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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A Discussion of Taste

September 2, 2016

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

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire certainly discusses the idea of taste. He has a very rigid understanding of what classical Roman art should be. In fact, according to Gibbon, the stagnation of Rome's art is one indicator of Rome's decline. Gibbon writes,

“The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded.” 

Admittedly, reusing the head of a previous emperor, does seem a tad cheap and weak.

For Gibbon, another indication of Rome's fall is when Roman artists begin to incorporate ideas from neighboring communities which they have conquered. One example arrives in the time of Alaric's rise and sack of Rome. During this time, Christianity was also in flux. With so many changes outside of Rome, change within is inevitable also. Gibbon notes that at this time, people began to adorn statues with jewels. He finds this gaudy and unnecessary. He writes, “We may observe the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery.” In his view, the embellishments demonstrate excess, not taste.

Ironically, during this same time of decline, Gibbon praises the superior skills of a single poet. He adds another layer to our understanding of Gibbon's idea of taste when he writes about Claudian. He says,

“These imperfections [of the times], are compensated in some degree by the poetical virtues of Claudian. He was endowed with rare and precious talent of raising the meanest, of adoring the most barren, and of diversifying the most similar topics; his colouring, more especially in descriptive poetry, is soft and splendid; and he seldom fails to display, and even to abuse, the advantages of a cultivated understanding, a copious fancy, an easy and sometimes forcible expression, and a perpetual flow of harmonious versification. To these commendations, independent of any accidents of time and place, we must add the peculiar merit which Claudian derived from the unfavourable circumstances of his birth. In the decline of arts and of empire, a native of Egypt, who had received the education of a Greek, assumed in a mature age the familiar use and absolute command of the Latin language; soared above the heads of his feeble contemporaries; and placed himself, after an interval of three hundred years, among the poets of ancient Rome.” 

This complicated passage about Claudian gives the reader more of an impression of Gibbon's taste. First, he appreciates Claudian's exacting language, soft and subtle, not overly dressed or forced. Second, Claudian is original. It is important to Gibbon that art be original and that imitation, again, lacks taste. Finally, the reader learns that Claudian's first language was not Latin. Gibbon clearly looks down upon his Greek education, and therefore praises him all the more for rising above it in order to grasp a clear understanding of the power and grace of Latin.

All of this leads me into a discussion of taste as supplied by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. Obviously, here the word taste offers two different meanings. Brillat-Savarin's entire book discusses the enjoyment of food. More than that, however, it is a discussion of Taste, with a capital T. The category of taste, which Merriam-Webster lists as an individual preference or inclination, is an important indicator of virtue in both of these works. Much like Gibbon, Brillat-Savarin links virtue to elements of good taste. He judges food in the same way that Gibbon judges art, poetry and character. One gains access only through experience. Therefore, education is linked with taste in some primal way. The following excerpt comes from his meditation on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” in which he dedicates an entire section to “Roman Banqueting”. Brillat-Savarin concludes that the foreigners who sacked Rome were unfamiliar with fine foods. Gibbon labels all foreigners of little skill and education as barbarian races. Both Brillat-Savarin and Gibbon arrive at the same conclusion: they look down upon those without an educated sense of taste.

“The five or six hundred years [referring to the Greek and Roman times] which we have run through in the past few pages were happy times for cookery, as well as for those who nurtured and enjoyed it, but the arrival or rather the invasion of the Northerners changed everything, upset everything: those days of glory were followed by a long and terrible darkness.
The art of eating disappeared, at the first sight of these foreigners, with all the other arts of which it is the companion and solace. Most of the great cooks were murdered in their masters' palaces; others fled rather than prepare feasts for the oppressors of their country; the small number who remained to offer their services had the humiliation of finding them refused. Those snarling mouths, those leathery gullets, were insensible to the subtleties of refined cookery. Enormous quarters of beef and venison, quantities beyond measure of the strongest drink, were enough to charm them....
However, it is in the nature of things that what is excessive does not last long. The conquerors finally grew bored with their own cruelty: they mingled with the conquered, took on a tinge of civilization, and began to know the pleasures of a social existence.
Meals showed the influence of this alleviation. Guests were invited to them less to be stuffed than delighted, and some even began to understand that a certain attempt was being made to please them; a more amiable pleasure affected everyone, and the duties of hospitality had something gentler about them than before.
These betterments, which emerged toward the fifth century of our era, became even stronger under Charlemagne, and we can read in his Capitularies that this great king gave his own attention to making his lands furnish their best for the fine fare of his table.”

