1. "Pots and Pans, but Little Pain/Making Lunch With Michael Pollan and Michael Moss," written by Emily Weinstein, has the Pollan (author of books like "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto") and Moss (author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us") wandering judgmentally through the kind of crowded grocery store that people in NYC call a "supermarket."
Mr. Moss and Mr. Pollan considered the mozzarella choices, skipping the pre-shredded kind in favor of a cheese that advertised itself as a product of Amish country and that cost the same as the more generic ball beside it.2. "The Frankfurter Diaries," by Mark Bittman was about Bittman eating a hot dog. (Somehow, when I clicked on the link, I was hoping for something about Felix Frankfurter, even though I know Bittman is a food writer. I love his cookbook, "How to Cook Everything."). Bittman — like Pollan and Moss in the grocery store — comes across as an elitist out of his normal environment. He's on "a drive to the Jersey Shore" and looking for something to eat at a parkway restaurant.
“Real milk, no hormones, no antibiotics,” Mr. Pollan said, reading aloud from the label. “I love the term ‘real milk.’ I wonder if we can get fake milk anywhere here.”
My first inclination was Burger King; [a friend who largely shares my weaknesses and prejudices] pronounced it “poison.”#1 is the distanced, humorous way to use "real" to express lofty/prissy/elitist attitudes about food. #2 is the colloquial, earnest way to use "real" to express longing for a better world. I wonder if Bittman really thinks rest-stop falafel would be any good. Even in decent ethnic restaurants with nicely deep-fried falafel, I've only encountered shredded iceberg lettuce, there for the crunch, not for any wholesome goodness. But Bittman's vision of great falafel at the rest stop goes perfectly — like lettuce on deep-fried bean-mush — with his non-humorous deployment of the adjective "real."
O.K., but what wasn’t? Where was the real food? It didn’t exist....
I’m well aware that we’re light-years away from a rest area without any junk food. It might be nice, however, if there were one offering a vegetable wrap or a big fat falafel sandwich with real vegetables. Would you not think there’s a market for that?
There's no right and wrong here. Myself, I'd use "real" both ways. I'm just interested in the word "real," which has been big in the Baby Boomer era (and Bittman, Pollan, and Moss are all, like me, Boomers). Be real. Get real. It's been real. He's a real nowhere man. I got to laugh halfways off my heels/I got to know, babe, will you surround me?/So I can know if I’m really real.
According to the (unlinkable) Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest meaning of "real" — now obsolete — connects to the words "regal" and "royal." In reference to a thing, it means: "befitting a monarch; sumptuous, fine, beautiful, noble, excellent." If we're hearing elitism in those NYT quotes, it resonates with the history of the language. That makes me want to quote Bob Dylan again:
The kingdoms of ExperienceBut the familiar meaning of "real" — actually existing — is also old. "Free from nonsense, affectation, or pretence; genuine" — a meaning that Pollan's sarcasm presumes not to exist — goes back at least to 1747. And look at this quote from "House of Seven Gables" (1851): "Phoebe's presence made a home about her... She was real!" It's like Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Boomer.
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
The OED has separate entries for a few familiar phrases, notably, "it's been real," which it defines as: "'it's been memorable,' 'it's been an experience'; used as a farewell, with varying degrees of sincerity or irony, and sometimes simply as a formulaic phrase." See! With varying degrees of sincerity or irony. The phrase was first encountered (by the OED) in Wright Morris's 1954 novel "Huge Season": "He stepped forward and bowed to Lou Baker, took her hand, kissed it. 'Doll, it's been real.'"
There's no food-related entry for "real" in the OED, but there is a drink one: "real coffee n. coffee made from ground coffee beans, as opposed either to a substitute or (now esp.) to instant coffee." That goes back to the 19th century:
1877 H. Ruede Jrnl. 13 June in Sod-house Days (1937) 99 Most people out here don't drink real coffee, because it is too expensive... So rye coffee is used a great deal—parched brown or black according to whether the users like a strong or mild drink.Finally — and say what you will about Pollan, Moss, and Bittman — there's a separate OED entry from "real man" — "a man who fulfils traditional expectations of masculinity in his behaviour, attitudes, or appearance; a virile or masculine man." That goes back to 1872:
1872 Titusville (Pennsylvania) Morning Herald 23 Sept., But society is full of shams shoddy and tinsel. The real man puts on no airs at all....That was some earnest "real," back then. Pop forward to the 80s, for some classic Boomer "real" sarcasm:
1926 Times-Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) (Electronic text) 17 Oct., It's out here in the lonely places that you get the real-man type. There's nothing sissy about it.
1982 B. Feirstein Real Men don't eat Quiche ii. 13 In the past, it was easy to be a Real Man. All you had to do was abuse women, steal land from Indians, and find some place to dump the toxic waste.That's enough for now. Kisses. It's been real.