Culinary Drivers

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

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.

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I’ll drink to that!

Alas, a quick look at any cookbook or history textbook will show that such attempts are ultimately foolhardy. Whatever we may wish to be the case, food and dining are intimately tied to people, and that means their histories, economic backgrounds, and yes- their politics too. If you want to discuss food and its enjoyment with any kind of intelligence, the impact of these forces cannot be denied.

That said, how does that actually work? What actually moves food forward in this world?

After a bit of thinking, I think I’ve got it pegged down to four major influences. There are likely more, including some obvious ones- climate, geography, changes in local ecosystems, etc. The four categories I have here, however, stand out because they are man-made. These are the things humans do that change what and how we eat- which changes US right back.

1. Economics


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.”

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Also well-known to broke young adults on a tight grocery budget


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.

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Why was Grandma always magic in the kitchen? Because she remembers having to be.

2. Cultural Intercourse

Yes, my choice of words in this part is well-advised. Like people, countries and cultures tend to bump uglies- with and without the best intentions.
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. 

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The flip side of the coin here is- to some people, anyway- more positive: immigration. When a people come to a new country hoping to build a new life, many try to assimilate voluntarily, while not completely losing touch with their native culture . In many cases, however, the host country is maybe less-than-welcoming, and the new neighbors band together in their otherness and commonality. We get Chinatowns. Koreatowns. Little Mexicos. Little Italies.
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. 

3. Innovation

People are an industrious lot. It’s in our nature to craft and invent ways to make things easier, and make the best what’s available. I can’t hope to give a comprehensive history of culinary technology here- particularly as Bee Wilson has already done so.

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.”

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If that sounds like a Zen riddle, don’t worry- follow me on this.

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.


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In ancient China, the problem is less technological and more logistical. Rice is the grain of choice, and organizing the people to farm it is a Herculean task. The farmers need to be fed quickly and (ideally) on the cheap. It make sense that small chunks of food cook faster than bigger chunks of food, so why not make EVERYTHING small? Make it so people don’t have to cut their food as they eat, and have the cook make it well-flavored to go well with their bland, starchy staple.  Thus the method of stir-frying is born- and an entire repertoire of dishes emerges based around the technique. Every new culinary technique people come up with fixes a problem, and creates a whole new area of cuisine.

As we talk about innovation as a culinary driver, however, we can’t help but look at the current state of “molecular gastronomy.” Molecular gastronomy is fascinating- utilizing laboratory equipment and different processes to develop new ways of cooking and presenting food. Simply put, molecular gastronomy is innovating for the sake of innovation, and trying to answer questions that no one is asking yet.
​Do you REALLY need a whisk to whip an egg?
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.

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Umm.. I’m okay with just DRINKING my OJ in the morning. Put the syringe down please…

4. Changing Attitudes

Honestly, this could be a whole entry on its own. As little as 30 years ago, being a “celebrity” chef meant you wrote a few books and maybe had a tv show, like Julia Child or Jacques Pepin. Food fads moved extremely slowly when they happened at all- the dominant attitude was “biggest/best deal on food is good food” and that was that.
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Aaaaaand the Monty Python song is in your head now.

With the explosion of telecommunications, however, there came an explosion in awareness among the dining public. It was easier than ever to learn how other people were living their lives, whether across town or across the globe. As awareness of different diets and different lifestyles grew, the craving for exploration and novelty kept pace. People who could afford it wanted to eat new and different- and were willing to elevate the people who could provide that difference to near-godlike celebrity. If you had the knowledge, you could rule a corner of the culinary world.
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Alice Waters- making you sad in the produce section since 1971

​20 years ago, the gluten-free, vegan, pescatarian, and other diets were known only to their practitioners and those immediately near them. As the world shrank, however, that culinary awareness grew, and all it took was a couple folks pointing at someone else’s plate and saying “Hey- whatcha eating there?”

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.

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But is it locally sourced?

After all this, there’s one question everyone still asks: where is food going next? What’s the next big thing? Who’s making it, and what will it be like?

My answer to that?

​”Well… What are you eating tonight?”

Stay Classy,