Well. it turns out that the revolution was televised after all. The food revolution that is. (By the way, They won. More later)
But now that it’s about over and the real work begins, it’s time to think about what can replace the hype, help us satisfy the longing for meaning that we all share. Are we going forward, or are we circling in a cul-de-sac of celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows? One thing we can be sure of: change won’t happen on the food network, or even in restaurants.
Restaurants are the trophies of any culinary culture, the flower of the hard work which went before, but they’re not meaningful in themselves. Go to any country where the food culture is not dosed out between advertisements, or painted onto plates with squeeze bottles, and ask a citizen to describe a great meal. Most likely they’ll speak of a family meal, usually prepared by a Mother or Grandmother. That culture is integrated into the lives of the people, and across generations.
Why Grandmothers? Because Grandmothers, who are also Mothers of course, provided the most important meal of all, the one meal in nature, unique to mammals, which binds generations in a simultaneous embrace of physical and emotional nourishment: Mother’s Milk.
Why Farmers? Well, imagine if we left the job of making movies, not to writers and directors, but to the Bankers who finance films; if we left the editing to theater owners. That’s what we’ve done to our food chain. Like the tobacco executives who never smoked, the people who produce our food don’t have to eat it. That’s why Farmers, the kind who live on the Farm, eat the food of their farm, are so important.
In most Western societies the Grandmother is the guardian of food culture, but America’s food culture is dominated by a group of relatively young, energetic entrepreneurs who have created menus and vocabularies around traditions which were invented last week, or banged together from the spare parts of older cultures. That’s mainly because America’s revolution is a marketing experiment, carried out in restaurants and on television. Foodies aren’t about culture, they’re about fashion, and food has become a hobby. Food TV isn’t about food either, it’s just a way to pass time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the same as a culture which grows organically.
Culinary creativity will always be bound to biology, a strict constraint. In art the only rule is never to confine the imagination. Our bodies are far more constant: water is always the baseline, calories are always fuel. Tradition is more than a sentimental attachment to the past, it’s the users manual for our bodies.
Our food revolution dates roughly from a television show created by a woman who had neither grandchildren, nor children, and whose entire career was borrowed from other peoples grandmothers. Culture can’t be sprayed on like a coat of paint, and Julia Child was charming and delightful. But America’s food culture would be much better off if Julia Child had taught us how to make great French Fries, apple pies, and hamburgers. Such is the power of the Julia Child Icon that about a third of the people reading the last sentence are not reading this one…Still there? Good, because we don’t have time for cults. What we can do is to try to pick up the half forgotten pieces of our culture and make them fit into our world.
Revolutions of the elite aren’t revolutions at all, they’re fads, or fashion shows. Real revolutions must represent change, and the elites don’t need change. They’ve got everything they want. So, for this to work, it has to work for all of us. And that means keeping it simple. There will always be time later for sous-vide-fois-gras–caviar-petit-fours-a-la-mode-de-Myhrvold.