The Architecture of Taste: Triads, Simplicity, And Truth-Part 1

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.

~Albert Einstein

Is there any objective reason that unsophisticated tastes tend to favor complication? (I use the word complication here, in contrast to the now over-used, “Complexity“, a word which ought to be earned as it’s learned.) I think the answer is yes. Complication is where inexperience can hide. Complexity was once a term used to describe things which improved on second or third experience, whether it was music, food, gardens, etc. Complexity meant that the secrets of a thing were not revealed all at once. Complication, on the other hand, is designed to confuse. Continue reading

The Forrest And The Trees

I’m often asked, when speaking of the paramount virtues of Simplicity, “What about Indian food”.

The three ingredient recipe is the model of simplicity. It could be Peanut Butter, Jelly, and bread, or pasta with cheese and butter. But another sort of simplicity is expressed in the extremely complex cuisine of India, and it corresponds in an interesting way with other aspects of Indian culture, in particular, the music, (and if you’ve ever been in a New York Taxi, the driving). Continue reading

Eat/Art

Eat/Art

Arcimboldo Salad

Art?

Food.

Art.

Food?

When I hear a chef described as a genius, or an artist, I feel that disconnect one feels when a Fashion model speaks of ending world hunger.

OK, but I hope you don’t think you’re going to do it on the runway.

Of all mankind’s remarkable features, two stand out: Art and Language. These are unique to humans. Language is functional, art is pure luxury. Not only can’t we define art, but we don’t really even know why we do it.

Cooking too is functional. We cook to make food interesting, to make it palatable, or to make it edible. Cooking helps keep us alive. But it’s not a pure cultural construct, like language. It’s a biological necessity, sustenance. The higher forms of this process, often called ‘cuisine‘ allow us to consider the experience as artistic achievement.

There are several reasons why we should not.

Meret Oppenheim, Furry Breakfast, 1936

Art is never just about beauty, just about pleasure. Often it’s just the opposite. But what good is a dinner that doesn’t taste good? What good is dinner that makes you think? What could it possibly make you think about?

Art enters our lives through our senses, but it lives in the imagination. Food exists for the body and is a pleasure of the body. Confounding Art with food denigrates both.

Terry Gross interviews Grant Achatz:

GA:  “What we’re trying to do with that food is tell a story, and craft, like, an emotionally rich experience, something that makes people feel, something that, like, walking through a great modern art museum, or listening to a symphony, or watching a great movie, or reading a great book. We’re trying to do that with food.”

TG:  “So What Emotional experiences would I likely get from chilled soup of spring lettuces, blueberries and creme fraiche?

“First and foremost it has to be delicious. We can try to craft a great experience, or one that makes people feel sad, or happy, or elated, or whatever it is, but it has to be delicious”.

Man Ray: Cadeau, 1921

That’s a good start, make the food delicious. But, why I would ever go to a restaurant and pay for a meal, no matter how delicious, which made me feel sad. Would you?

Emotional experiences, memories which last a lifetime aren’t really so rare. The memory of a great sexual encounter, or a ride on a roller coaster can last a lifetime, and yet we don’t think of those as art.

Somewhere in there is the question of meaning. What exactly that is, is elusive, but we can say with some certainty that it won’t be found at the end of your fork.

Art competes with nature, defies nature. In the case of classical sculpture it’s the idealization of nature, in the case of cubism the re-organization of it, and in the case of abstraction the rejection of it. Cooking is always an enhancement of nature, but nature must remain the subject, and nourishment the object. In cooking, we don’t really improve an ingredient, we only repackage it and juxtapose it interestingly.

The beautiful creations of a good cook are fulfilling in ways that art can never be. Isn’t that reward enough?

