September 22nd, 2005

wine and cheese

Food philosophy

Several of my friends sometimes get an indulgent, amused look on their faces when I start nattering on about this recipe or that restaurant. However, if pressed, they might admit that it's usually to their gastronomic benefit to allow me to steer the culinary ship when we gather together.

Why is food so important to me?

It's not just the taste that's a source of pleasure: it's the ritual aspect. We celebrate with it at times of renewal and new beginnings, and comfort with it during partings and endings. Food is extraordinarily egalitarian: it crosses cultural, political, and racial boundaries. We may not share skin color, language, or beliefs, but we all have taste buds. It's one of the few things I can think of that celebrates differences while bringing people together. At communal gatherings like potlucks, everyone gets individual recognition by contributing a dish that may be a local specialty or an old family favorite, and everyone gets to enjoy the unity of fellowship and feasting.

To me, it's very powerful that I may not have a single thing in common with someone politically, but I can recognize that he or she is a mighty fine cook. I'm sure there are many recipes that have outlasted governments.

Food can be humble or highbrow, as long as it tastes good. For me, the tangible results produced by cooking provide tremendous gratification. It's constructive, like carpentry. You're assembling a meal when you put together just the right combination of ingredients, and it's very rewarding when people appreciate what you've built as a labor of love for them because you care about their pleasure. It's not even the praise, though: just simply chopping a carrot can be cathartic.

I enjoy the earthy pragmatism and hedonism exhibited by food authors like Nigella Lawson, Tony Bourdain, and Alton Brown. I am honestly awestruck by the altars of culinary worship erected by chefs like Guenter Seeger and Thomas Keller. I love all of it.

Well, almost all of it. While I love dialogue about cooking, I get frustrated when people get all rigid about diet. Diet and nutrition, while related, can sometimes get in the way of simple enjoyment. As a general rule, I don't much care for fanatics in any vein: I'm glad that veganism is working out for you, and I'm pleased that your low-carb diet is improving your quality of life, but please don't bludgeon everyone with it. I'm not saying butter and sugar and fat every day: I'm just saying balance is generally a good thing. I try to apply it to most aspects of my life.

When I entertain friends with special dietary restrictions, my mood on dealing with it varies. Sometimes, it's an enjoyable challenge, because there are millions of good recipes out there, and it can be fun to find something delicious that you might not otherwise have explored because there was no particular incentive to do so. Sometimes, limitations can foster creativity that produces serendipitous results.

Other times, I get frustrated, because I may have a fantastic recipe that I've been dying to try, but the scheduled guest is allergic to / hates / is limited by doctor's orders due to heart problems, pregnancy, or some other ailment, and cannot have what I've planned. Dinner parties can be particularly challenging if you know your husband is genetically challenged by cilantro, one of the guests is very lactose intolerant, another of the guests despises mushrooms, and so on. Yes, I know I'm not technically obligated to fix something that perfectly meets everyone's dietary regimen, but I wouldn't be cooking for them if I didn't care about them and their well-being. I want to see them in good health and have them with me for a long, long time. Everything in moderation, and all that.

Even given the occasional obstacles, the fellowship of entertaining is far too important for me to ever give up. I recently visited a friend's house to cook with her. I'm reasonably articulate, but I falter in describing how much good that time did me and how cathartic it was to pause like that in the midst of a busy weekend. I'm not yet a member of the Slow Food movement, but from what I've read, they seem to have the right idea. More than that, though, although she's a very dear and close friend with whom I can always be myself, this activity seemed to loosen our tongues even more than usual. We talked about things like how we both felt when we were out of work and dependent on our spouses, and how hard that was. I let go of emotional burdens that I didn't even know I was carrying on my shoulders. I do not exaggerate when I say that, over a month later, I still feel better for the release, and I am grateful to both her and the process for feeding this intangible appetite.

Movies such as Like Water for Chocolate do a fairly good job of conveying the concept that the preparation and enjoyment of food provides emotional sustenance as well as physical nourishment.

There's something very positive about setting a bountiful table. At my birthday, I mentioned to my friend, Brian, that I'd made too much food. He laughed merrily and observed: "You always do." I identify with Nigella Lawson's comment in Nigella Bites about never having knowingly undercatered.

Sharing food is also about learning and enrichment. It pleases me tremendously both to educate and be educated; to nurture and be nurtured in this way. I love trying new things, and I love exposing people to new foods that they end up liking and incorporating into their schedule.

Food is sensual. Food is local. Food is global.

Food provides insight into who we are: food anthropologists can track the paths of early explorers by analyzing what foodstuffs they introduced to native populations. I can identify a Southerner by a variety of culinary markers including, but not limited to, a preference for sweet iced tea and mayonnaise. It's a literal example of French politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's famous quote: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."

Food is family: it can connect the generations even when the originators of a given recipe are long-gone. One of my most treasured possessions is my Larousse Gastronomique, not because of its contents, but because of its origin: it is the copy my beloved maternal grandparents gave to my parents early in their marriage. Food is absolutely part of my family's legacy: the recipe I'm perhaps best-known for is one I adapted from my Great-Aunt Ruth on my Dad's side (Cheese Wafers, for the curious). And I still remember well the first meal I cooked for my husband when we were dating: my Mom's Pork Chops in Sour Cream with a side of Herbed Carrots, followed up by a chocolate pie recipe given to my mother before we moved to South Carolina. One of the very first questions David's mother asked when he told her he'd met a girl he was serious about was: "Can she cook?"

Food brings out the best in people: it's a means of expressing love. I still get choked up by the story of Chef Paul Prudhomme's compassion and generosity in getting his gear together and going in to feed the hungry in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:

"'We've got generators, food and trailers, and we'll be in a parking lot cooking for anyone who needs it,'' he said. "We're going home, baby!''

Food also brings out the worst in us at times. Depriving someone of food is a powerful expression of hatred. Fasting for religion or starving for a cause is a dramatic expression of commitment.

Food is life: I think of Band Aid, and the chorus of "Feed the World" in the benefit song "Do They Know it's Christmas?" I remember Live Aid, and the people who gathered together to fight famine and help humanity.

People may laugh, and label me a foodie. I just smile. Given all of the above, I think it's a pretty worthy thing to be.