Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food for Thought

I read an article over the weekend that provoked some questions about what we should value in food. The article’s three-way conversation (between two chefs and one well known author and television personality) came down in the end to a debate over ingredients or technique as paramount. 

Unsurprisingly given the cutting edge techniques employed by one of the chefs, he argued strongly that the tendency to exalt the ingredients over the chef is leading to mediocrity. It is a mistake to focus on just ingredients, he suggested. He asserted that if one is paying a certain amount of money to eat in a certain caliber of restaurant one should assume the ingredients are going to be high quality but what makes a meal rise above mediocrity is what the chef does. That the cooking is what counts. 

I so see the point. It’s bound to come up in every creative outlet in some form. In writing: if you have a good subject matter for a stellar story, how much is attributable to the word gifts of the author? If a photograph depicts something beautiful, how much value is placed on the eye of the person behind the lense? Etc. etc.  In essence he seemed to be arguing that quality cooking is about what the creative artist (here the chef) does with the raw materials he or she is given. 

Which is true. Except it obliterates some sad realities about our current food system. Leave aside for a moment that whether or not we “should” be able to assume a certain quality of taste in ingredients in a certain class of restaurant, I don’t think we always can do that. And leave aside for a minute that the kind of food this particular chef cooks is to the food most of us eat as haute courture is to jeans and a t-shirt. 

I’m not entirely sure where I come down in this particular argument. Being someone who both enjoys supporting local farms and purveyors and someone who is frustrated and infuriated by the trendy lemming-like rush to “farm-to-table” concepts, I get the frustration. Simply sourcing hard to find heirloom ingredients for a restaurant does not a five-star dining experience make. But at the same time, democratizing the awareness that foods grown, cultivated and bred in certain ways improves both the quality of those foods and their impact on the world seems like a positive step.

Friday, January 13, 2012

This Little Pig

At lunch today at a local restaurant I had a visceral reminder of how much food culture has shifted since I grew up the child of 60's-era hippies (as previously referenced and illustrated here, I mean really look at that hair! the lapels!), primarily in the figure of the enormous half pig carried through the dining room and plunked on the counter of the open kitchen. I was psyched, but suffice to say my semi-back to the land parental units gave us a childhood that wasn't entirely mainstream. Wonderful, yes. Mainstream? Not so much.

The fact that we ate eggs from our own chickens and raised pigs and a cow to eat isn't really your usual 1980s childhood tale. Granted, in rural Vermont where I grew up it was. Southern Vermont is steeped in rural familiarity with small farming enterprises; rural areas held on to those memories of where our food came from long after it became a styrofoam wrapped commodity in most places.

But for mainstream U.S. society food became something that seemed to sprout out of thin air in the refrigerated case at the supermarket. That divide was very clear to me in the decade since I left Vermont for urban areas. Apparently it was unusual that we had a cow, incidentally named Roast Beef (RB for short-a tag my father and I each steadfastly blame on the other). Unusual also were the chickens. And the pigs. The flock of very mean geese. The rabbits. The pheasants. The occasional goat. Horses, bantam hens (smaller than the regular ones), araucana chickens (they lay smaller, pastel eggs), homing pigeons. And a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding, but only about the partridge. The rest were real.

It's not exactly a scene from Family Ties or the Cosby Family. And yet today I watched diners calmly eat their lunch in a vaguely upscale trendy restaurant inches away from a chef butchering half of a very large pig. The first thing that came off was the head. Out came the iPhones, but aside from that she could have been slicing lemons for the bar. Okay, they were a little more interested than if she was just cutting citrus, but you see my point. It's pretty hard to ignore that your brussel sprouts sauteed in bacon (which were fantastic btw) aren't connected to the 400 pound pig being carved up before you.

Or is it? Part of me wants to say, bravo. We've normalized the food chain again. But the cynic in me has to ask, have we really? Or are we just fetishizing our food and turning it into dinner theater? To be fair the restaurant didn't seem to be deliberately putting on a show. It was well after the lunch rush and the concept of the place is that all its kitchens are wide open. There really isn't anywhere else to do basic prep, even if it does involve carving up a pig. I just hope those diners watching also take the time to gain transparency into the food they buy, eat and cook at home.