In defense of decadence

“Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts.”
-Ernest Hemingway

decadent_chocolateWriting about food and wine means that there will be times when it becomes necessary to pause and consider the value of the subject matter. Surely there are more important subjects to write about. The world is filled with poverty, misery, pain, suffering and all sorts of serious subjects. There is political unrest, famine, global warming and a plethora of other important issues that we could write about. Isn’t it frivolous to spend so much time devoted to what boils down to nothing more than pursuit of fleeting sensory pleasure?

After all, much of the time I am researching, preparing, and yes, indulging in and then writing about things that ultimately only get flushed down the toilet. In that context, isn’t it the height of decadence to wax poetic about a bottle of fermented grape juice that costs $120? Particularly when, to paraphrase Tom Waits, it ain’t a purchase, it’s a rental? Maybe so. I guess it all depends on how you define the word.

Here in the good old U.S. of A. we have this puritanical streak that seems to permeate every level of society. We are taught as children that our ancestors fled religious persecution in their home countries and arrived on the shores of America to found a great nation. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t just a fairy tale to cover for the fact that we are descended from a bunch of folks who were run off for insisting that everyone else buy into their perverse ideas about self-denial and self-imposed misery as a means to salvation.

Our politics are rife with such ideas, usually wrapped in a fetid cloak of hypocrisy. Those on the Right want to dictate what a woman can do with her body, who is allowed to get medical care, and limit basic human rights based on the sexual orientation of the individual. They accuse the Left of leading our society into decadence for supporting those ideas, at the same time happily raising ridiculous sums of money in the name of Jesus so that they can build bowling alleys and Starbucks in their churches. All while supporting leaders who really have only one aim; not paying taxes.

Then there is the Left where accusations of decadence are thrown around just as freely. Every move by the Right is greeted with charges of Fascism, one of the most decadent political movements in history, yet they welcome fringe elements willing to fight for animal ‘rights*’ in a country that hasn’t yet given full rights to all its people. All while supporting leaders, despite accusations to the contrary, who tend to be more rich folks who don’t want to pay their taxes.

That puritanical streak bequeathed to us by our founders informs all of those opinions. There can be no tolerance of others until they become just like us, both within and without our borders. I point these things out not to make political points, or to point fingers, but to illustrate Mr. Hemingway’s quote at the top of this page.

We have lost the real meaning of the word. It gets tossed around as an insult, or gets used as a description, along with ‘sinful,’ to sell us something Madison Avenue wants us to think of as a luxury. So, if same-sex marriage, Fascism, health care for all, and chocolate are all decadent, then does decadence really mean anything at all?

Here is how Merriam-Webster defines it:

Main Entry: dec·a·dence
Pronunciation: \ˈde-kə-dən(t)s also di-ˈkā-\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French, from Medieval Latin decadentia, from Late Latin decadent-, decadens, present participle of decadere to fall, sink — more at decay
Date: 1530

1 : the process of becoming decadent : the quality or state of being decadent
2 : a period of decline
synonyms see deterioration

Alright, I guess chocolate, coffee and health care are off the hook. How about my original question about spending so much time on food and wine? We’re right back to the guilt bequeathed to us from those busybodies that were expelled from Europe, oops, I mean those brave souls who escaped religious persecution**. How much self-righteous navel gazing and puritanical guilt is required for a guy who works a minimum of 40 hours at a regular job, spends an hour a day at the gym, and shops and cooks for his family, among other daily activities, to wonder if he is contributing to society’s decay by eating, drinking and writing about it? Such ruminations usually lead me to the conclusion that I am an idiot.

As someone who has been relatively poor, is now more well off, and definitely would not say no to being rich, it seems to me that the search for some creature comfort is part of the human condition regardless of economic and social status. We need food and drink to live, but it can, and does, give us so much more than sustenance. Whether a backyard BBQ or a sumptuous 7 course meal with wine pairings, special meals soothe and sustain our souls. We call food and drink ‘refreshments’ for a reason. Perhaps they are not such a trivial subject after all. Political movements are transient and fade or mutate into something unrecognizable, but a bechamel sauce is still butter, flour and milk.

When I was a kid there was nothing more important to me than music, especially Rock and Roll. I would pore over every issue of Rolling Stone magazine, studying each phrase as if it were scripture. There were two exceptions that really stand out in my memory; I never understood why my musical studies were being interrupted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Harrison. I wanted to read about how many groupies Led Zeppelin were banging, the latest incident involving a car, a swimming pool and Keith Moon, or how many times Johnny Thunders nodded off during a New York Dolls show, not some political rant about the theft of the American Dream, or even worse, a paean to wild mushrooms and burgundy.

These days, with the exception of Lester Bangs, who ironically was fired from Rolling Stone, I have little interest in reading anyone who wrote for the magazine back then except for Thompson and Harrison. The good Doctor caught my interest in my late teens and early twenties, but it took decades before I realized that Jim Harrison was one of America’s greatest writers. As happens so often, what seemed so important at the time has become trivia and nostalgia, while the discarded and disregarded has endured. Maybe it’s okay to talk about the food.

That brings us to the inspiration for today’s bit of babble. The other night Amy and I watched the great Academy Award-winning Danish movie Babette’s Feast. It is one of those movies that I have been meaning to watch for years, but just never got around to. It is a charming movie, and is quite funny, but its underlying themes have stuck with me for days. The thought of intentionally leading a grey life while eating gruel because anything with color or taste is considered decadence seems unbelievably sad to me. If piety is defined by avoiding beauty, happiness, laughter all while harboring grievances against our fellow ascetics then I say screw it, by all means, let us talk about the food. But let’s not call the dessert ‘decadent.’ To quote another great movie, ‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

*I am all for treating animals humanely and ethically and am steadfastly against all who abuse and mistreat them. However, the only ‘right’ they have is to taste good. Pass the lamb chops, please.
**No, I don’t need a history lesson. I am being a smartass, not a dumbass. Thanks anyway!

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