Friday, September 7, 2007
Hungry for something else
If you read half as many food blogs as I do you cannot help but notice that a lot of bloggers (myself included) spend a lot of words on concepts like "sustainable agriculture," family farmers," "animal rights," and a host of other environmental, social and ethical issues. The recent success of Michael Pollan's book, The Ominvores Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, by Eric Scholsser are just two examples that reflect the public's interest in reading about the hidden costs associated with eating. And magazines like Mother Jones and newspapers such as The New York Times, regularly run stories that are less about food and the people who eat it than they are about the intricate relationships between places and methods of production, transportation networks, collateral additive and processioning industries, migrant worker issues and so on, ad infinitum.
Lately I've been stricken by the thought that while all this attention to where food comes from and how it is produced is certainly a valuable an important discussion, something always gets lost when social, economic and environmental issues enter into any discussion of food and cooking. Whenever anyone write or talks about food as node in the grand web of cultural interactions, it can become difficult to think about it in the way that I, the chef, prefers to think about it. My preferred way of thinking about food is to see it as a variety of substances that have the potential to be crafted into to something that will inspire a moment of joy in the people who eat it. And if I'm very lucky, they will remember what they ate and the happiness it provoked and take them with them.
Food, whether it's a bowl of tomatoes or a beautiful loin of grass fed beef, is also something I like to touch and smell and bring through the process of cooking and serving. I even enjoy cleaning up after a meal. When I cook professionally, I often (not always) derive a great deal of pleasure breaking down the kitchen, scrubbing the counter tops, and true, I've many times enjoyed mopping the floor. I really have to wonder how many others who spend so much time writing about the social dimensions of food feel the same way?
I wonder how many of them feel something like what I feel when I pick up my grandfather's carbon chef's knife and look at it's ancient blade, bowed and almost useless from years of running it over a steel, and think about him toiling in the sweltering basement kitchen of the Gotham Hotel (Giovanni delGrosso is in the photo above. Click it to see where he is). Those old kitchens were hell holes with coal fired stoves and lousy ventilation, and I'm sure he suffered greatly, but I also know that he was proud of his craft and could talk for hours about how to butcher and roast and saute. And such was his love of craft that he always cooked at home when company
Actually, when I was kid we had no fewer than five professional chefs on my father's side of the family all of them expert in cooking the peasant food of their village in Emilia Romagna and all of them trained in the haute cuisine. I loved to visit them to see what was in their gardens and what they would cook, and more importantly, what they would say about cooking. (Suffice it to say that they never talked about sustainable agriculture.) You want to talk to food fanatics? Then have a sit down with a 70 year old chef who worked in a kitchen managed by Escoffier as my grandfather did.
The talk will always be about the food but salted with stories of the people who cooked it and ate it. And lots of talk about marvelously esoteric techniques and weird but enthralling ideas about what might be called "the science of cooking" -if it wasn't a bunch of superstitious claptrap. For example, my uncle Amadio del Grosso, a pastry chef, once told me that the way to identify a poisonous mushroom was to cook it in some boiling water with a silver dollar. If the dollar turns black he said, the mushroom will kill you.
That's the kind of stuff that gets lost in the soup of so much modern discourse on food and cooking. I'm hungry for it. And the irony is, that there's never been more chatter about food and cooking than there is today.