Reality Check – The Moment

When it comes to food, there is a dissonance between what we read in Bon Appetit and Gourmet and what actually occurs in the kitchens across this country. Chris Kimball touches on it briefly in his recent discussion with Serious Eats when he says of these types of magazines:

The editors at the other food magazines write for their friends and themselves. They feel compelled to do something different every year because they’re bored. People want mainstream American cooking, and that’s what we give them.

While I’ll argue the fact that food magazines select their content based off of what sells, and not because they’re bored, I do agree that the majority of Americans would prefer to make something traditional and simple, and not worry about how to make a pomegranate reduction sauce.

That point hit home for me when I read The Reach of a Home Cook over at Occasional Blond.

When the discussion on Ruhlman’s blog get really animated, I have to back out. I feel like I don’t belong there. Some of the commenters on his blog are the worst example of foodies – condescending know-it-alls who will condemn you for using Land O’ Lakes butter and call you a hypocrite for not wanting to see a pig being slaughtered. And when they start throwing around the names of high-end restaurants they’re so entranced with and chefs they worship, and talking about the food they make, I don’t know if I’m out of my league, or if they’re just self-important blowhards trying to impress Ruhlman and Anthony Bourdain, who occasionally blogs there.

Maybe they’re on to something and I’m being left in the dust. I’m a firm believer in Ina Garten’s advice to have about ten recipes that you’ve mastered, and using them as a jumping off point. That’s pretty much how I cook. I do try new things, and I’ve learned as much from my mistakes as I have from my successes. Even so, I could well be stuck in a rut, and I’m staying too far in my comfort zone. A step out would never hurt me. But do I also have to cook my way through The French Laundry Cookbook to prove to myself I still have it? I gotta say, Thomas Keller scares me.

The worst aspect of the “foodie” culture is this misunderstanding of what food is all about. Somewhere during the development of the food media, food stopped being about eating good food. For some, it had evolved into a contest about status. One could make the argument that this occurred roughly at the point where a fair majority of Americans no longer knew how to cook well, which in turn started us venerating those who could. The end result of this shift has been the development of the “superstar chef”. This, in turn, brought out the obsequious, celebra-whore toadies that seem to migrate to anyone who becomes famous.

This is not to say that everyone who seeks to recreate their meal at Per Se are status-seeking blow hards. Some people are simply obsessed with having a good meals or unique dining experiences and will look for any way to obtain them. I see this All. The. Time. Whether its someone who spends their spare time and money traveling the country to find the best restaurant, or a person who spends $70,000 on a bottle of Scotch, people will always be a bit freaky about food. Whole industries have been created to to give greater voice to those who are obsessed (the Food Network, anything published by Conde Naste, etc, etc)

The problems comes when some of these people start implying that price or uniqueness is a designation of quality. It’s exasperated when others who listen to these people believe them. These industries who started out communicating passion and obsession soon evolve into those lifestyle choices. At some point, for some, it stops being about the food and more about the ability to pursue (or even desire) something rare or expensive, because it gives them some measure of status amongst those similarly obsessed.

It’s at that point, that food leaves the equation.

The reality is that good food is good food. And if you’re a great (or even good) home cook, it becomes frustrating when you see people denigrate the food you are oh-so-ever capable of making. Sometimes this denigration is unintentional, sometimes it’s quite overt. But it is frustrating when you run into it.

Every time I run into this, I try to recall a quote by James Beard:

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”

Food isn’t about status. It’s about what tastes good. Whether it’s a bowl full of Macaroni and Cheese, or a plate of roasted leg of lamb with a ragoût of coco beans, piquillo peppers, merguez sausage, and lamb jus, they all may result in a moment of bliss.

And that, my friends, is what good food is truly all about. Specifically, that too brief moment when your brain is flooded with endorphins and takes you out of your head into an ethereal body of ecstasy. It doesn’t take a huge bank account, or an extensive amount of knowledge to reach this state. Anyone who tells you otherwise either wants to sell you something, or wants a pat on the head.