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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Foodie Elitism–You Are What You Eat

I would like to think that I am a foodie in the best sense of the term.  The only canned foods I use are San Marzano(Denominazione Controllata) tomatoes grown and packed in Italy, and occasionally organic peas for Haitian Lambi Creole. Lunches are mighty salads with radishes, baby turnips, arugula, endive, celeriac, avocado, and Gruyere.  Dinner preferences are turbot, tile fish, snapper, and dorado; but a roast chicken with herbs can’t be beat.  In other words, I eat fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables because I like them and because I can afford them.  I am not out to support local farmers or to join the organic revolution.

I got my start early. My first generation Italian-American mother cooked spaghetti with anchovy sauce, eel, calamari stewed in their ink, sweetbreads, tripe, and calves’ brains. After a while she gave most of this up for Swanson’s TV dinners, Chef Boyardee, and Dinty Moore’s beef stew. “I’m tired of cooking”, she announced; and since my father had never set foot in the kitchen, processed food it was.  She gave in to my father’s pleas once a year on Christmas Eve, and we celebrated the Neapolitan Feast of the Seven Fishes, but except for the occasional meatloaf or pork chops, my mother took advantage of the new post-War supermarket easy-to-fix bounty.

I loved my mother’s cooking in Phase I and was disgusted by Phase II which was made intolerably worse by comparison with what had come before. My sister and I scraped the gooey and gummy canned ravioli into the trash when my mother wasn’t looking, and loaded up the Swanson’s Turkey and Stuffing with ketchup and mayonnaise to give it some taste.  We had been spoiled; but the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in to our advantage.  Not only had we learned about good cooking, but grew to hate the salty, sweet, mushy, and totally unappetizing mass market foods that everybody seemed to be eating. We were already foodies.

As an adult it never occurred to me to eat anything but home-cooked – my home-cooking as it turns out, for I have always been the cook in the family.  By the time we returned to Washington after ten years in India and Latin America, my repertoire had expanded far beyond Italian, and I prepared curries, tandoori, alu gobi, and palak paneer just like Mrs. Tejpal, my Gujarati cooking guru who wrote cookbooks.  Gujarati cooking is among the best in India.  It is strictly vegetarian, and the famous thali is an individual platter of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty foods.

I cooked refried beans, sautéed plantains, arepas, sopa de menudencias, sopa de patas, humitas, and saltenas recreated from my times in Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Central America.  I reproduced hot green curries and Squid with Basil that I had eaten in Thailand, cooked spicy Chinese dishes with berries and nuts that I learned about in Penang.  Velveeta was a goner after many trips to Paris, but since soft French cheeses were a long time coming to America, I had to load up before the flight home.  After every stopover from Africa or Asia, I stopped at Barthelemy’s, perhaps the best cheese shop in Paris, and had them triple-wrap my Pont L’Eveque, Camembert, and Fougere for the long flight to New York.

This is all to say that I have been a foodie since my grandmother first cooked her ‘all-day’ sauce for us – a thick, rich tomato sauce cooked for hours with sausage, veal, pork, and beef.  I was only six years old but remembered that big iron pot, the fragrance of garlic and spicy meat, and the lava-like bubbling of the sauce.

I have never thought of myself as a foodie or a gourmet because I have always cooked with inspiration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe.  There were no canned goods in India when I lived in Delhi, and Parisians still did their daily marketing at small greengrocers, butchers, and fishmongers. When I returned to Washington, the pickins were slim.  I bought fish at the Maine Fish Market on the Southeast Waterfront, the only place in Washington which had a selection of fresh fish.  I schlepped out to far Northeast to buy Italian products from A. Litteri’s, found prime ribs and lamb shanks at Larimer’s, but had to wait for balsamic vinegar, cold-pressed olive oil, European-style butter, and other ingredients that are now staples.

So I am delighted that America has caught up with the rest of the world and thanks to visionaries like Julia Child and Alice Waters, ‘gourmet’ food is abundant, if not yet in big chunks of the South and Midwest.

