Some Thoughts on Food

September 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Word on the street is that summer is on its way out, which, to me, meant one thing this past Wednesday night: cold Vietnamese rice noodle salad. It has the summer trifecta I cannot get enough of: lime, basil, mint and, oh, cilantro (quafecta?). Paired with fish sauce, brown sugar and chili paste it was the perfect summer meal swan song. A light and poppy punctuation mark to transition into the earthy meals ahead.

I’ve been thinking more about cooking these days with Mike working long summer hours and me taking the helm in the kitchen. One thing I’ve noticed is I get the most excited about cooking when I’m making something I’ve never cooked before – usually with unexpected flavor combinations. And so I’ve been spending probably way more time than I should looking up putzy recipes, fiddling with flavors, and buying specialty ingredients.

We are also in the midst of simplifying things around our house – making a place for everything, discarding anything we don’t need, and automating what we can to make our days run smooth and give us freedom to do the things we really want. And it feels really good.

Sometimes, I wonder if simplifying my cooking would make life easier and, thus, more enjoyable. I’m not entirely convinced yet. Either it’s my eagerness to try to make everything before I settle on a few staples, or it’s my inherent desire for nuance that keeps me tinkering around in the kitchen for two hours a night. Or maybe it’s pure and simple pleasure.

I feel odd saying that, I really do. My interest in food goes deep and wide. When I think of food I inevitably think about the social and economic issues that are woven into every purchase. Where does pleasure fit into it all?

Like many things in my life that I try to categorize and neatly put into labeled drawers and cabinets, food is ubiquitous and nuanced. I could put food into my “political” drawer, “health” drawer, “hobbies” drawer, “community” drawer, “stuff I want to learn more about” drawer, “lifestyle” drawer, “pleasure” drawer…

If there’s any categorization that can take place, I suppose it’s this: there’s a micro and a macro to food. There’s the dinner in front of you, and then there’s the whole system that allowed you to bring that dinner to the table.

Pleasure in the micro food realm should be easy. If the food on your plate tastes good, it should be a pleasure to eat. However, I know this isn’t true. So many of us kindle anxiety over what foods to eat and what to avoid and how both will ultimately affect how we feel about our bodies.

Pleasure in the macro realm seems damn near impossible unless you’re a farmer growing your own food and take pleasure in your work. But for the rest of us who drudgingly make our way through the aisles of our local grocery store, reading labels and trying to discern what will harm us and what will nourish us, it’s downright exhausting. Add to that certain articles that shed light on much of what we see in the grocery store and it becomes downright depressing.

I know that what I felt when I ate that cold Vietnamese noodle salad on Wednesday night was pleasure. It was delicious. I also know that some of the ingredients in that salad were part of a system that is exploitative. So how does one like myself who yearns to try worldly food and mix and match exotic flavors find pleasure in the macro? Do I subdue those impulses and cook with what is locally abundant?

I suppose there is pleasure in restraint, no?

Further fascinating food reading:

Tamar Adler’s interview in the New Yorker: “One way to get back to the stove is to treat food less fetishistically.”

Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes: “But when asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, ‘It is not an assumption. It is a fact.'”

Wendell Berry: The Pleasure of Eating“One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.”

The End of Food: He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. ‘It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,’ he told me.”

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