The Artists

Obviously there are artists who also cook. Perhaps the closest in our world is Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, whose attempts to dominate and transform nature has reached great heights. Adria has invented a form of cuisine which approaches art from two directions, theater and sculpture. But to make sculpture from edible ingredients does not turn cuisine into art, it turns sugar and vegetables into plaster and wire and paint. And the presentation of dishes in an amusing or surprising manner may be fascinating, but the meal at the heart of it is still a meal, though clothed in theater.

Beyond that, I think that Adria, like Frank Gehry in Architecture, or John Cage in music have created an artistic cul-de-sac with their work. Who’s going to do another 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence? Another Bilbao? That’s the risk of being sui generis, but also its reward.

“In cooking, as in the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection.”
~ Curnonsky

Note that Curnonsky, a Frenchman, said “in cooking, as in the arts…”

Quoth Julia

“Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving, or music.”

~Julia Child

A Wood Carving

An Immortal Masterpiece

This makes it easy. Yes, if we compare The St. Matthews Passion to gardening and making toy boats we can agree: they’re exactly alike. (The idea that artists create art for ‘pleasure’ is an idea of someone who doesn’t understand art.)

Priceless

D.H. Lawrence once mused about the relative cost of food and art with the remark: “I have five pounds. With this I can by either a leg of mutton, or a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.” Somewhere in there is the answer to some of the questions we’re dealing with. How is it that of the two, art and food, it is art which is infinitely reproducible, and  food which is unique, fugitive, perishable and even more precious? How is it that we can buy a hundred copies of a Mozart sonata for the price of a restaurant meal?

It’s because the art is not in the book, the music on the disc…it’s in the imagination. The food? It’s on the plate, on the palate, in the stomach. And then it’s gone. Of course we have the experience, like the roller coaster ride, but the product must be re-bought.

“Language, which is the parent, not the child, of thought”~Wilde

Art is a term which lives in ambiguity, but don’t let your thoughts blur with the definition of the word.

The Art of War, the Art of Love and similar cliches don’t mean that any of these is Fine art. The higher arts simply are higher, in important ways: meaning, point of view, expression, subliminal associations, etc.  However much we  cloak it in artfulness, cooking is an expression of nature. Fine Art is an expression of the human condition, and the human spirit.

And that’s why we keep it in Museums and galleries, far away from flower pots, toy boats and TV cooks..

A Great Idea

The Revolution Was Televised

Not only was the revolution televised, but it really exists only on television.

In the fifty years since the first broadcast of “The French Chef”, Americans have bathed in the reflected glory of our culinary revolutionary. But thanks to Julia Child, and all who followed her, the food revolution we celebrate is a more a media event than a culinary one.

Julia Child rang the bell and cried out: “The French are Coming!”, and so they did. We got French cooking in the form of television and expensive restaurants, some new words, and some great kitchen gadgets. But what we never got was the underlying culture which would have allowed us to benefit from this great import, not in the form of showy dishes and a snappy familiarity with puff pastry, but in the form of a true culinary culture.

A culture without roots is a hothouse orchid in a crystal vase.

Rather than construe this as another grumpy vandalization of our self-respect, let’s look at the facts. What is Culture? Is it a way of showing off the flower of our gifts, the poems, the paintings? The real hothouse flowers of our art? It is that. But in our daily lives, culture is how we understand our relationship with our world, how we see ourselves in our land, and how we use the gifts of our earth to feed ourselves, body and soul.

Have we benefited from the lessons of the French culinary culture? Or are we skimming its surface like water lilies, never understanding what feeds its roots and nourishes its ideas.

A country which in 1963 had the potential to change in any direction we choose, overwhelmingly chose junk.

In 1963 there were 500 McDonald’s restaurants. Today there are over 30,000.

A child watching the first installment of The French Chef had a 3% chance of being obese. For his grandchild in 2008, it’s 20%.

And if you still cling to the notion of a food revolution, (rather than a scraggly if devoted uprising), consider this: The top 100 French restaurants in America serve about 1 million people per year.

Fast Food does that every five minutes.

So what is the American Food Revolution? A great idea.

