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‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Is Marxist Fantasy Porn

What would the world look like if all workers were this close to the soil?

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Nosrat photo courtesy Netflix; Marx photo Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In the new Netflix show Salt Fat Acid Heat — based off the bestselling book by, and starring, chef Samin Nosrat — all the food production is extremely inefficient. Whether it’s traditionally brewed soy sauce in Japan (which ferments in the barrel for two years) or flavored honeys in Mexico (which are delicately extracted from a hive via tiny syringe), Nosrat goes out of her way to tell us how little the producers can make compared to industrial factories. (One Tixcacaltuyub bee hive yields less than a liter of honey each year, compared to 30 to 40 kilos annually for a more traditional hive.) Her point isn’t to communicate the rarity of these ingredients in a Most Expensivest kind of way — there are few purchases and no prices on the show. The inefficiencies in SFAH are just a component of what makes the show so enjoyable: its vision of unalienated labor.

In one of what are called the 1844 Manuscripts, Karl Marx described his theory of estranged labor: workers under capitalism encounter their product as something “hostile and alien.” Value is sucked from the worker’s body, through the commodity produced, into the owner’s pocket. Unlike the sole proprietor (such as the proverbial ox-cart man), the harder an employee works, the less they have. No wonder the products seem hostile. Think about the difference in the way you’d feel toward a hamburger you make for a drive-thru customer versus one you prepare for yourself or with a loved one. One is depleting, the other nourishing.

Reality food TV (distinct from the instructional cooking show) tends to focus on the second kind of production, and for good reason. We like dropping in on the roadside barbecue owned by the pitmaster, the grandmother’s traditional kitchen, the seventh-generation butcher, the buddies with a food truck. The back of the house at a local Olive Garden franchise? Maybe on Undercover Boss, but workplace reality shows usually focus on conflict — think Bravo and Vanderpump Rules. Without alienation and the daily miseries of employment, those shows don’t work.

Alienation is not only a feeling of detachment from the world, in Marxism it is a condition of literal theft. Workers exit the day with less than they had when they entered — Americans know this instinctively if not explicitly, which is why our national dream is to “work for myself” before a company “uses me up.” A reality show about the line cooks at a moderately expensive brunch place wouldn’t feel anything like Nosrat’s slow-food explorations; there’s nothing calming or even appetizing about the corner-cutting necessary to cook for someone else’s profit. When it comes to food, industrial efficiency is often gross.

Contrariwise, unalienated labor is sublime. This is virtuosity performed for its own sake, and it’s the truth behind the saying “the best things in life are free.” For example, hallowed above all on fine-dining TV from Top Chef to Chef’s Table is the concept of the “family meal” — the pre-service food that chefs cook for their restaurant staff. Unlike the alienated dinners they’ll serve later, family meal is a place for experimentation and risk. You can’t buy your way in, it’s the workers’ privilege alone. Most creative professions have their version of the family meal, and those of us who work in those jobs are willing to trade a lot for the occasional unalienated moment when we can give and/or receive work directly.

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, something given is always better than something simply bought, and SFAH we see how this is about more than feelings. In the “Acid” episode, when we meet a group of women shaping tortillas by hand, they explain that the alternative mechanical process pushes the oil from the cornmeal and dries it out. Their product is better precisely because it’s incompatible with mass production. It’s nice to imagine being part of the circuits of unalienated exchange — which partly explains the “artisanal” craze — and Nosrat enters on behalf of the viewer; the difference between us and her being, of course, that she has her elite cooking skills to offer.

Unalienated work isn’t just better for the majority of humans involved, it’s much more ecologically sensitive. The beekeepers from the “Acid” episode are in a caring relationship with the bees. They show Nosrat the moat they’ve built around the hives to keep out predator ants — no pesticides obviously — as well as the plants they’ve installed on the small island to improve the “vibe.” A Japanese soy sauce brewer in the “Salt” episode talks with the microbes, verbally encouraging them. This is far from the instrumentalization of factory farming, it’s genuine cross-species collaboration, with output limited by the capacities of other living things rather than us limiting other living things in rationally small pens and cages to extend our output capacity.

SFAH doesn’t make an argument for local or slow food per se, but that’s what we see. The dishes are simple, with few ingredients, made traditionally and with pleasure. For a certain kind of Marxist, this all reeks of conservatism or the hippie primitivism that some on the left call “folk politics.” Better to abolish our dependence on food through technology and automation — then we can cook if and only if we feel like it. Just as Shulamith Firestone wrote that artificial wombs would free women from gendered oppression, so could Soylent free them from the kitchen. There’s plenty in Marx to support this scientism, but he’s got his ecologist moments, too. “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer,” he writes in Capital Vol. I, “but of robbing the soil.”

Marx’s identification of the worker with the soil should make us think critically about a left-wing perspective on food production. What would it look like not to see the world as natural “resources” to “exploit,” but as our external body? What would it mean to reconcile our alienation from our labor and from the soil as well? Netflix isn’t about to tackle those questions, but SFAH hints at the feelings (emotional, sensual) we might go looking for.

“They say the potter always drinks out of a broken pot,” Nosrat’s mother tells her in the last episode, “Heat,” as they share some rice that misses the serving plate. In what kind of world is the food fallen on the counter the best bite? One that will belong to the workers, someday.

Malcolm Harris is the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials and a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus