Lately, I’ve been reading Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food written by Colman Andrews (Gotham Books, 2010). The book is an informative (and over-the-top, at times) read for those interested in cuisine and one of the industry’s notable names. The book fixates on El Bulli restaurant owner and chef Ferran Adrià, but it also examines the succession of people driven to create, refine, and serve cuisine at the famed Spanish restaurant that existed in obscurity for years.
A passage in chapter nine prompted thought about the nature of cooking, eating, and philosophizing about food. An excerpt follows:
The job of the cook has always been to change food physically: first to separate it from its natural environment, either himself or through the agency of a forager or farmer or the like — to uproot it, cut it down, pluck it, catch it, slaughter it; then to shape it for further attention by peeling it, seeding it, gutting it, cutting it up, discarding its inedible or infelicitous portions; then — and this is as good a definition of “cooking” as any — to alter its molecular structure, either through a process like drying, soaking, salting, smoking, or marinating (or through the actions of induced fermentation), or, more commonly, especially in the modern age, through the application of heat; and finally to combine it with other, complimentary, foods and/or to add seasonings or flavorings to render it more palatable. It wasn’t until sources of food supply became regularized, though, and we were able to exercise some control over the growing of plants and animals, through agriculture and husbandry, that we had the luxury of actually thinking about how to make food taste better instead of how to just get our hands on it in the first place. And it almost certainly wasn’t until certain societies, or segments of society, found that they had an abundance of food on a consistent basis that they began to philosophize about it — to appreciate it as something more than a mere (mere?) adjunct of survival; that gastronomy was born.
That well-written passage covers an immense span of human culture. It touches on hunter/gatherer approaches to sustenance. It alludes to the agrarian and manufacturing processing, production, and distribution of food. It lists different techniques to prepare wild and domesticated ingredients. And it addresses consumption of food physically and intellectually.
I’m stuck on this notion of philosophizing about food and what that means exactly in today’s environment of foodie-ism and social/media coverage. Is it a luxury for people to philosophize about food when they don’t have to expend time, energy, and money to procure it for survival? Or is that a misguided notion? How is this appreciation of food’s value, socially and aesthetically, influenced by economic class, culture, race, and tradition?
The term “philosophy” evokes images of academia, erudite scholars, daydreamers, and self-appointed experts espousing schools of thought. At a gut level, I think that food itself and the appreciation of its value and role has been used historically to provoke thought, express ideas, uphold culture, and illuminate issues in many forms – art, song, film, oral tradition, poetry, etc. – Further, that expression intersects with education, class, wealth, and other real-world social earmarks not limited to airy philosophical notions.
For instance, the heart of the Slow Food movement is based on considering local food sources, choosing sustainable and heritage foods, taking time to eat food as a social practice, and so forth. Its core tenets actually are a reminder of man’s relationship with food before industrial manufacturing and marketing and our go-go lifestyle came along.
In his passage above, Andrews doesn’t mention the modern accelerated pace of documenting food through media as another form of consumption. Such consumers contribute to the appreciation, marketing, craving, and repackaging of food as experience. We’ve become an audience of product, service, and entertainment consumers to be marketed to. Aided by the internet and cable television fostering the Age of Celebrity Chef and Food Personalities, the appreciation of food and the cook has evolved over the past 40 years (thanks Julia Child and Galloping Gourmet!) into something that seemingly connects us to, but feels removed from, our food supply. (Insert sarcasm here.) Thank goodness for today’s mobile apps so we can post our location, thoughts, and photos while at our favorite restaurant, farmer’s market, or food truck.
Andrews’ observation about food philosophy suggests a parting between the professional cooks that procure and prepare food and the rest of us that “philosophize” or appreciate it on many levels. Foodie has become a ubiquitous shorthand for those who enjoy cooking, eating, and seeking out good food at their retail fingertips. That is to say, a foodie is anyone with the disposable income and inclination to be one whether they adopt the moniker or not.
Meanwhile, the role of the modern cook (or chef) has gone beyond physically changing food and serving it in palatable form. Those cooks willing (and sometimes those who are not) to play the role of ambassador and social/media personality serve up a palatable presence for a (hopefully) appreciative audience. This loosely symbiotic relationship between foodie/customer/consumer and cook/social experience producer creates a full circle appreciation, if not outright celebration, of food as an extension (representation? expression?) of lifestyle.
To each their own. However, I have this gut feeling that there’s something much deeper and more powerful to how food can be more than a gastronomic indulgence, warm and fuzzy philosophy, or manifestation of an experience subsequently documented via social media. Are there examples of how food was and is integral to the state of our well-being as individuals and as a society? That food can play a pivotal role in larger events?
Take Upton Sinclair’s examination of the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel The Jungle. His nonfiction reporting examines the mechanized processing of food and also taps into critical social issues of that era regarding poverty, poor working conditions, and corruption by those in power. The book was a catalyst for change where the public and government took stock of what was happening in this food-based industry and made changes to reassert more control over food.
Here is a current pop culture example. The Hunger Games, a book series that spawned a movie, touches on vital social themes. The novel’s premise addresses the great relationship of food between individuals and a society. A post-apocalyptic world gets to the heart of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regarding food with a Machiavellian twist – procuring it, controlling it, lording it as a luxury for those in power, and using it as a device to develop social entertainment by subjugating those without access to food as recreational pawns. Despite its popularity, I don’t know that a book or movie like The Hunger Games will get anyone to think or act about food in philosophical terms any more than one of Michael Pollan’s books.
When it comes to food, we live in a weirdly connected/disconnected time. A significant portion of society in a First World country like the U.S. struggles to feed itself, as food policy expert Mark Winne or the folks at Harvesters can attest. At the same time just a few zip codes away from neighborhood food deserts, fellow citizens celebrate local cooks, farms, food-based businesses and locavorism. We’re getting back to the old ways of shopping at farmer’s markets, foraging, canning, and using traditional methods to make the most of food not simply for survival but to taste even better.
Far from concerns about procuring food for survival, foodies use social media to communicate their experiences with and about food – buying it, cooking it, seasoning it, celebrating it. To borrow from Andrews, certain segments of society have the luxury to philosophize about and appreciate food and the cooks, both professional and at-home, that prepare it. And other segments of society different than ours might be doing the same through the arts, passing on culinary traditions, and supporting establishments that foodies don’t know about yet.
With so many layers to our relationship with food distributed unevenly in society, it makes me wonder how these disparate experiences surrounding food will be expressed in our 21st century culture. Will the cooks, eaters, and philosophers from various segments of society grow closer or further apart?
Image courtesy of ElBulliFoundation.