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.
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?
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
4. Changing Attitudes
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.
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?”