Sometimes it seems that all people these days live for is fine dining and cooking. Last Saturday night I was at a Canadian thanksgiving dinner, and the main conversation topic was food. On Thursday a participant on my training course expressed his main concern about the programme: the quality of food. On Tuesday night I turned on the TV and had a choice of three cooking programmes. Am I the only one who is bored by all this? And why has declaring yourself a foodie become a hallmark of sophistication?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy good food or do not enjoy cooking. In fact, I love to improvise a good meal from fresh and various ingredients. It gives me sense of history to share knowledge of preparing food with a long line of ancestors. It soothes a busy mind to focus only on the flow of cooking, with a ‘tasty’ dish as the result. Yet I do not ask for a set of cooking knives as a birthday present. After an exhausting day in the office I prefer to get take away and read a book. Nor do I think that the long line of housewife ancestors on the female side would have had to think twice about whether or not to bake their own bread or pasta, a favourite foodie pastime. My mother’s Japanese friend once confided that she had to learn to make sushi herself so that she could teach her keen Dutch friends.
Maximising the experience of our taste buds seems quite a hedonistic activity that has little to do with the need for food to survive. In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that self-actualisation rather than hedonism would be the end stage of individual development. At the lower rungs of Maslow’s pyramid are the need for physiological well-being, safety, belonging and respect. Having secured all this, Maslow anticipated that individuals would focus on morality and creativity to become all that they were capable of becoming.
Although some of us run marathons or engage in charity work, I imagine that Maslow would be disappointed to see that most of us at the top of the pyramid profess ourselves to be foodies at heart. Picture him going to the cinema to see ‘Eat Pray Love’, a dead-serious Julia Roberts vehicle about a successful thirty-something who leaves her husband for no reason at all and moves to Italy to eat. She then moves to India to find her true self in a foreign culture and religion. She then moves to Bali to fall in love, although it is unclear why this time she won’t take off to Italy again.
This modern fairy tale made me quite sad because it is such a hollow Hollywood take on Maslow’s expectations for us, lacking both morality and creativity. The one touching moment is at the start of the film when Julia clumsily falls on her knees to pray, searching for words to address god. Perhaps being more rooted in our own culture would make us less focused on chasing fleeting satisfaction, and find more balanced and longer term happiness.
Go see Isabelle Adjani play Adèle Hugo in ‘L’histoire d’Adèle H’ by Francois Truffaut (1975), one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen in a while. It tells the real life story of the second daughter of Victor Hugo whose obsessive unrequited love for a naval officer brings her to behaviour totally unsuitable to a young lady at the end of the 19th century, and ultimately to madness. I’ve been thinking about this film now for over a week because of how unusual the story is – totally feminist and totally submissive at the same time; a scandalous taboo, female obsessive love; and the haunting acting skills of 19-year old star-bound Isabelle Adjani.
So it’s about 1870. While the world famous writer Victor Hugo lives in exile at Guernsey during the Bonaparte revival in France, his 20-year old daughter elopes to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Adele knows no one in the new world, only the womanising Lt Pinson whom she is determined to marry. The bourgeois girl has the admirable survival skill to secretly set up a new life in the new world. Meanwhile Pinson does not want to have anything to do with her. She persists, stalking him, even by pretending to carry his child, and announcing their marriage in the French press.
Her father begs her to come home before her mother dies, yet Adèle is exasperatingly convinced that it is her destiny to be wherever he is. She writes obsessive romantic entries in her diary about the violent beauty of a true love that must be followed even though he is unworthy. Her money runs out, she moves to a poor house and her appearance and state of mind rapidly fall apart.
When the officer’s regiment is moved to Barbados, she goes as well. Emaciated, she wanders the African quarter, her mind so far devoured by love that she does not even recognise the officer. A newly liberated slave mama nurses her, and writes to Victor Hugo that she will bring his daughter home. Adèle will spend the rest of her long life gardening in a mental asylum.
Ok, now I’ve spoilt the plot, but that won’t make the film less intriguing. What does it take for a girl in that time to undertake such a journey and live her life on such as scale? She was supposed to be a domestically kept creature, not venture out to the colonies on her own…And while she’s very capable in setting up a life of her own, it’s not independence that drives her but single-minded self-destructive fantasy. Why does she direct the force of her conviction and willpower to such a pointless, yet grandly romantic aim? Is she too susceptible to the romantic ideas of the time, her character lending her no down to earth protection to torment? Or is she trapped in circumstances where her great mind can only be used destructively rather than creatively? There is no real answer in the film other than that she is haunted by the memory of her older sister, the favourite of her parents, who drowned after her coach tipped off a bridge.