As I said last entry, I try to keep things on here apolitical. I really hate bringing up social policy, economics, and other junk on here that would encourage any of my readers to assign me to a specific camp- or assign themselves to one. Instead, I like covering things everyone loves and can agree or disagree on good-naturedly: food and drink, and how to enjoy it.
That said, how does that actually work? What actually moves food forward in this world?
Watching TV or flipping through food magazines, you can’t get far without seeing porngraphic pictures of a hotshot new chef offering up mind-numbingly gorgeous composed plates of delicate food, and lines like “the new thing,” “visionary,” and “innovator” being draped on them like tinsel on a Christmas tree. All of it- ALL of it!- can be yours if you don’t mind waiting 10 years for a reservation to pay $2000.
Centuries (indeed millennia) ago, though, the people that pioneered the techniques and concepts that hot new chef uses wouldn’t have been in Forbes. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even have made a personals ad in USA Today.
They were peasants, trying to feed themselves, and the tricks they figured out in order to live can be boiled down into a mantra known by every chef today:
“TAKE WHAT YOU HAVE AND MAKE IT TASTE GOOD.”
The delicate plates of offal, the humble meat pie, the stir fry, and more are the legacy left to us by our tired, hungry, broke-as-a-joke forebearers who dug up what they could afford and had to find some way to make eating it enjoyable- there was no other option. It’s almost cliche now to point out the irony that those delicious and delicate $250 plates of rabbit kidneys, goose livers, sheep’s brain and lamb hearts- feasted on now by the well-off- were once the only things the poor could afford, after the rich had run off with the steaks, chops, and tenderloins.
Beyond the poor field workers digging up what they could find, our earliest culinary records also give us recipes and concepts that would have been utterly impossible without hoards of kitchen servants and slaves. As Bee Wilson tells it in her fantastic treatise on culinary evolution, “Consider the Fork,” recipes were often written to be READ by the educated noble, and given as verbal instruction to laborers in the kitchen, dating back to the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until (as any smart-ass culinary grad will tell you) the rise of Carême that the notion of cooking as a PROFESSION was born- but even then only the wealthy could afford the services of someone so capable in the kitchen, or initially eat out when restaurants came about.
Whether you are looking a thousand years in the past, for fifty years into the future, if you want to know who the culinary wizards are, the people who can whip something tasty out of nothing, look for the people who literally have no other choice.
2. Cultural Intercourse
Read a history book, and get ready for a guaranteed epic of warfare, mayhem, slavery, slaughter, imperialism, colonialism, manifest destiny, and every other excuse a culture will think up to cause havoc on another.
When one country or culture beats another into submission, a number of (unpleasant) things happen to the loser– usually forced assimilation. The losing culture gets folded in to the dominant one, or the dominant one forces itself on the other and eradicates it. In the best cases, the loser gets to maintain some cultural identity. In others.. well, consider this:
– African slaves brought elements of their cooking with them in chains to America, elements that eventually contributed to the birth of Cajun, Creole, Soul Food, and other elements of American Southern cuisines.
– Victorious Crusaders brought sugar and citrus back to Europe from the Levant and Middle East. Italy in particular became famous for its citrus.
– The unofficial “national food” of England- curry- was swiped from their centuries-long colonialism of India.
These people maybe be far from their homeland, but their tastebuds aren’t- and they establish supply lines. Eastern-European Jews figure out how to get salmon for lox and start baking bagels. Jamaicans demand oxtail and offer pidgeon peas and rice. Mexicans demand corn masa and chiles- and they all figure out how to get it, how to make it tamales for each other, and eventually everyone else.
For the host country, these foreign cuisines become the foot-in-the door to another culture -however hesitantly accepted. A century ago, spicy food was thought to cause bad character, and the Italians use of garlic made them the worst of the bunch! In the end, though, the door swings both ways- the immigrants get the welcome they want in their new home, and the hosts get a taste of something new that they might have never known.
The thesis of “Consider The Fork” can be summed up thus: “Food and dining have changed based on changing technology, which changed based on food and dining.”
The single oldest method of cooking we had- roasting over open fire- had its problems. The meat tends to burn, so it needs to be turned regularly. A spit is run through the meat and it gets spun over the fire: the rotisserie is born.
Is it possible to cook something without applying any heat?
What happens if I submit this pile of watermelon to 60 PSI of pressure for one week? (That one is actually delicious.)
Obviously there is ample opportunity for some Frankenstein-style screw-ups, and molecular cooks asking “Can I” rather than “Should I” (Really, guys? Does EVERYTHING need to be spherified? Do we NEED avocado mist?) All the same, better that then stagnation.
4. Changing Attitudes
Now, as I walk through Portland, I can hurl a sack of potatoes and hit a cafe that offers gluten-free and vegan dining options, with proud displays promising their adherence to the locavore, slow-food, and hoof-and-snout movements, and assurances that everything is free-range, grass-fed, organic, wild-caught, and ancient/traditional style.
My answer to that?
”Well… What are you eating tonight?”