“Food is not just sustenance anymore,” says California food writer Zach Brooks. “It can offer a point of view. It can be super political in a time when music seems to be getting less and less political. What you eat says a lot about what you believe in, whether it’s sustainable farming or GMOs.”
Brooks so ardently believes that food is the new rock, he created a podcast called “Food Is the New Rock” a couple of years back. His first guest was Jonathan Gold, now the Los Angeles Times food critic whose trailblazing gastro-curiosity echoes work he once did as a music journalist, penning profiles of Slayer and N.W.A. “Today, when I write about eating pig uterus tacos, [readers] aren’t disgusted by it, they’re intrigued by it,” says Gold, whose sterling criticism won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
“A lot of what we used to associate with music — it being an indicator of tribalism — I think we’re seeing that more in food these days, instead,” Gold says.”If you’re vegan, or a conscious omnivore, or nose-to-tail person, or a gluten-free person — those people get together and self-identify.”
Meantime, many players in today’s burgeoning cuisine culture — chefs, critics, restaurateurs, bloggers — can self-identify as “former music people.” Gold and Starr are just two big names in the mass exodus from rockland to foodland, a migration that has done plenty to help chisel a phrase into our collective marble: “Chefs are the new rock stars.”
And yeah, in 2013, the chefs sport tattoos by the armful while the rock musicians wear boat shoes, but the change in uniform signals a deeper shift.
In American culture, “there’s always been that sort of glamorization of the working class,” says Gold. “The rock guys tried to ride that for a really long time. . . . But no matter how glamorous it is, no matter how much you pay for dinner, chefs are still doing things with their hands. . . . In a time when guitar solos are incredibly uncool, somebody has to be doing something that has a physical manifestation to it, right?”
In addition to fetishizing that physicality, food also provides a sense of regional pride that the culture-flattening properties of the digital era have practically vaporized in music. And that feels particularly prevalent here in the District, where many young Washingtonians tut-tut the local music scene while siphoning off their paychecks on the latest gourmet doughnut.
Locally, the line between food and music continues to dissolve. Eric Hilton is known foremost as a founding member of the electronic music duo Thievery Corporation, but in the past two years, Thievery has released one album while Hilton has helped open five D.C. restaurants. Erik Bruner-Yang used to play in Virginia indie band Pash — today he’s chef and owner of Toki Underground, the beloved H Street NE ramen eatery where Brian Weitz, of experimental pop group Animal Collective, is an investor. The Fojol Bros., a popular street food operation whose employees serve Indian dishes while wearing humiliating costumes, have marketed their business the way a rock band might, earning the attention that plenty of local musicians would die for.
And therein lies the bitter subtext of Sweetlife. Saturday’s gathering includes more than 20 regional food and drink vendors but only two local acts. The foodies may not have killed rock-and-roll, but they’re quietly burying it, in Washington and everywhere else.
The Sweetlife Festival takes place at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday at noon.