Tuesday, October 21, 2008
After Alice (Waters): An Etiology
While it would be way reductive to date the moment in time when chefs began to pay attention to the provenance of the ingredients we prepare to the appearance of Alice Waters on the national stage, I have no qualms about giving her credit for making it loud-and-clear that we ignore how food is produced at the risk of imperiling the quality of our lives. If we choose not to know where food comes from and how it is comes to be, well, we may be able to cook it and make it taste great, but we miss out on the opportunity to know what makes it what it is.
At the moment when thousands of baby boomer chef wannabes were discovering that there was a big market for refined and innovative American cooking, Waters stood up and challenged us to discover who was producing the raw ingredients that we meant to cook, and to be confident that we understood the nature of each animal and plant that we meant to transform through our "art." I know that others have their own interpretation of Water's message, but when I dig down into it and strip off all the most obvious meanings, what I hear is a call to search for the itness or the ingredients that form the foundation of our work.
Yeah, you read that right itness.
Now I know that some of you winced, perhaps because you sensed that it (ness) smells of incense and indicates a modality of thinking that always ends up with the thinker unable to find his car keys. And that might be a fair assessment if you had reason to believe that I was really the Beavis character that I affect in the posts I write when I'm feeling cranky and anarchic. But this is not one of those occasions. I'm actually drop-dead serious here. You'll have to trust me on this, but I would never risk using a word like itness without letting you know I was screwing around. (Such posts are usually tagged with "Goofin" or "Satire.")
Itness is a (Socratic) concept that I use as a tool to help me when I'm trying to understand the characteristics and implications of the existence (or non-existence in the case of extinct things) of some material thing. Put another way, it is a device that I use to put together a description of the physical properties of living and non-living things and the fields that surround them. (The word "field" here refers to all of the culturally generated stuff that gets applied to the thing e.g., folk tales, beliefs about the purpose and proper use of the thing, how the thing interacts with other things and the quantum of information that develops from those interactions and so on.)
When I want to know something well I ask "What is it?" After the first (usually the most superficial) "It is..." answer comes back, I ask "Is that all it is?" and so on, all the while reminding myself that if there is an ice cube's chance in hell of knowing what the object of my curiosity really is -if there is any chance of knowing its itness- I better keep asking questions.
Of course the questions never stop and the answers they beggar never yield a complete understanding of what makes a thing what it is, so an absolute determination of itness is an unattainable goal. However, just because something is unattainable, it does not naturally follow that you should not bother to pursue it -not at all.
It is from the pursuit of the itness of things, and the recognition of how they are put together and what they mean and have meant to hundreds of millions of sapient beings, that there begins to emerge a profound appreciation for the extraordinary complexity and heart-breaking beauty of this life.
So when Alice Waters told us to pay attention to where, by whom and how our food is produced, I understood that she wasn't just offering us the means to become better cooks and sell better food. What she was also doing was warning us that if we did not start searching for the itness of the things that made up the foundation of our craft, we would never know what we were doing.
And that, I aver, would suck.
Here's a brief video that represents the partial result of my pursuit of the itness of pork.
It stars me and the 5 Berkshire hogs at Hendricks Farms and Dairy -where I cook and slop hogs with the stuff that at another time I might have thrown into a dumpster.
I LOVE slopping the hogs, it is one of the high points of my day. They are always hungry and absolutely revel in scarfing up the most revolting stuff. They never say thanks of course -not until we eat them anyway.