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.


The Foodist said...

this is one of the thing that pains me more then anything.

Our rich history of cooking, our passing of knowledge on to our children, our hardheaded devotion to the love of a craft.. they are all fading away.

People are more interested in what they can make in 30 min and with processed foods, then how do you grow a good tomato?, how do you butcher/clean/cook your own goat/cow/pig?

The culinary youth of today come from a world where our experiences come from eating at commercial chain restaurants and who the "hottest" chef on the scene is today.

We dont search out the history, we dont care about what was once done, we only care about whats new and exciting.

To know where we are going, we need to know where weve been and to honor that.

I think its the greatest sin against the culinary gods to ignore such a rich history, and worse yet act like it doesnt matter.

redman said...

Did your grandfather ever put down any memoirs of any sort? Love to have you post something sometime if it were things you were willing to share. I'm almost finished with an Escoffier biography (author escapes me; don't have it with me), which in general has not been great, though ok, but mostly leaves me hungry for details about the kitchens, of which few are provided since presumably it wasn't written explicitly for the professional audience. One great part, however, discusses menues he put together while cooking for troops during war with Prussians in 1870. Amazing stuff put together in kitchens in woods!

Deborah Dowd said...

Bob, you are so right on. Capturing the verbal tradition of food that is passed down through families and friends is one of the primary reasons that I started my blog. Like geneology, the roots of our food can be lost over generations without being preserved, but unlike geneology, it is almost impossible to get the food history of our families back once they have been lost.

Ed Bruske said...

earth to Bob: The ice caps are melting. Enjoy while you can...

Chef Sean said...

For too many people, a fine dining experience is had by visiting Chili's, Outback, or Fill-In-The-Blank chain. I'm all for championing a renaissance in American dining. The success of fast food and corporate chain restaurants is a death sentence to the culinary palate of America and, increasingly, the world. As McDonald's spreads virulently across the globe, more and more people are going to begin their days stating robotically, "I'm lovin' it!"