Tell Me What You Eat, And I’ll Tell You Where You Are
Brillat-Savarin’s most famous quote may be too broad for individuals, but few aspects of a culture are more revealing than its diet.
The TV Dinner. Now, most of us like to believe that this isn’t a representative example of today’s food. After all, it was a fifties fad and we’ve come a long way since…haven’t we? The most important thing about this meal is not the food. It’s not the package, or the cost, the calories, or the sodium content. It’s the name. The TV Dinner meant that for the first time since man invented fire, families didn’t look at each other as they ate. This is such a monumental shift that its importance can’t be overstated. The dominance of the television controls many important things about what we eat, how much, when, and so on. It provides clues to our health problems and dietary crises.
It is the most significant breakthrough in the history of food. We were actually able to look at electronic pictures of the food we were eating as we ate it. We were trained to look at idealized versions of ourselves as we became something else. Ozzie and Harriet never got fat and lazy, but we sure did. Families, feeding from endless arrays of frozen foods, bags of chips and bottomless bottles of soft drinks…watched. The dismantling of a hundred centuries of socialization took about 36 months.
Where we are now
Americans adore movements, brands. Locovore, Fusion, Vegetarianism, raw-food, Junk food, or farm-to-fork, are all attempts to negotiate the relationship between our bodies and our land. Some pass, some become part of the culture. But this sometimes imposes impossible rules, and a confusion of tastes. To borrow from other cultures requires a structure, a philosophy. These things are bred naturally into ancient cultures through attrition and evolution, not from a box of spare parts.
If cuisine is the Human being’s response to their land, then we need to look there to find our answers. For example, the needs of our bodies come before philosophy. Searching history we find one man who ate the flesh of animals and another who believed that eating animals was “harmful to humanity”. The first was Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha; the second, Adolf Hitler. Both adapted to the needs of their bodies, resources of their land.
The Slow Food Movement was conceived in Italy in 1986, but slow is only half the story, the other half is terroir, the French word meaning ‘a sense of place’. The point was to return the focus to the locus: To respect Terroir and the power of place, over the bulldozing effect of junk food and Multinational corporations. We often hear the accusation of “Food Police!”, but in Europe, Asia, Africa, where traditions are understood, it’s called culture. It’s the job of a culture to regulate itself, and problems with freedom of choice are rare in places where the culture itself has a voice. The land chooses, the culture chooses; then the individual chooses.
Slow food is a pan-cultural ideology, not a dining fad. Culture blends new ideas organically, infused like herbs into broth, rather than bolted on like wheels to a car. In Italy, the town of Parma makes Parmesan cheese and Parma Ham. In France, Champagne produces Champagne, Cognac produces Cognac, and so on for Dijon, Bordeaux, Armagnac, Benedictine, etc. The name expresses the work and the pride of the region, or tribe. That’s the birthright of the people and it’s no fad. I often hear that the fake Parmesan cheeses from Wisconsin or the fake Gouda from California are legitimate because they’re made in the ‘style’ of the genuine ones. But it’s not a ‘style’, it’s the grass of the land, the passion of the people, that makes it real. Parmesan cheese is part of the culinary dialogue between the people of Parma and their land. It’s not a marketing strategy.
Our continent was the source of so many of the world’s ingredients; we have yet to have a similar influence on world cuisine. Italy, a country roughly the size of New Mexico, has so many distinct cuisines that we can barely keep track of them. We need to realize that the foods of a culture are truly of that culture, not just from it. Potatoes, unknown outside of the Americas before Columbus, come back to us from Belgium as French Fries, from France as Pommes Dauphinoise, from Italy as Gnocchi, and from Russia as Vodka. Not to be outdone, we gave the world Tater Tots and Pringles, the products of our biggest cultural contribution, the TV dinner table.
“The Destiny Of A Nation Depends On How It Nourishes Itself”
Brillat-Savarin said that too.
But that destiny isn’t going to be found in restaurants, or in recipes. It has to come from the ground, and be prepared by families, served to families, so that families can continue to exist.
It’s time to do better. It’s our turn. It’s our duty. It’s our pleasure.