Food, however, has become a social marker.  You are what you eat has never more been true.  The Huffington Post (4.18.14) recently did an article on Twenty-Two Hipster Foods (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/15/hipster-food_n_5146632.html) 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.

I rarely drink coffee in America because I have tasted the real thing, the ambrosia of real Italian espresso – a thimbleful of rich, dark, fragrant, chocolate-hinted, foamy coffee; downed in a swallow, but remembered for hours.  Nothing else compares.  However, I prefer to retain the memory of my baristas in Chianace, Montepulciano, and Sienna; and visit them when I am back in Italy.  Searching for the Holy Grail in Bayonne I know will be fruitless as will be my attempts to set up a coffee meth lab in my kitchen.

The foodie thing has expanded far beyond the hipster havens of the Mission or Brooklyn; and more serious foodies have no irony. A true devotee of Alice Waters and Rene Redzepi will eat only the very best local, organic ingredients; and will search out those restaurants whose chefs combine natural ingredients with European stylish presentation.

Locavores – an offshoot of the organic and foodie movements – can go a bit overboard.  I have friends who live on a ranch in Idaho and who want to support the local economy as well as eat organic, free-range foods.  The result may be philosophically satisfying, but taste-poor.  Wild elk and antelope are gamy, tough, tasteless, and stringy; and although culling the herds does indeed contribute to the local ecology, most diners if honest prefer a Kansas City prime Angus ribeye.

The point is not so much the food or the ingredients – just about anything can be good if prepared and cooked properly (elk, for example, is not bad if stewed all day in a spicy cumin and orange zest sauce) – but the attitude behind them.  According to hipsters, locavores, or foodies in general, there is only one way to eat.

Which brings me to the South.  If there was ever a non-foodie region of the country it is the heartland of Mississippi and Alabama.  A Northern friend of mine travelling to the South for the first time, thought she would try collards. “Do you prepare them with a lot of fat?”, she asked, concerned about calories and cholesterol.

“Honey”, replied the waitress, “As much as it’ll take.  You in the South now, Sugar.”

As apocryphal as that story may be – and hell, yes, there’s a lot of fat in Southern cooking – it is not entirely fair. The best fried chicken I have ever eaten was at a gas station in Eupora, MS.  The trick is simple – get the oil near-smoking hot, quickly brown and cook the chicken, and it comes out crispy, tasty, and without a drop of grease.

Most Northerners conflate Southerners’ bad diet – fried chicken and fried everything else (fish, meat, okra, tomatoes, potatoes) – with bad habits in general.  These critics overlook poverty and social disadvantage – Mississippi ranks at the bottom of all socio-economic indicators – and condemn the whole lot for their institutionalized racism, ignorant Creationism, radical Right Wing politics, guns, and Neanderthal attitudes towards women.  The fact that they eat tons of fatback, bacon grease, lard, and fried catfish; and are morbidly obese because of it, only confirms and consolidates the prejudice. There is no give for the family working three shit jobs, living in a trailer, trying to make ends meet and eating at McDonalds to give the kids a night-out treat.  There is only snooty sniffing at the 50 lb.bags of corn meal, the racks of soup bones and chicken necks, and boxes of grits and cornpone.

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.

America is a democratic country, one-man-one-vote, regular free and fair elections, and a transparent judiciary.  Even though many citizens have become increasingly concerned about a perceived loss of individual liberties and increasing divides between rich and poor, it is still a vibrant free market where money is the great equalizer.

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.

Foodie-ism is a benign but telling marker of the elite. Foodies are cultists who may not be as crazy and militant as the Millennialists in Humboldt County or the Idaho panhandle, but like them have an absolutist view of the higher value of their ethos.

I have to admit I have benefitted from the foodie craze.  I have learned a lot from San Francisco hipsters who compose salads with more unusual ingredients than I ever could have imagined. The essence of hipster cuisine – like fashion – is unique, often ironic combinations; and many of them work very well.  I have learned from Alice Waters, the great Asian fusion chefs of the Bay Area, and the vitality of yuppie cooks.

I am only amused by the transformation of food as a need, to food as a pleasure, to food as cultural icon. Only in America has the transition been handled with such style.

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