"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Food–The New Art Form?

Many Italian Americans have grown up with good food, and despite the attempts of first generation mothers to expunge any and all telltale signs of Italian heritage, they were good cooks, and their sons and daughters never forgot their all-day meat sauce, baked artichokes with garlic, lasagna, and eggplant Parmesan. The all-day sauce was the hallmark of a good Italian American kitchen - plenty of oil and garlic,  oregano, a dash of hot pepper flakes, and three kinds of meat, and let the sauce simmer from sunup to sundown.  It was thick, sweet, fragrant, and delicious.


Everyone had an Auntie Angie and their lasagna, gooey with mozzarella and a tomato sauce even and topped with browned mozzarella; their corn fritters, soaked in oil, and as sweet as any dessert; their ham pies; and antipasto with salami, prosciutto, cured olives, sharp cheese, and anchovies.  

Christmas Eve dinner was special.  Although many cooks did not cover all the Five Fishes of Neapolitan lore, there was always spaghetti with anchovy sauce, baked eels, and squid in spicy tomato sauce.

Children of these great cooks were happy to see the foodie movement arrive. Alice Waters, the doyenne of the foodie, organic, locavore movement transformed food into an experience.  Not only were her dishes innovative, very Californian and American, but food in her hands became more than just something delicious.  Presentation and architecture were as important as the ingredients.  


Exquisite, thinly slices of fish were perched on top of baby arugula covering a quail egg, all of which was sprinkled with caviar.  There were coulis, drizzled oils, a creative and unusual mixes of ingredients.  Fish and pancetta or pork bellies, oysters and bacon, sea urchin and fresh figs. Happy diners took pictures of their meals and posted them online, and the artfully presented dish joined the art of the artistic photo.

Recently this foodie craze has gone Baroque.  It is hard to get a steak or even to feel satisfied after a five-course meal.  The architecture and the painterly display of bits of candied ginger, gooseberries, and organic Malabar cashews have taken over the main ingredients.  Perhaps the most extreme example of this Baroque combination of organic locavore is Rene Redzepi, a Danish chef who cooks only with what he can forage in the wild:
For 15 minutes Redzepi and a companion nibbled on various petals, leaves and shoots, attracting stares from onlookers in a campground nearby, who no doubt wondered at their sanity and zest for roughage.
“So much of what you see here, it’s edible,” said Mr. Redzepi, who regularly dispatches his staff to collect the scurvy grass and sorrel, as well as what he called sea coriander, beach mustard and bellflowers. All of these make their way into his dishes, along with puffin eggs from Iceland and musk-ox meat from Greenland. (Frank Bruni, NYT, 7.6.10)

William Deresiewicz wrote an article in the NY Times (A Matter of Taste 10.27.12) in which he contended that not only has food gone Baroque, it has replaced art as creative expression.  Far from applauding this phenomenon, he criticizes the 30-Somethings who have given up the depth, intellectual challenge, excitement of the mind and soul that great art has always produced and become content with the architecture and painterly displays of fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables.
Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.
Food has become an industry as well as an art form:
It has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride, while maintaining, as culture did in the old days, a sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched at a later stage, in both cases, by a globally minded eclecticism.
The author, however, overstates the case.  He forgets that we are a nation of faddists  moving from one craze to another, often assembling and conflating them to add cachet.  Hardcore foodies are usually into yoga and biking, hipster clothes and thrift shop fashion.

Most of these San Francisco foodies are also making millions at Google, Facebook, and a thousand other IT start-ups in the Bay Area; and have Harvard, MIT, and Stanford educations.  Yet they like most of the rest of us have lost our taste for ‘high culture’.  Classical music stations are closing every year.  The audiences at most opera and symphony performances are well into their Medicare years.  Younger people will take a flip through the latest blockbuster at the National Gallery to see what the fuss  about Vermeer is all about but are uninterested in smaller, more unique collections. 

"A good risotto is a fine thing", says Deresiewicz, " but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul."

Yes and no. Food has become a social marker.  You are what you eat has never more been true.  The Huffington Post (4.18.14)  did an article on Twenty-Two Hipster Foods among which are ramps, homemade pickles, PBR, kimchee, Brussels sprouts, fancy donuts, craft beer, cauliflower, and ‘anything foraged’.  There is irony in hipster cooking, so the choice of the common (cauliflower and Pabst Blue Ribbon) is not surprising.  Hipsters are not locavores or Earth-firsters, so they won’t turn down a seared fresh foie gras, and will push the exotic up against endangerment; but all in all they have a good sense of food, are inventive; and the mix of ironic and edible often produces very interesting dishes.

The issue is not with the foods per se but the iconic nature of them. Ironic has its limits, and while an occasional burger at a White Tower in a sketchy neighborhood is definitely in, a Big Mac is not. The cult demands intent, desire, patience, and time.  There apparently is such a thing as a perfect cup of coffee, and I know hipsters who have spent thousands on trying to make it.  

One young friend bought a used espresso machine from Padua (good coffee can only made using seasoned machines), heat and pressure registers from an engineering manufacturing company in Gary, and coffee from Brazil, but roasted in Italy.  He tried coffee at every independent coffee shop in San Francisco, tasting for that Italian uniqueness that he had only found in Tuscany.

Eating well is a function of geography, exposure, education, and most of all income. The fresh, local, organic produce at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market in DC is expensive.  The prime, dry-aged NY strips at Whole Foods or Balducci’s are $20 a pound.  Snapper, Spanish mackerel, tile fish, and Portuguese sardines are almost that.  There is nothing like the fresh, never-frozen Gulf jumbo shrimp, but a meal for two is easily $30.

Washingtonians appreciate the quality, have the cultural exposure and culinary experience to know what to do with exotic varieties of fish, innards, and strange, foraged weeds; and have the money to pay for it all.  It is easy to become a foodie if your socio-economic stars are properly aligned.

Some foodie groups carry the flag of health – it is stupid and ignorant to eat what you should know is not healthy.  Others raise the flag of the little man, the small farmer; and protest through their purchase of local food the depredations and greed of Kraft and Monsanto.  Still others insist on terroir and provenance. Animal rights advocates feel that inhumane treatment of chickens at Frank Perdue’s pens on the Eastern Shore is tantamount to torture, cruelty, and murder.  Finally hipsters refuse to acknowledge anyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ – the thousands of clueless people who can’t seem to wrap their heads around a meal with foie gras and PBR.

What many critics overlook, however, is the importance of social class distinctions which are alive and well in America.  Class has simply moved out of the established redoubts of the Main Line, Nantucket, and Greenwich to the social cloud. Privileged enclaves are no longer physical neighborhoods, but states of mind. Class is still defined by money, but now, more than anything else, taste.

Appreciating an elegant, unique, and remarkably exciting meal for its flavor, display, and plate architecture is no different from admiring a Vermeer.  Cultural tastes have changed - food is the new art form - and the need for social status is as strong as ever.  

While Deresiewicz may lament the decline of great art, music, and literature and the intellectual and spiritual void their departure leaves behind, America is nothing if not a dynamic, robust, inquisitive, and optimistic place; and to assume a dumbing down based on a fading interest in the Old Masters misses the point. Culture has no permanence nor inherent value.  Eventually the works of Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Brahms, and Leonardo will be archived and stored away; and creations just as valid will replace them.  

Artistic food is neither here nor there.  At best it is not only an expression of the same instincts for line, and color as classical artists had; but engages the sense of taste as well.  A multi-dimensional installation.  It may be a stop on the way to something more creative and more 'meaningful'; but even if it is just a temporal digression, it still represents both artistic creativity and American ingenuity; and for that we should celebrate it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.