For the past few weeks I've been reading "The Billionaire's Vinegar" by Benjamin Wallace, a nonfiction account of the rise of antique wine collecting during the '80s and '90s, the lush tasting affairs where the rich showed off their expansive cellars, and the con artist who swindled them all. It's a delightful little story, full of background information on how wine's made and starring the most eccentric people this side of whatever's currently airing on TLC.
One of the stars of the book is Michael Broadbent, a British wine critic who took his expert palate and knowledge of wine history and parlayed it into a career as the wine director for Christie's auction house, a role that had him authenticating -- or, doing his best at least -- wine that was first bottled two hundred years ago. One of Broadbent's most memorable quirks was how he constantly compared the elegant wine he was tasting to women. Some examples that Wallace gives us include Broadbent describing wine as "a sexy demi-mondaine of uncertain age but opulent charm," "a light, easy, charming middle-aged lady with her slip showing," and regularly trotting out a comparison to a "schoolgirls' uniform."
Which, yes, certainly is creepy. But throughout the book Broadbent seems more like a "quaint old-timey creep" than someone to be condemned now. The book is a capsule of a time long past, after all. He began writing these inappropriate descriptors in the '80s, when women were still slowly trickling into the workplace, before the dudes in the office truly understood what was meant by "sexual harassment." It was a simpler era back then, which is to say, the people were simpler, dimmer, not as aware as our current era. There's no way someone that creepy would be working today.
Except, well, that's not the case at all.
As Slate points out, food writers are still relying heavily on comparing food to women:
An article about ramps asserts that the allium "has gone from a Southern belle to a big-city starlet," while a chocolate pie is said to be "the belle of the ball." "Gingerbread isn't the prettiest sister home for the holidays," a 2002 Christmas article declares. "She is plain and pensive, preferring family and close friends to fancy parties ... The makeover of gingerbread from stay-at-home to 'it' girl took little effort." Salt expert Mark Bitterman writes, "Dissolving salt in water to taste it is like putting a supermodel through a mulching machine and appraising her beauty." Pinot noir is "the proverbial femme fatale of grapes." (Meanwhile, chocolate pudding is "less family matron than femme fatale," while candy corn are "Halloween's true femme fatales.") A restaurant's "chicken is the uncontested prima donna, and heads swivel when it goes by." The cronut is "a flaky, sugary ingénue."
Most of those statements, when hidden in the midst of a long essay or wordy restaurant review, would probably get overlooked. But it's only when they're plucked and placed together side-by-side like above that the trend not only becomes obvious, but unsettling.
The reasons that food = women metaphors are wrong have to be pretty clear at this point. First, and foremost, it proliferates the objectification of women. Even benign descriptors like "belle of the ball" -- there's an argument to be made that this one specifically has "graduated" to a level of accepted cultural lexicon, users of the phrase worried less about the actual meaning anymore; it's a poor and misguided argument, but an argument nevertheless -- spread the mindset, even subconsciously, that women are meant for collections (like that antique wine in the cellar) or to be "tried out" (like that new dessert at the pop-up bake shop). This kind of composition, then, ends up being nothing more than the written equivalent of a Barbie doll. And if you don't think there's a problem with Barbies, well, you haven't been paying attention for the past ... long stretch of time.
But on top of all that, it's simply lazy writing. Comparing fill-in-the-blank-here to any part of a woman has been done. And it's probably been done much better and more poetically than the attempt that you, food writer, are working on now. So why not, instead of simply typing away the first female-based comparison that comes to mind, take a moment and actually think out a better one? You fancy yourself an intellectual, so why not try using that intellect of yours? There's so many metaphors out there, just waiting for you to find them. Give it a shot.
So, food writers: Please, just stop. Stop. It's lazy, it's sexist, and it's creepy. You're all better than that. Now prove it.
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