Final Project

This blog is about food.  I am attempting to connect delicious food with interesting media theory.  Bear with me.

Tuesday night I had to work late for my internship.  Tired, hungry, barely able to keep my eyes open, I stumbled out into the rain with my fellow intern to make a trek.  A trek to the one place that could make me feel better and more awake–Good Stuff Eatery.  I had been dreaming of the taste all day long and had to jump through many hoops–namely all my intern tasks–til I could chomp down on that tasty meat.  Think Harold and Kumar and White Castle.

Staring up at the menu, I saw what I wanted and what I had always gotten as a patron before.  I saw it, The Prez Obama burger.  I thought to myself as I was trying to explain my choice to the fellow intern waiting in line with me, that while it tasted really good, I didn’t necessarily order it for the taste.

Rather, it dawned upon me, I ate it because Spike Mendelsohn, Top Chef contestant and Good Stuff Eatery restaurateur, had borrowed Obama’s “brand” identity.  By co-opting this identity, Spike makes buying this burger a statement.

See? They even tell me I just bought 2 Obamas

So, this got me thinking…how many other instances of this are there?  Especially in DC, which is such a political town.  Is there a Newt Gingrich cocktail or a Harry Reid ice cream flavor?  Slash am I the only person out there who does that–buy an item just because of its clever, sassy, or politically pertinent, timely name?

The burger

Am I thinking about this too much? I mean it’s a burger for chrissake.  But maybe I’m not.  In their book Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition by David Thorburn, Henry Jenkins, Brad Seawell, they discuss how our culture is becoming that of spoofs, spinoffs, and interpretations

All of this, Jenkins says in his Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture, leads to a participatory culture which is “more open-ended, less under the control of media producers and more under the control of media consumers.”

OK, well, sure Jenkins is talking about how the Internet has allowed increased participation in culture among every day citizens.  But the concept can be applied to food and drink, right? Spike is consuming the media we all consume and is allowing for his own interpretation, giving less credence to what the traditional media is saying.

In a sense, these burgers are what Jenkins calls “spreadable” in his “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead: Media Viruses and Memes.” But more on that later.

If you’re interested in an example of this, check out Lori Kido Lopez’s Fan Activists and the Politics in the Last Airbender.

Jenkins expands upon this notion in his Convergence Culture: Where New and Old Media Collide, saying that traditionally,

“the story of the American arts in the nineteenth century might be told in terms of the mixing, matching, and merging of folk traditions taken from various indigenous and immigrant populations.”

But in the present day, he argues, American arts are about mixing corporate and top-down communication and identity with folk culture.  So, that begs the question…”is food art?”  Well…

In “The Significance of Food in Culture: Is Taste an Art Form?” author Crystal Neely says:

“The tie that food has to human emotion and culture is necessary and integral to it’s consideration as art. The fact that one can eat a meal and have associations with that food that cause aesthetic experiences, according to my definition make food art so long as that was the intent of the preparer.”

Before you think perhaps I’ve lost my mind.  Think about food as a new form and medium of art.  And art is all about expression and interpretation.  As the interview subject of the article says:

“The idea was that only something that started out not seeming like art was likely to be the real thing. So Rirkrit went on to take the least artlike aspects of life and declare them museum-worthy.”

Burgers are so everyday and aren’t traditionally museum material.  Maybe that’s the beauty of burgers as art that makes a political statement.  Also, clearly the contrast between the everyday of the burger and the not-so-everyday of the President is an interesting bit to explore.

Here is where we meet: in a combination of media theory, modern art, philosophy, and food.

I think it’s obvious that in this particular case, Mendelsohn wanted to use the form of a burger to evoke an aesthetic experience in the patron, and remind them of President Obama.  He took his interpretation of Obama, a large political figure, and gave us this.

So here are some other examples I came across and my speculation on what the preparer intended to evoke in the consumer:

BLT Steak:

The Biden burger.  Made with sloppy joe. Get it?

The Cain. Made with  mozzarella, sun-dried tomato ketchup and pepperoni mustard.

