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Kitchen Expert

January 19, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Did you know that nearly 70% of social media revolves around food? Seriously, we want everyone to know our favorite recipe, menu, restaurant, table-setting, drink or dinnertime. So many photos of food exist on Pinterest and Facebook it would spin your head. Why do we spend this much time on food?!

There are many answers, but I will start with the idea that food is universal. Everyone needs to eat, and furthermore, many cultural norms begin with the act of eating. In Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and throughout History, Mark Kurlansky claims, “Food is about agriculture, about ecology, about man’s relationship with nature, about the climate, about nation-building, cultural struggles, friends and enemies, alliances, wars, religion. It is about memory and tradition and, at times, even about sex.” As with any other cultural indicator, food is not a category unto itself, but a delivery of learned behaviors and taboos. Melissa Clark describes a trip to a fancy restaurant in France from a child's perspective. She explains that her family had a tradition which involved ordering four different meals and passing them around so everyone could taste them all. She writes, “Back home in the United States, our odd behavior warranted a quick shrug from waiters. But in France, they were truly flummoxed and a little horrified (and this was before we even asked for a doggie bag).” Yet some cultures rely upon this roundtable style of sharing. Take Korean food, for example, in which the Korean word for family literally means “those who eat together.”

Food writing is split, it seems to me, into categories of preparation and, subsequently, of sharing. We think of recipes as instructions, lists and suggested guidance. Some people cook to the letter of the recipe as if it were law. Others let themselves wander and play. Either way, preparing food is an act that illustrates both culture and personal taste. Flavor is an intensely personal thing. Some cultures enjoy spice and chili, others dote on cheese and cream. But really, I think it might boil down to our childhood. How we are raised bears incredible influence over our own food culture.

According to a recent study, millenials, more often than any other group, consider themselves experts in the kitchen. I continue to think about this idea. What does it mean to be an expert in the kitchen? Can we be experts in a single food type – maybe we can bake a great cake, for example? Does this qualify as an expert in the kitchen, though? Now that we have this global atmosphere with global ingredients, are we meant to experiment more before claiming an expert status? Maybe expert simply means that you have mastered the tools and equipment in your kitchen. Certainly, we cannot be expected to know every ingredient and every tool! I have many fond memories of my grandmother who was always in the kitchen, apron tied around the waist. She spent a lifetime pleasing family and friends through food, but I doubt she knew a thing about Indian or Thai cuisine.

I guess I want to know, at what point does one become an expert in anything? From social media, the definition of an expert in the kitchen seems to be: one who devotes a lot of time to preparing and enjoying food. But doesn't that include everyone? There are some sites who share or repost recipes, but I like to look for the blogs which delve into recipe development. With the rise in allergies and food sensitivities, recipe development seems like it is at an all-time high. Blogs such as the Minimalist Baker, Cybele Pascal, or Elana's Pantry, for example, offer interesting foods for those with allergies. They educate about health, allergies and ingredients. This dynamic area of growth in the food industry lacks a consistent, contemporary voice in the current food conversation. Most allergy-friendly bloggers began recently and by necessity. It is with an awareness of ingredients they create food from minimal ingredients.

This same minimalistic style can be seen all over the world. Whether it is titled “clean” or “whole” or “farm-to-table”, understanding ingredients is perhaps the essence of being a food expert. Making a passable bread recipe by removing gluten and adding substitutes to create a similar bread is not enough. Rather, understanding the potential of flavors is an essential indicator of expert status, along with an ability to translate that flavor for a wider audience. In Flavor Flours, Alice Medrich says, “Rice, oats, and corn (and to a limited extent, buckwheat) are familiar to us as a side dish, a bowl of porridge or groats, or a hearty bread. But once these familiar grains are transformed into flours, they can be used in baked goods that have entirely different textures. In the 1970s chefs started serving vegetable purees, many of which were hard to identify. Why? Aside from the fact that tons of butter or cream was added to them, we no longer had a familiar texture for reference. We had to pay attention. Suddenly, we tasted flavors that we'd never noticed before.” And maybe this is the key to my question. What is an expert? Someone who pays attention.

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