Coprophagy Now!

Much has been written lately about the disgust reflex, (see Pollan, The Omnivores Dilemma, Stuckey Taste What You’ve Been Missing,). It’s a fascinating facet to any discussion of taste. Why and how we develop a “disgust” reaction to certain things varies from the biological to the most narrowly cultural.  It’s a defense mechanism, but also a way to align our tastes with peers, and express group preferences. That’s where things get sticky.

While the sources of disgust may seem self evident, they are not universal. The mere mention of drinking ones own urine, though met with extreme disgust in America, is common among many peoples. Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai of India drank a glass of his own urine every day. Urine is known to be an effective disinfectant and a useful field dressing for small wounds. But its association with solid excrement, which can indeed be deadly, puts it off limits in our culture.

Certain foods are also grouped under the general heading of Crap, one of our many words for excrement. Anything not liked can be called by this name.
And recently, we’ve been going through a sort of renaissance of coprophagy―the eating of excrement―in the form of Fairground foods, and even in places ostensibly reserved for Haute dining.

Now, this is a phase that many infants go through, and so it’s not surprising that our more infantile food culturals are trying it out too.

And that’s a good thing. It’s necessary to get this out of our system, and the sooner the better. Throwing, eating, and being generally fascinated by the waste products of our bodies-or our society-will lead to a deeper understanding of our foods and our bodies.

“We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun.”.

~Orwell.

SPAM: NOT LOCOVORE.

I can’t imagine a food less local, less organic, or less seasonal than Spam. Not to mention fake tasting and bad for you. Oh, and expensive. But there it is…

Meanwhile many people, particularly in Hawaii and on certain stretches of Melrose Ave. speak of how Spam got them through the War. We don’t see them huddled in bomb shelters, out of nostalgia, instead of going to the beach…. but they’re perfectly happy to eat the feces of our processed food industry.  And many, nostalgic and determined as can be, defend it as a good food.

Like babies in a nursery playing with their own feces…as the adults suppress the gag reflex, and wait for the Food Revolution to start up again..

Madonna In The Bordello?

Art and Commerce have never more shrewdly mingled than at a restaurant; especially now, in the US, where most people think of good food only as restaurant food.

The reason that we believe this is that our cuisine, like the rest of society, has been commodified, and those in charge of it are rated by their wealth and their fame. Meanwhile the act of cooking has been falsely over-complicated, and the deterioration of our cooking skills enables all of the show business.

Only a few years ago, when asked to name a memorable meal most people, regardless of class, would have thought of a meal with family, around the table. If asked to name a favorite dish, most would think of something that a Grandmother, or an Aunt used to prepare. This is still true in most of the world.

But in today’s America, where most people eat quite poorly, we think of a restaurant meal as the pinnacle of dining…Our ideal is a meal prepared for us, for money, by professionals.

And in a sad way, this is like saying that the best sex you ever had was not with your spouse, or high school sweetheart, or lover, but at a brothel, served up for money, by professionals.

If that were true, would that be OK? And how did the idealization of our food coincide with the simultaneous degradation of it? It’s not an accident and it’s not a mystery. It’s just business, at the expense of culture, and it highlights precisely the harm that comes automatically when we trade one for the other.

That’s one big reason that home cooking, real cooking, is important. The connection we have to our cuisine and what it represents emotionally begins, as it does for all mammals, with milk, the breast, and love. Being held, caressed and fed at the same time is so natural, and so important, that babies can die for lack of it. Simply put, love is as vital to our survival as food and breath. And later in life we still need these connections. Can we get them from restaurants? Or is that like expecting love from a prostitute?

The business of America is business. The culture of America…is in trouble.

Madonna/Whore Syndrome

The Madonna–Whore complex: “The inability to maintain sexual arousal within a committed, loving relationship. First identified by Sigmund Freud, this psychological complex is said to develop in men who see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. Men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna)”.