And perhaps my two favorite (which must be viewed together):

The 99%.  Two standards, guys…Wonder Bread and American cheese.  Price? $9.99.  They would.

The 1%.  8 oz. Kobe burger, braised Kobe short rib, foie gras, gold leaf and grey poupon. That’s right people, gold leaf.  This one totals up to $58.  My friend says he’ll split it with me.

All of these burgers depend on the individual interpretation of the meaning of news events and political figures.  The chef at BLT Steak is taking his experience and a mutual experience of the current news media, mixing it around with some creative juices and personality, and presenting it in a different medium: food.

For example, the sloppy joe on the burger comes from a mutual understanding of our Vice President’s loose lips and public speaking gaffes.  The Cain burger quite clearly is a commentary on how silly it is that a man who owns a chain of crappy “pizza” parlors thinks he can run for POTUS.  Clearly the 1% and the 99% burgers are a representation of how the chef feels about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

This is where Jenkins’ notion of spreadability and memes comes in.  Following Biden gaffes or the ins and outs of the OWS movement have all become Internet memes.  Take for example the fun meme of the 2% milk.  Those burgers? They’re like the offline, food version of that.  Jenkins says of spreadable media that ordinary people are central:

“…in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets. Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of ‘memes,’ a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use.”

Um, I’d say burgers definitely constitute a diverse context of use.

(image c/o Citysearch)

The Caucus Room sells a salad called the Bailout with ” Grilled USDA prime steak over baby Bibb lettuce, with apple wood smoked bacon, crumbled blue cheese, red onion & vine ripe tomatoes in a creamy blue cheese dressing.”  Maybe they think that you need to pour substantial extras on something that should be substantial enough to stand on its own? Kind of like AIG?

(Look at how swanky this place is…just oozes DC elite…image c/o thehillishome.com)

Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse in DC also serves up some politically themed fare, but their’s primarily takes the form of cocktail.  I think the bipartisan cocktail really says it all. It is comprised of equal parts vodka and gin.  Just like trying for bipartisan political agreement…doesn’t go down so smooth.

(image c/o bloomspot.com)

Consider Lounge 201’s decision to serve The Obama Bribe Punch, The 73rd Virgin, The Osama Bin Gotten and The Oil Slick (featuring Three Olives Root Beer Vodka and cola) at a happy hour for Young Republicans.  The same bar served McCain Old Fashioneds for a debate watching party.

(image c/o Washington City Paper)

Shake Shack in Dupont Circle serves a mixed ice cream concoction called the Majority Whip.  A traditionally New York establishment, they caught on to DC quickly.  Vanilla custard and seasonal fruit.  Clearly about appealing to a wide swath and keeping up with the zeitgeist of the party.

Now, food as a political statement or food containing political meaning and schema is not foreign to us.  Picture a health food store, who is more likely to go there?  In “The Politics of Organic Farming: Populists, Evangelicals, and the Agriculture of the Middle,” journalist Laura Sayre speaks about the “enthusiasm with which organic food advocates welcomed the election of President Obama in 2008.”

More interestingly enough, however, is that she challenges how we perceive the politics of the organic food movement, showing that “a wide range of historical and contemporary evidence suggests that political and social conservatives have long formed an important element within the organic movement’s ranks.”  She points to how the organic movement can be associated with the values of the heartland.  Conservatives in the movement are more likely to be attracted to that aspect rather than those of the environment and animal rights.

So, can you dig it?  Food as art which is media challenging the corporate, top-down communication style.  Convergence culture.  The news never tasted so good.

Works Cited:

Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. (2004). Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture. Boston: MIT Press.

Jenkins, Henry. (2009). If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead: Media Viruses and Memes. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, February 11, 2009.

Kido Lopez, Lori. (2011). Fan Activists and the Politics in the Last Airbender. International Journal of Cultural Studies, DOI: 10.1177/136787791142286.

Neely, Crystal. (2007). The Significance of Food in Culture: Is Taste an Art Form?”  UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research, 2007.

Gopnik, Blake. (2011). Think about food as a new form and medium of art. The Daily Beast.

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