“A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” – American writer William Deresiewicz in an opinion piece for the New York Times.
I’ve been chewing on this food for thought as I wrestle with questions: Are we food and travel bores? Is there too much food worship? Do we need a reality check?
In the Western world there’s a plethora of cooking shows on TV every day of the week. Not only Jamie, Nigella, Anthony and Gordon and cooking competitions but dedicated foodies and other earnest chefs off to explore spice trails in Asia, forage for rare greens in outer Mongolia and slurp delicacies at the Timbuktu night markets. Foodie travel blogs sprout like… bean sprouts in a warm place on the windowsill … some excellently document food culture and trends, while others are bloated with their own self-importance and weirdly misplaced belief in their relevance. Not to mention the never-ending avalanche of foodie pix on Instagram etc.
Culture and food are inseparable and to that end, I disagree with Deresiewicz. I believe it is possible to have insight into other people by the way they make risotto. Cultural and religious beliefs, economic influences and long-held traditions are major influences on what people cook and how this binds them to community. But I also see Deresiewicz’s point: Food has become high culture in the US (and Australia in my opinion) and “foodism has taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st Century“.
I experiment with new flavours during and after travelling – and subject my family to rounds of tasting whatever I’m passionate about that day. But I don’t often talk about the art I’ve seen or learned something from. Sadly, in recent years I’ve picked up a pastry brush more often than a paintbrush and I’ve visited more eateries than art galleries. Last week I adapted an American hummingbird cake recipe, using only 1/2 cup of sugar (very un-American) and organic coconut oil instead of butter, and lots of mashed banana, pineapple and homegrown passionfruit; and made a Spanish free-range organic chicken dish with smoked paprika, home-grown bay leaves, juice from homegrown oranges, and anchovy-stuffed olives. Am I dithering in the kitchen when I should be putting my energies to better use? I used to write more on social justice issues.
Deresiewicz says food isn’t art.
“Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range: comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols.”
He argues that food centres life in Italy and France but not at the expense of appreciating art. I would extend that rationale to Greece, a country I know well, which had artists and sculptors long before the other two. I like reading and writing (up to a point) about food but endless descriptions about “pillows of pasta caressed with pesto” or banging on about unpasturized raw organic pasture-fed milk and your latest kitchen gadget, leave me cold. I’ll take the art gallery, thanks.
What I would like to see: the energies of food bloggers and chefs work more towards healthy eating, providing livelihoods where they’re desperately needed, and working on being altruistic rather than voyeuristic, instead of gratifying overfed Western appetites. Some already do sterling work. Jamie Oliver has been re-educating people for years to eat better, with his Ministry of Food projects. New York chef Franco Lania advocates that cooking is the way he deals with life’s challenges. It’s not art, but it is an idea, that may force me to take a partial inventory of my soul.