The Madonna–Junk Food complex: “The inability to maintain gustatory arousal within a committed, culinary culture…….this is said to develop in people who see food as either a culinary and nutritional delight, or as debased and impure junk. People with this complex desire food which has been processed, branded and marketed, (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected, pure natural and cultivated variety (the Madonna)”.

As Foodies gush about the culinary whores, ‘awesome’ donuts, ‘yummy’ In-N-Out burgers, ‘amazing‘ Poutine’, etc. (Whores), all just in it for the money, they pretend, dutifully to be faithful to the precepts of higher faith―local, fresh, in season―of their pure and adored goddesses, (Madonnas).

The Madonna/Whore syndrome has morphed into a single phenomenon: Madonna has assimilated the whore. Now show business has done us the favor of providing both a face and a name to hang our theories on. The same things that make Culinary Pornography, can turn culture into a whore as well, until finally the whore becomes a Madonna: The burger as fine dining fad, (Mhyrvold’s 30 hour burger, etc.). We develop extravagant rituals and recipes for the simple burger, whose charm is in fact its humbleness. Like taking a hooker to the prom. This can lead to confusion.

Madonna in 1979-Always Ahead Of the Curve, Contemplating The Ascendancy Of The Bush Years

“Freud argued that the Madonna-Whore complex is caused by oedipal castration fears which arise when a man experiences the affection he once felt for his mother with women he now sexually desires. In order to manage this anxiety, the man categorizes women into two groups: women he can admire and women he finds sexually attractive. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he despises and devalues the latter group.”

And which is exactly what happens when foodies, enamored of the fresh local and seasonal ethos, cavort happily with the most foreign, plastic and out of season ingredients such as:

  • Trueburger in Oakland Ca. Two local sous chefs with actual experience in fine kitchens create a milkshake made with Hostess Twinkies.
  • From Animal in L.A., CA, the Loco Moco Burger, which includes Spam and Fois Gras.
  • And the ubiquitous Iceberg and blue cheese Wedges, trawled from our recent culinary past (to provide comfort to those who fear culinary castration?).

It looks like we have yet to reconcile our youthful indiscretions with more mature desires for beauty and truth.

“Animal’s Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have no limits when it comes to meat. From the chefs now dubbed “carniwhores” comes the latest and tastiest creation: foie gras loco moco ($35), a caloric time bomb that’s worth every heart-clogging moment.”

“Carniwhores”! The secret’s out!

Ingredients, (partial list): foie gras loco moco, quail egg, spam, hamburger, Maple syrup, Teryaki sauce, rice, scallions…Cost: $35

How to be ‘pretty genius’:

“I think anyone that can use Spam on a dish and make it work is pretty genius.”

Is there a definition for “making it work”?

Animal Chef Vinny Dotolo:

“I started wondering out loud what Hawaiians eat. …It eventually sparked this idea of doing a Loco Moco. It is a big thing over there and people weren’t really rocking it too much here. The challenge was to make it both traditional and Animal-esque, which is where the foie gras comes in. I felt it needed some heat, so I added Sriracha, which gives it some acidity as well.

We put seared foie gras and lightly browned Spam on a burger patty, top it with a quail egg, and also scallions, plus we use Carolina Gold rice instead of usual white rice. There are about four sauces here and they can be hard to distinguish as they mix together and form a different flavor. There’s a foie gras sauce with a little maple syrup, a homemade teriyaki sauce, and the Sriracha. The Sriracha really tied it all together, adding heat and acid, otherwise it’d be just a hamburger with foie gras.”

And what we’re left with is the feeling that many young cooks and diners are made uncomfortable by the simplicity, the purity of “Madonna” food, (Fois gras for example), and find comfort in the street-smart confusion of canned, preserved, processed, factory food like Spam and bottled hot sauce, which also, conveniently saves them from having to actually taste or know anything.

Because you know, this is awesome. And Pretty genius.