February 17th, 2012. 9:42 PM. Perched in bed, trying to empty my head.
Watching "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" on the telly with my daughter tonight. It was her choice. The Wee Lass digs the show, and by extension so do I. We both enjoy the breadth and depth of people, places and especially the food highlighted on the show. There is much to see and so much to eat in this country. So while I was watching, chatting with my daughter about the yummy stuff we were seeing, what was it that was causing me some disquiet? It's food, man, not a scary movie.
It hit me, then and there, in the middle of a segment on a mighty fine-looking Cuban sandwich (even the bread had me fascinated) that I knew the source of my perturbation. It was the abundance.
I was struck by how every dish I saw prepared seemed to be based on the idea of endless abundance. A cuisine of inexhaustible resources. Monster portion sizes. Long ingredient lists. Everything done "with a twist." Even the condiments oozing out of a sandwich and dripping down a forearm is pitched as the mark of a really good dish.
I confess it all puzzles me slightly, especially the juice down-the-arm thing. I think what bothers me the most about that in particular is that it seems kind of...infantile? Is that the word I am looking for? Personally, when I eat a sandwich, I don't want it spraying out on me. I enjoy my food, but have no desire to treat it like finger paints.
Anyway. I digress. The gist of my observation is that the food culture in this country is not unlike the energy culture: we predicate our actions on having abundant and cheap raw materials to fuel our consumption. It explains why a hike in food prices or fossil fuels causes everybody to stress out.
I watched. I wondered, what happens when we have to make do with less? I was thinking of the Italian cucina povera (literally translated as "poor kitchen"), an approach to food and eating that arose out of the necessity of dealing with not having a plethora from which to choose. It is about making do with what you have to create something bigger in its whole than in its sum. Do we even know how to do that anymore?
The issue has been on my mind a lot in the past year, as I have delved further into the bachelor life I lead and trying to establish a cuisine for myself while dealing with unemployment. I realized that I could no longer afford to treat every meal as separate and unrelated to the other things I would eat. That can get expensive and wasteful, especially if one does not deign to eat leftovers.
I understand that restaurants do not and cannot approach food the same way as the home cook. They have to sell the food to prosper and survive. But watching another humongous portion disappear down another celebrity gullet, I sensed a little bit of fear underlying the gloss and dazzle. It is the fear of not having enough, of the good stuff running out.
The parade of Bigger! Spicier! Glossier! things is an attempt to persuade ourselves that we will always have everything, and that we don't necessarily have to be clever to eat well. This never-ending stream of plenty distracts us from truly considering what we eat, and as the credits rolled, I pondered the consequences of not thinking about our food: we forget how to fend for ourselves.