Friday, September 17, 2010

Another F Word

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a growing interest on my part in food – its history and role in modern culture. Perhaps fittingly, this interest has expressed itself through more time spent reading about food than actually preparing it (I tend to survey most things from the vantage point of an armchair). I’ve also devoured two memoirs in rapid succession – Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ and Jacques Pepin’s ‘The Apprentice.’ Both are chefs who owe much to France and share a fondness for home-style French cooking. The similarities end here - while Bourdain’s book is a booze-soaked, cocaine-flecked trawl through New York’s restaurant kitchens, Pepin’s is a genteel recounting of his childhood, friendships and evolution as a chef.

Chef’s memoirs, courses in culinary history, branded product lines and cooking reality shows are just some of flotsam and jetsam currently being borne aloft on the twin tides of chef-superstardom and a wide-spread obsession with food. It’s interesting that this preoccupation with fabulous, professionally prepared (or at least, professional-looking) food is peaking at the same time as paranoia about food. People in many parts of the world are spending more on food than ever before, while also convincing themselves to eat less and less of it.

A growing group of writers and cultural commentators have attempted to explain these contradictions - Michael Pollan’s name comes to mind almost immediately, and there are several others. Our complex relationship with food is, of course, just one example of a seemingly pervasive cultural schizophrenia, but it is one of the most disturbing, because it plays itself out several times a day in insidious ways.

Reading Pepin’s book today, I was taken aback by the force of his love for food – his appreciation of it, his willingness to make cooking the anchor of his professional and personal life. All his memories are colored by the textures, flavors, and aromas of food. This is no surprise, given that he is an internationally renowned chef. But it is still oddly compelling to encounter an unabashed love for something which so many of us today regard with such suspicion.

Food is increasingly fraught – engineered rather than grown, analyzed rather than relished. Even the dedicated consumer of whole rather than packaged foods has to worry about contaminants, artificial coloring, and pesticide residue. Quelling these doubts is only one step – calorie counts also loom large in our collective consciousness. We make complex trade-offs between what goes into preparing a meal, and how much of it can be ‘safely’ consumed. Given our morbid fear of fat, (addressed in this NYT Magazine Article) eating is a high-wire act – portions weighed against ingredients and nutritional value.

This can be taken to absurd extremes – my own brush with a restaurant menu that offered ‘protein plates,’ ‘grain plates,’ ‘macrobiotic plates,’ etc is just one example. Metaphorically running our fingers down this list (twice), a friend and I, both reasonably intelligent human beings, were stumped. We ate someplace else, convinced that calculating which combination of plates would actually amount to dinner wasn’t the best way to spend an evening. 

Nutritional experts, who will use every available forum to urge us to be more careful about what we eat, also say that we can have our cake and eat it too. Food can be healthy and appetizing, provided we substitute regular pasta with wheat, white bread with whole-wheat bread (preferably multi-grain), sugar with demerera (but we are reminded that in India, this is often just white sugar colored brown), sunflower oil with olive oil (but not too much), milk with soy, regular salt with sea salt….

This is in addition to reams of research about what is or is not good for us – most of it contradictory. Wine has calories, but studies have shown a glass a day to reduce the risk of, let’s say, strokes. Caffeine is bad, but studies show that up to (not more than) 6 cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of heart disease; chocolate is alright in small quantities, especially if it’s dark; fruits should be eaten with the skin for fiber, but without if they look too shiny and suspect….

Keeping track of all of this information, and sifting through it for advice that can be painlessly implemented is an exhausting process. I suppose this is why I found Pepin’s book, in particular, to be so refreshing – old-fashioned carbs; lashings of butter and cream; less caution, more enjoyment; a conviction that every occasion demanded a great meal, and that every great meal was its own occasion. We know more about food now – possibly too much. But we’re still fascinated by it – which is why we buy books, visit cooking demonstrations and watch shows to learn recipes that we never prepare. In our imaginations, we’re eating well; in practice, we’re eating right; and in reality, we’re accomplishing neither. 

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