Food is hot these days.
Hotter even than the heat dome that’s baking much of the US. It seems you can’t swing a cat without hitting a food blogger (ow!), an underground restaurateur, a food truck owner, a boutique cheesemaker, urban farmer, craft bartender, boutique-organic-fair-trade-freegan chocolatier, etc. What gives?
Pundits like to point to the recession. In tough economic times eating out is an ‘affordable luxury.’ Food activists and health alarmists suggest the public is voting with dollars to demand to more organic, pesticide-free, nutrient dense real food. Environmentalists and ‘Slow Money’ types might believe that everyone is finally appreciating the low-carbon-footprint of locally produced goods and doing their part for a sustainable economic community.
These are all good ideas and important reasons to get on the food bandwagon. By all means, eat at your neighborhood joint. Indulge in the soup and salad made from local farm veggies. Tip your servers well and hopefully they live near you and will return those dollars to the local independent hardware store you run.
But I think most people are not eating with their conscience yet. I think most people are eating for the moment.
This has been on my mind lately for two reasons.
In spite of my love for word play I cringe every time I read ” So-and-so makes the best such-and-such I’ve ever had in my life!” Really? How old are you? How many such-and-suches have you had? Most pertinently, do you really remember each and every instance and this was truly the best?
On my rapid plunge into the deep, intriguing world of obsessive foodie-ism I have consumed (pun-intended) a lot of Anthony Bourdain. No Reservations is streaming on Netflix (price hikes me darned!) and last week I read Medium Raw. And in almost every episode or chapter, every food item he encounters is good! Occasionally there is a post-production voice-over edit that some item really wasn’t very tasty. And when I hear Tony (May I call you Tony?) speak about being adventurous, but most importantly being gracious when offered the hospitality of strangers I can understand why he might say everything is good. But on the other hand, there is an essay in Medium Raw called “Lust” and there are dozens of food items mentioned!
How can it all be so good? How could this really be the best potato chip, tripe stew, tiramisu, what have you, of your entire existence?
Tony, inexplicitly, has the answer to this too. In that same essay, “Lust,” Tony always paints the scene for you –architecture, smells, weather– before he gets to the rapture of a particular dish. He is showing us that any food can be good, can in fact be incredible, in the moment.
Let’s examine the counter example. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been dumped in a restaurant (or at a hot dog stand for that matter). No matter how much you love a plump, snappy Chicago Red Hot with the works and extra relish, what does the bite after “I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” taste like? Even if you have been looking forward to that hot dog for weeks. Even if you gave them up for Lent and this is the first taste of your favorite food you’ve had in six weeks, I bet the bite you took out of numb automation, since you can’t quite process that your heart just broke, tastes like…well you fill in the memory. But I’m sure it isn’t the best hot dog of your entire life.
I’m not trying to be the word or reaction police here. In fact, I would not have brought this up at all if I did not think there was something to be gained by watching our mouths when we speak about what we put in them, namely more enjoyment.
Thinking about how great your meal tastes is an easy entry point to noticing everything else that is great about that rich, succulent, warming, content moment. And filling out that moment by acknowledging those other things –the sounds of laughter of the other diners; that the aroma of the chocolate lava cake is rounder than the creamy, then bitter, then sweet flavor on your tongue, that your dining companion has closed her eyes in ecstasy and has a freckle on her eyelid you’ve never seen before– let’s you have an experience that is the true value of that meal.
Now I will be hyperbolic, and perhaps a little grotesque, but all of life is in food. Be it the wheat for your bread, your peridot-hued Bibb lettuce, or the venison steak –an egg was fertilized, an organism grew and died for your meal. We don’t spend much time wondering if plants love and we often reduce animal reproduction to very un-romantic terms like rutting. But beast or flower it enjoyed the sun on its ‘face’ and bowed its head in the rain and felt the change of days and maybe seasons. As animals this same awareness is in us. So why not let it ooze out and take in all that evolution and modernity have given to us, even if it is just the fact that you can read the menu by the glow of your iPhone.
So when you’re canal-side on a foggy evening in Venice and having the 9,128th espresso of your life, by all means declare it phenomenal. But remember it’s the light, and the lap of the water, and the sound of the gondoliers and the language that make that drowned roasted bean (that you can order online) taste so good. And maybe just sigh and say something like, ‘This is the best moment I’ve had since the last one.”