Perhaps there are cultural indicators which link Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin, since they were contemporaries of a sort. However, the idea of our education of taste is a broader discussion. Next week will continue with a discussion of art as it relates to taste.

Read more from Brillat-Savarin here.

Read more about Gibbon here or here or here or here or here.

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Harvest Time

August 19, 2016

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

Harvest time is a bittersweet time for me. With the wonderful fruit, comes long hours of picking, canning and packaging. The weather also changes, days get shorter and the winter schedule is much tighter than summer's. Change can be difficult to deal with, mostly because we live in moments that make us think of permanence. And, as many artists, philosophers and authors demonstrate, permanence is not for nature. Without change, there would be no life. So, we relish these indemonstrable and unidentifiable moments of change. In the Syntopicon, Moritimer Adler writes, “that which changes persists throughout the change as the same kind of substance”. This makes me wonder what is the same and what is new? Are we new because of the newness of each season, or because of an additional experience? Where are we the same, what place within us remains unaffected by the new and the fresh? How and where does new merge with old?

Currently, I am up to my elbows in peaches. The juice wrinkles my hands and darkens my nails. I am lucky. I love harvest time. I am fortunate to love growing and harvesting and cooking. This is not always the case. Picking peaches always reminds me of the Joads in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, who struggle to learn something so foreign to them. Not knowing how fragile peaches are, they bruise them and lose money. Then, the kids eat a bunch of peaches at once and get sick. And picking in an orchard is backbreaking, laborious work to which Ma straightens her back and says, “Gets you, the first time, don't it?” Their education in harvesting food is difficult, to say the least. And all of this reminds me that, once again, I am lucky to love the fruit and the season and my own stability. Yet it is this idea of stability that I question. Each season depends upon fertilization and frost, water and heat. Therefore, some years offer no harvest at all. And some, like this year, show the signs of age and insects. There is nothing but change in my experience with harvests. And each year I am taught to love food in a new and special way.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote The Physiology of Taste (translated by M. F. K. Fisher). A lawyer by trade, Brillat-Savarin devoted much time to the sensory experiences surrounding food. It offers meditations (much like Pascal's Pensées) regarding all sorts of gastronomical experiences. Compiled over thirty years, and self-published, the book is full of the wisdom and curiosity from one who dearly loved life. Of particular interest is the section on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” (Meditation XXVII). He begins this section with the introduction of fire as a resource for cooking and moves through to feasts thrown by Louis XVI. He pays particular attention to descriptions of feasts and the ways in which they have changed. He writes that “The most important Romans prided themselves on their beautiful gardens, where they not only raised the fruits that had always been known, like pears, apples, figs, and grapes, but those which had been brought in from other lands: the apricot from Armenia, the peach from one of Lucullus' spoils from the kingdom of Pontus. These importations, which necessarily came about in a variety of ways, at least prove that the interest in them was general, and that every Roman felt it a glory and a duty to contribute to the pleasures of the people-sovereign”. Brillat-Savarin notes, however, that it is very unlikely that a single man (or family) from contemporary society could create such a feast of food and entertainment as in the ancient days. Our traditions regarding food have always changed, as demonstrated by the Romans' ability to integrate new foods with theirs. We continue to see changes in the way that we eat and package food and yet, food is also a significant cultural indicator. People associate specific types of foods for specific events.

Both danger and comfort accompany the idea of permanence. Often we approach change with both fear and excitement. Regardless of how we approach change, it is a fact of life. As peaches ripen and fall, I watch the approaching moon rise above the mountains. During this harvest time, even the moon changes. It appears larger than usual, brighter and fuller, falling in the early morning sky. This bright light used to aid harvesters as they picked late into the night. It is recognized in many traditions as a sign of change and is often a very powerful symbol in mythology. Typically, deified as a female, the moon demonstrates the passage of time and the importance of cycles. The phases of the moon demonstrate both eternity and its opposite. The unity of symbolism reinforces this idea that change is of great importance to many cultures. And so, as I pick peaches, and distribute them, I wonder what in me is changed or the same? What in our earth is changing as my peach tree grows, flowers and fruits? What is changed as a result of the dialogue of change?

In the upcoming weeks, we will share more from The Physiology of Taste – in particular how it relates to Kant's idea of taste, and the great idea of Art.

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