Can You Handle The Truth?
So much of what we seek in life lies buried in the truth; taste is no exception. But while the philosophers debate the nature of truth, we can agree on one thing: Nature is truth.
For our bodies, food is our truth. That’s the ultimate simplicity, the ultimate Simplovore principle. What makes your body strong is truthful to it, and for it, and in that there can be no controversy.
Good taste is that which allows you to survive in the best possible way: with health and pleasure. And, as with any truth, taste doesn’t belong to anyone.
There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.
When we apply the philosophy of reason to the subject of nourishment and dining, we often create new mysteries. Truth can be elusive.
But truth can also be a beacon to lead us out of our current dark ages.
As we climb the culinary tree, the millions of choices we all make in our diet should always try to cohere to truth. Truthful choices create an honest diet. Dishonest choices create disease and pain. Who makes the rules? Don’t worry, they were made for us a million years ago, and are renewed every day. You only have to learn to listen.
Truth doesn’t come from chemical labs, or artificial flavorings. Truth is there all the time, waiting for us to be bored with the lies.
Truth rarely comes in packages and is rarely found in advertising, and therefore the more food you eat that has no package the closer you will find yourself to the truth.
One of the many invisible lies of packaged foods, this one about orange juice, (from Civil Eats):
“The technology of choice at the moment is aseptic storage, which involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so it doesn’t oxidize in the million gallon tanks in which it can be kept for upwards of a year. When the juice is stripped of oxygen it is also stripped of flavor providing chemicals. Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature.“
Can you taste the difference? You can if you train your palate. But in our society you have to first understand these things intellectually, and then search for the truth intuitively. In other words, target your tastes. It’s backwards, it’s upside down, but that’s the world we live in. And if you just insist on drinking the stuff out of a box because you believe you like orange juice, remember that you’re not drinking orange juice, but year-old, deaerated liquid food products, and you’re not tasting orange juice, but rather artificial “flavor packs”. Your body does know the difference.
This search for the truth will take you to many places. With luck, some places where lies cannot go. But the truth is only useful if you recognize it, so you have to train yourself to see the truth, your truth, and learn it’s secrets. Truth, in beauty, in culture, or in health, thrives best in simplicity.
And it never has to hide.
The most ancient and revered Pizza maker in Naples offers two pies: their basic pizza is just dough and tomato sauce, and you can get it with mozzarella cheese if you like. In any American city they’d go broke in a week.
The cacophony of flavors that we subject our tongues to is a con. Why do we do it? Three things: Marketing, lack of experience, and dulled tastes.
Like our minds, our palates have an attention span as well. Focus is essential to understanding and enjoyment. No one can think twelve thoughts at once or taste twelve flavors.
And that’s why simplicity in flavors can be so useful when learning to eat, to cook, and especially when trying to do either on a budget.
What good are twenty-seven herbs and spices? Why put six cheeses on a pizza? Is four cheese Ravioli better than three? Well it is if we can’t taste, if we just read flavor off of the box.
Four cheese Pizza probably started as a last minute solution for a meager pantry which didn’t have enough of any one cheese left for a pizza. Or just for fun. But it’s no good if the four cheeses are no good, and if they are, then one works just fine. It’s somehow in our nature to think of four as better than one, and it gives the marketers something to sell.
It’s not that there’s no place for variations sometimes, but if we can’t taste, really taste, the simple variety, adding “stuff” won’t help us.
That’s the legacy of Television and packaging, and it’s a remarkable one.
Small children invariably prefer Junk food in colorful packages over the same foods in a brown bag. And why not? A Strawberry will get more attention than a kiwi.
The exquisite pas-de deux between predator and prey creates an endless variety of such examples. But, as complex, thinking beings, our duty is to look beneath marketing, to the culture itself, and to try to cultivate our tastes. Because once we’ve been trained to expect piles of ‘stuff’ on everything there’s no reason for any of it to be of good quality. That’s the cost of these bad habits.
And, as always in our upside down society, we have to fight to keep simplicity affordable, because there’s nothing fancy about pizza, and no reason that simple, pure foods should cost more than foods produced by gleaming laboratories, which traveled half way around the world, and cost more to advertise than to grow. It’s just because “that’s the way things are”.
But they don’t have to be.
It’s all about reorganizing our priorities and finding our freedoms. Freedom to grow simple foods as cheaply as genetically modified, patented, bio-tech, products, which are frauds on so many levels; freedom from subsidies for the foods that make us sick; freedom to harvest and recycle our seeds, instead of being forced to buy them from con-artists. And, freedom to eat simply and understand that the thing from a box, with six meats, 44 ingredients, (many, not even food), is a con: it will never have the complexity of truth.
That’s elitism, and that’s taste. It’s that simple.
How can we reconcile the idea of simplicity with the desire for complexity? This is not just an intellectual exercise, because complexity is a legitimate goal. How can we see vastly complex systems as simple?
Well, to begin with, we don’t need to see them as simple, but to see them with simplicity. Thus, Einstein could look at the universe and respond:
Our food is made up of vastly complex organisms, (apart from a few minerals all food comes from organisms). These we can interpret with culinary simplicity.
The secret is harmony.
What makes a symphony different from a sonata is the complexity of the voices. The orchestra creates an elaboration of the themes. But this complexity must follow internal logic or it will fall apart. Only through the harmony of the individual elements can we understand the meaning of the whole.
Whether a sandwich or a banquet, a meal must follow the same principle. Harmony must guide our choices and the role of simplicity, though concealed, is vital.
When we try to impose complexity by force, through the imposition of conflicting voices, i.e.:flavors, we create a cacophony which confuses our tastes and leads us off a culinary cliff. Eventually it will kill our tastes.
This is what happens when we overuse flavorings, condiments or ingredients. And this is inevitable when we use ingredients which have been drained of flavor through poor cultivation or through over processing. A great many dishes could be improved by the removal of an item or two.
So, what of dishes like the Indian Biryanis and Curries, which can contain many spices and flavorings? As always, they are in harmony and do not fight. A thousand years of tradition and experimentation has seen to this. The choices are not arbitrary, they don’t gang up on each other. They achieve simplicity through complexity.
There are thousands of “false friends” in cooking. Ingredients which seem like they should go together but in fact do not: garlic in Onion Soup; lime with avocado; tomato with ham. No amount of “liking” these combinations can make them culinarily correct. And here we’re not talking about taste or preference but of physiology. Just like a small amount of salt will kill the flavor of coffee, contradict it, spoil its essence, a small amount of certain flavorings can be as out of place as a kazoo in a string quartet.
Next week: How these combinations develop, and why it matters.