A new book, reviewed in the current issue of Times Literary Supplement (TLS), offers a remarkable, satirical, and insightful look at the ways in which food has become more important culturally than it ought to be: “You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture.” Written by Steven Poole, the work, quoted heavily in the TLS review looks marvelous. I ordered my copy. You should, too. Nothing like the Brits to send up bluntly iconic nonsense.
And talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
But here’s the thing, and I’ve been saying it for decades: Food requires context. It can explain affiliation, promote trade, be part of national identity, and help us understand race and class, but too often it’s just a facile distraction from, as Poole puts it, really crucial matters.
Nothing wrong with that: I love the bearable lightness of being. But there needs to be more. Much more.
After all, we are at war.
A big, wonderful article in today’s NY Times Business section on droves of venture capitalists throwing money at start-up food businesses. The good news is that people without money will get money to buy pretty things. The bad news is that people with the money will, of course, introduce business models to create products that will generate more profit. Nothing wrong with that, in concept, but pragmatically what will happen is the continuation of brands and words to market when these brands and words do not mean what they say they mean.
Like “probiotics,” which is a word banned in the E.U. in marketing when said to create healthier results. Dannon lost a $20 million+ suit in California for making this claim.
More broadly, you’ll see an ongoing erosion of rights and authority of the people who make low wages to create these “healthier” products. Take China. Please.
While here in the U.S., you’ll see more of, “conscious capitalism,” as espoused by union buster John McKay, CEO of Whole Foods. All that means is the guy with the most money in the room has halfway decent views of gender rights and environmental protection. Hardly an ideology.
A better bet would be for start-up’s to start small and build their own niche markets. Once you let the venture capitalist in you lose control. Guaranteed.
I just finished reading a marvelous new book: “Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity,” by Katarzna Cwiertka (an academic who teaches at my alma mater, the University of Leiden). The book details the rise of modern Japanese gastronomy, its globalization, and the roots of the homogenization of the cuisine in militarism and affluence.Here is a favorite quote:
“Cooks, publicists and even scholars inside as well as outside Japan tend to drape Japanese cuisine in an aura of exoticism, uniqueness and traditionalism. They are inclined to attribute the consumption practices of the past with the characteristics of the present. The most persistent tendency seems to be that of cultivating the myth of Japanese cuisine as a refined, time honored philosophy and practice, and extending the aesthetic qualities of kaiseki into a kind of eternal attribute of every Japanese meal, regardless of class and degree of affluence. Such fetishized, sentimental notions of the past do not merely falsify history but also distort our understanding of the present.”
If you have an interest in gastronomy’s ability to create and establish an ideology which, in turn, is used to create affiliation and identity, you will learn a great deal from the book. It uses Japan as a model for interpretation and analysis, and has me thinking of comparable applications.
Up at 5:15 A.M. to drive to the airport, but first a walk with the dogs on which we heard the Songs of the Turf Wars as performed in gardens by robins, European starlings, and cardinals. Why the blue jays were laying low is anyone’s guess.
Last night the debacle at another garden: No songs, just Melo wreaking havoc. Great seats, finally as a season ticket holder, but the sights were lowdown. The lines, by the way, for the men’s rooms stretched long in contrast to no lines for the women’s rooms. This was puzzling since usually the women line up and wait while the men breeze in. Then it hit me: This was the first big public event–an NBA Playoff game–in Boston since the Marathon murders and the fellas, stalwart and strutting, were drinking like fish to calm the nerves. More beer must had been sold that night than a week in a good neighborhood bar.
Dinner, prior, had been chicken skewers and pasta Bolognese and a good burger all at Clink, where I’d not been, along with gin and whisky. Boston excels at this sort of dining experience: Big drinks and some food with it.
It’s later in the morning and the birds are nesting.
We’re talking of a first course of toasted bread topped with black morels and melted raclette cheese
Next up: tiny pasta to which asparagus, a spring onion, and English peas are added. Then some chicken stock. Then a cup of warm milk and about a 1/3 of a pound of Gruyere from a food processor. Stir. Add blond morels gently. Plate and top with grated parmigiano and black pepper.
Pretty amazing the punch these morels pack, infusing flavor in everything that comes into contact with them. Why is it that these living things hidden in dirt have so much more powerful taste than much bigger and fattier things?
The second shipment of morels arrived today: Blacks and blonds, from Oregon, firm, perfect in shape, and fresher by far than what’s sold in local stores at nearly twice the price. I have two pounds, one pound each, of the morels, and for certain will be cooking about six or seven meals over the next week with them.
We’re talking tiny pasta with Gruyere, English peas, spring onions, and blonds. Blacks on toast with raclette. Miso soup with blonds. White beans with blacks. Halibut belly with blonds. Toro with blacks. These babies have flavor.
Kanye was right when he threw in tracks of the models at clubs saying, “You think it’s easy…” Of course, that was way before he boarded the KK Train and kind of seemed a cartoon of his former self. But you know? You know that his music has a certainty and a unique and authoritative quality rooted in being a black intellectual growing up poor in Chicago. And I think we can all agree that’s a good thing. Plus: Bonus! He has a great sense of humor.
Kanye is a guiding light these days. Not only is his music insistent, but the inchoate resilience is inspiring. Really! It is.
As I prepare the morels, the asparagus, the peppers and onions and garlic for the grilled sausages? The music creates focus.
And, no, it’s not easy. Never is.
Writing weather what with overcast skies and a steady rain, but I’ll be on the road to Perdition. Only they’ve changed the name to Beverly. That’s OK, it’s all OK, how could it be otherwise? I mean, honestly: When the sands shift beneath your feet there isn’t any point in demanding firm ground.
Following Beverly, I’m going to light for the Territories. They say a man who’s willing to work hard can make it out West and, for darn-tooting, I’m about to find out if them pundits are telling the truth.
Meanwhile, the news from the front could be better. I hear tell that the blond morels won’t be available after this Friday so I’m putting in my order today. The Celtics face Melo tonight and how good will that be? Not very, I suspect. Doom and gloom, doom and gloom.
Thank goodness for the rain. It’s nature’s way of shuffling the deck.
It’s lovely to have the opportunity to cook food that is simple and driven by vegetables rather trying to prepare elaborate dishes from cookbooks about cuisines from places most of have never experienced.
Ramps are really wonderful, for example: At about $20 a pound, you need to have a plan for using these babies. I bought three bunches ($12) and planned three meals around them. Last night was a tomato sauce flavored with half a red onion and good olive oil and at the end I threw in a chopped up single bunch of ramps and tossed with parmigiano and black pepper. Add bigoli and keep stirring.
Let’s thank Jean, from Queens, who made me scrambled eggs and sausages this morning while I wrote reports. Thank you, Jean! And rock on, Kay, from Mo Bay!
Meanwhile: The dogs are flat out after a long walk in the woods by the sea.
In the cards: Bigoli and turkey meatballs.
Lots of writing, lots of waiting, lots of lots for sale.