There is a particular, somewhat unusual food product I adore. It's not foie gras but "Faux Gras," because it's made with lentils and walnuts and generally healthier, less guilt-inducing stuff than what actual foie gras actually consists of. I buy it and I eat it within days, with crackers, for dinner. The taste is almost like foie gras, but better — liverwursty, somehow, even though it's vegan. I savor it; it is savory! But one day I looked at the label, and what I saw nearly put me off my Faux Gras: "A smooth, savory spread that is rich with complexity, packed with protein and Omega 3's," it reads. (That's not so bad, though I dispute the apostrophe in the 3). "Naturally gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan." (O.K., I can deal with that, though it's a little on the edge, high-maintenance-wise.) But then there's this, at the bottom of the container: "Made by Regal Vegan Inc. with Love, Respect and Other Nutrients in New York City, 10454." Emphasis mine.
Really, Faux Gras? You were made with love, and respect? I am dubious that such feelings can be metered out, included in the proper amounts in each container, sealed away and preserved (without any nasty chemical preservatives, of course!) until the time is right for the food to meet its customer. And let's face it, even if that food wasn't made with real, live, actual love and respect — if it was instead concocted and packaged by someone with hate in his heart, or mild dislike, or simple disgruntlement or maybe just apathy — would the food taste any different, really? What if the food wasn't made by a human capable of emotions at all? Would you even know?
These are not just words like organic or cage-free or free-range or sustainable we're talking about, words that can be suspect as well as they are co-opted by irresponsible semanticists to mean more and more, or less and less. This whole love thing, ascribing favorable human emotions to the people who made or came up with the idea of the food product you so enjoy, is a step beyond that. Before the time of mass-produced food labels, there may have existed the sense that food should be made with love, a purity of heart and spirit, with a willingness to give of oneself. And figuratively at least, through the ages, we've allowed ourself to believe that goodwill and good feelings will make food taste better. When Mom makes you her homemade chicken soup because you're sick, it's made with love! When Aunt Bernice makes your wedding cake with her special fondant, it's made with love and excitement about your impending nuptials, which sure took long enough, don't you think? When your boss brings you coffee, it's with good thoughts (and maybe it's to get you to work more, too), right? But when someone you don't know (or even know the name of) at some place you can't picture because you've never seen it and don't care, anyway, whips up your faux gras with deep, abiding feelings for you ... that's kind of weird, isn't it?
Look, food does not taste different if it's made with love! Love is not an actual ingredient; it cannot go in one's brownies, one's spaghetti, one's faux gras. Nor is respect, enthusiasm, whimsy, irritation, lust, crankiness, or "a bad mood" something that makes food taste any different. I don't care how many times you've watched a Top Chef contestant put his or her "heart on a plate" (figuratively, figuratively) or "cook with love." They are not cooking with love! They are cooking with skill, expertise, and maybe, if you must say it, a passion to win a competition or make something that tastes good, because that's sort of the point. But it is doubtful whether any chef, any cook, any person who works with food, is moonily concocting your edibles with a winged butterflies of affection aloft in his or her heart. Is that even sanitary?
Yet the labels, they proliferate, with different degrees of obnoxiousness. Sometimes they're not about emotions. Instead they're annoying because they adopt the hipster/Brooklyn/artisanal parlance that seems to have suffused just about everything nowadays. They are that twee-est of words: twee. For example, Bespoke Coffee. What is Bespoke Coffee? (It's because of bicycles, of course: "In May 2012, we developed our Bespoke blend as an homage to the virtuous vélo and in recognition of National Bike Month," explains the Brooklyn Roasting Company.) Or, as the Village Voice's Nick Greene noticed in a coffee shop recently, what is skimerific milk?
Shut up, coffee shop. twitter.com/NickGreene/sta…— Nick Greene (@NickGreene) January 4, 2013
Speaking of shutting up, what about this Chipotle bag which cannot seem to stop talking? If it were a person you'd walk away cringing. So awkward.
This one's only a little better. It's the kind of bag that would have one of those kitten posters hanging on its wall, the one that says "Hang in there."
And there's this label, tweeted yesterday by Wired editor Bill Wasik, offensive for its sheer volume of "foodie" "buzzwords":
Writers take note: a graf where every phrase makes you want to punch something. twitter.com/billwasik/stat…— Bill Wasik (@billwasik) January 8, 2013
It appears we're in a new era of the food label, a time in which one doesn't look at whatever his or her food comes in to make sure there's not MSG, or too much sodium, or weird chemicals, or carbs. Or that it doesn't cost too much, or hasn't gone bad. Instead one must look at one's food label and confront the idea that it contains love, nurturing, good feelings, emotional support, and a strong moral high ground. Or, conversely, find that it's a terrible, twee portmanteau. Or "bespoke." That there's some wacky story about what the people who made the food feel about it, and the food's eater (you), and the process of making or eating the food. What does love taste like? "It was very good salsa," says the eater of the salsa below. Its primary ingredient? Love. Is it wrong to simply want food to be food, to want food to stop yapping all the damn time and to have so many feelings?
Kat Kinsman, managing editor of Eatocracy, told me of all the verbose labeling, "It's gotten seriously out of control... the first thing that comes to mind is my favorite chocolate, Fine & Raw. It's so sumptuous, the soles of my feet actually have tingled with delight as I've eaten it, but on the website (and I think the package), DUDE!" It goes like this, she continued: "Creaminess warning: made in a chocolate lab where people eat a lot of chocolate and believe in sustainable design for your tongue. for the eco-chic & forward and any one whose tongue is bored and heart plays loud music that no one else can hear."
She added, "I've never had a 'creaminess warning' before in, uh, that context, but that's the least of it." Yes, there is more. "Fine & Raw's mission is to save the world through silliness and chocolate!"
Do we actually even want our food made with love? It seems more important that our food taste delicious, but maybe we'll accept cloying labels if the food is tasty enough to make us return for seconds. After all, I'm still buying Faux Gras, though I try not to consider how respect fits into the flavor palate. Each of the products I've cited above, from Bespoke to Love-Salsa, are things that actually taste pretty good. Or as Kinsman said of Fine & Raw's chocolate packaging and stated mission: "Mission vaguely accomplished. Now shaddup and make more."
Stephanie Lucianovic, Grub Report blogger and author of Suffering Succotash, told me, "I think the 'made with love' thing has become so overused that it's lost all possible meaning. How can someone expect me to believe that something was 'made with love' when they don't even know me? I see through it as a manipulative marketing technique that doesn't work well on me because I don't find it cute... I roll my eyes at such affected earnestness. Also, it's not like it's an FDA-approved labeling, right? (I mean, I'm assuming the FDA doesn't go in for testing the love levels on food.) So in that sense, it does beg the question of what exactly they're trying to tell us: do you love me? Do you love what you do? Did you love each individual ingredient as it went into the jam and if so maybe I don't really want to know about it? 'Made with care' would mean a lot more to me than 'made with love' because the love part is just so self-consciously cute that it verges on over-the-top histrionics. Like Zooey Deschanel."
What does your favorite food feel about you? Once you start paying attention, you see it everywhere (it's so needy!). And, of course, if your food isn't treating the way you feel you deserve to be treated, you can also buy "Made With Love" stickers on Etsy.
*This post was written with a frisson of rage, a sprinkle of joy, some saffron, and mostly just a lot of amusement.
Image via Shutterstock by Ambrophoto.