck, not the foods of the mass market. In 2008, pressed to name her favorite fast food, Ruth Reichl pulled out a list of insider finds she could have cribbed off Chowhound, including the Manhattan-specific Gray’s Papaya and a tripe cart in Florence.

A tripe cart in Florence. That’s what serious eaters are supposed to like—hell, I expect I’d love it. But frozen broccoli and teriyaki bentos with California rolls, the kind stuffed with mayo-oozing “krab”? Or burritos packed with bland chicken and faded beans? These are the unofficial foods of my weekly life, things I eat without readily admitting it.

Interviewers often ask chefs to reveal a guilty pleasure, but how many answer the question honestly? Red Vines, Doritos, and Cup Noodles seem like a dodge, indulgences too fashionably ironic to accrue actual guilt. Would Grant Achatz have the courage to publicly admit eating Annie’s mac and cheese? Or frozen niblet corn? Not anything flamboyantly bad, just banal—and the things everybody but serious food lovers admits to eating. So much of the food we all eat is merely mediocre, neither unambiguously good nor definitively bad, just convenient.

That for some of us it's a source of shame says more about our own aspirations, and the demands of an ever more homogeneous world to find authentic pleasures. As for me, I'll be the one in line for that utterly forgettable chicken burrito, eyes averted.

Image source: Jest.com

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