In Defense of Food
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, William Deresiewicz issues an attack on food, lamenting the direction of this country’s cultural appetites. "Maybe we were finally on our way to Old World sophistication," he writes of his hopes at the beginning of the foodie movement. "Today tapenade, tomorrow Tintoretto. But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it." Deresiewicz goes on to present food as a usurper of classical art’s rightful throne, claiming it unfairly occupies art's role in society — and does so in all the worst ways. He refers to the present-day atmosphere of one-upmanship and snobbery in food that we have all been witness to: something about my free-range grass-fed Wagyu beef trumping your organic heirloom broccolini, or how I know a guy who can get you illegal foie gras and Alba truffles under the table. I'm familiar with this routine; it's tiresome at best and obnoxious at worst. But those of us who really know food measure it with our noses and tongues, by the love we give it and the contact we have with it, not by the quantity of adjectives in its name or its price by the pound.
Those who know me, if asked, would label me a "foodie." The rub therein is that I actually dislike the word, as it often conjures upturned noses and smug disciples of The Church of Whole Foods. To be a foodie, for me, is to love food, whole-heartedly and unconditionally; not just in a decadent, "fat kid attacking a chocolate cake" kind of way, but in a way that you celebrate it, that you find the beauty in all of its many forms. I grew up at the kitchen counter alongside my mother as she nurtured this love in me, and I chose to become a chef in order to spread this love and joy to others. From good, old mac and cheese to foie gras and truffles, to a spectacular summer peach, the spectrum of food is one filled with joy, pleasure, and beauty.
It really chaps my Red Delicious to read an opinion such as Deresiewicz’s, though I know many share his proclivities. After all, people pay exorbitant amounts of money for things that they barely end up using, from truffle oil to Viking ranges, simply for the showoff factor. But worse still is that while food has been caught up in all the mess, this man has to go along and take another stab at poor food, giving it such a hard time for "replacing" art. "Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore," he complains, "but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture." This sounds to me like little more than a despondent realization that your favorite things aren’t as cool as they used to be. In fact, there has been no elimination or erasure of classical music, or Renaissance art; it’s perfectly OK for society to make room for new likes and interests.
Nothing can replace art. To suggest that food has done so is to make a couple of pretty grand, sweeping generalizations. That "art" can be summed up into a small enough package to suggest that anything at all could actually replace it is silly. Art exists all around us, in myriad forms, and to suggest that it has been eclipsed by something is likely a function of your inability to recognize or appreciate it. Furthermore, to say that the highbrow obsession with food is so grandiose that it could actually have the power to obliterate all art is pretty aggressive; it sounds to me like someone's definition of art is limited, to say the least.
And for the record: yes, food may not be able to evoke the same emotions or reactions as other art, say, the Sistine Chapel, or an adorable kitten hanging off a tree branch. To relegate food, however, as "not art," as Deresiewicz does, is decidedly unfair. Watch the Adriàs in action; or admire the hues and accents and visual textures on a high-end entrée plate that has been carefully assembled. Better yet, taste a soup that someone spent literally all day making. And I don't just mean that the soup sat on the burner all day; I mean someone spent all day tasting and adjusting it. Anytime you put a part of yourself in something, and give it love, and intend to present it, you are creating art. I think of the best chefs I know personally, and I would have to be blind not to see each one's personality come out in his or her food: from the ostentatious to the vain to the daring to the patient and tender to the intellectual, it would not be much of a stretch to say many chefs express their souls in the food they prepare.
"A curry is not an idea," Deresiewicz declares. True, and neither is a painting: it’s canvas and paint. But from the right hands to the right mouth, a curry can bring forth a rush of memories, emotions, and yes, ideas. While the level of reaction one can evoke through art may indeed change based on the medium, the potential for emotion is indubitably present in food. I say this with as much humility as possible and in the interest of making the point: I have evoked tears, on more than one occasion, when cooking for friends.
It’s easy to forget to pay attention, to see food as unremarkable because it’s a part of our everyday life. But we must remember that in food there is history, culture, tradition, and family. Food is at the center of celebrations, of gatherings, even funerals (the good ones anyway... everyone knows you need to eat your emotions to help grieve). I worry that the more it gets caught up in the glitz and glamor of molecular gastronomy, television, and marketing that it will be corrupted in a whole new way. We saw food die a little bit during the industrialization of this country. People stopped caring what was in their food and ate what was marketed to them or factory-shipped to their local supermarkets. From those beginnings came the present days of growing childhood obesity and putting processed corn in everything we make. Now that we have started to move back to a place where we pay attention to what we eat, while we're making it and while we’re eating it, good food lies in danger of crossing to the other side of the spectrum and becoming nothing more than a restaurant opening to talk about at a cocktail party or a sustainable uni purveyor your father-in-law hooked you up with.
Apparently yearning for the days when people didn’t give their meals a second thought, Deresiewicz writes: "Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion." In the context of his article, this comes across as if it were a bad thing; ironically, he also presents this as if it is something new and unwelcome, like his grandson’s rock music being played too loud. He completely fails to acknowledge that food was every one of those things to human society, centuries before Mozart ever penned a requiem or da Vinci made a lady smile.
At the heart of the matter, it is up to us, as a country, to get to know what we eat, from the ground up, and love food for what it is, and for all that it is: nourishment, pleasure, and, in the right hands, art. Have a conversation with your butcher about where your steak comes from, not so you can impress your neighbor with your knowledge, but to ensure you’re feeding your family in the best way you can. Buy some truffle oil, if you want; but play with it, learn from it, use it to elevate your food, however you choose to. Go out to eat somewhere special, not to be seen but to see; pay attention to what arrives to your table. Consider it. Enjoy it. Appreciate it.
At the end of his article, Deresiewicz says that we, as a country, "are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls." Personally, I don't think we have any clue what our souls are; it's possible we never will. But I'd say the palate seems like as good a place as any to start looking.