“All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.”
Food is the last frontier of human integrity. Science is dead; religion mortified; culture commodified; technology co-opted, raped; language corrupted; power and politics are leprous, caustic, angry; faith is toxic; the churches are closing and the jails are full: the blind are leading the naked and the deaf have nowhere to go. And why is it so hard to buy food in America’s food capital? Why are the farmers markets utterly stagnant; why are chain stores opening in food deserts; why are we being sold the likeness of food but not food itself?
If you accept that the body edible, much as the body politic, is one more form through which we organize our social endeavor, then you understand that a chef is merely the fingers on the hand of that corpse. Without a captive pulse, agents are mere entities: they are dead skin attached to healthy ceremony. As a sage or oracle or shaman may transform the stoic banality of life—of metal, of air, of seeds—chefs too give form to our raw materials. Crops, like the dogma of catechism, must be transformed into food, into meals, into nutrition. Grains must be transubstantiated—by roiling water or patient millstones—into rice, into flour, into food: enter chef, to officiate this secular Communion…tracing the veins of the earth back to the heart.
There is a food chain, as realistic as the one in elementary Biology, which exists within nature as much as it does without. Instead of the vertical, hierarchical perspective that it’s portrayed as, I’d like to drop its stilts and facades, making the eyes see horizontally. The food press demonstrates bad form when it indulges a top down view: reporting from, for, and about only the restaurant ghetto. From such heights, ingredients—real food—become distended and unrecognizable: the hegemony of this singular, somewhat insipid perspective is a short-term distraction from a long-term issue. There is a living mosaic—an entire womb—of incessant creation that organizes the food industry. By ignoring or misunderstanding the individual tiles in favor of the final picture, we disrespect the cyclical, democratic nature of the mural; we, in laziness, appropriate the individuality of the staggering human cohesion that organizes this mosaic.
There is no language greater than that of taste. There are no words like flavor, no alphabet like fresh ingredients, no culture like that of a cuisine. It hurts me to see the chef-driven, local/sustainable marketing concept, embraced and packaged by the corporate/capitalized restaurants and companies, appropriate the heart and lungs of the endeavor: the rank and file, working class artisans and craftspeople have been entirely divorced from this branding. Do not those who plant tomatoes in La Rose, those who bake bread in Broadmoor, and those who pasture cattle in Folsom make vital decisions which dictate the quality of their product just as a chef does? The integrity of that person’s endeavor is not any less valid, or any less important.
Farm to table, whole hog, head to tail, single source, organic, sustainable, chef-driven—the hyperboles and trends are nauseating, if accurate. Genuineness is a fearful thing—we laud derision, we celebrate bruises; but honesty, failure, and process are anathema. If it is too weird to truly digest or taste, if the vibration is too great to resist, we flock to the nimbus, but not the light; homogenous and languid on the porch of mediocrity. Like flies, humans sometimes buzz around shit and celebrate most what we understand least. Knowledge is free and wisdom is cheap.
The media hiss at anonymity—it is thought that people, like animals, demand commotion. We are no longer attracted to rhythm, to tides, to placidity; the digital age is one of constant disruption and anti-action—the more cacophonous the whisper, the more silent the screams. So much hollow activity, so much proximity, isolates us: like magnets waltzing with compulsion towards their collision, the moment before contact is an immense repulsion…the more that is unpacked and understood, the less we possess in shadow, in wabi/sabi. The digital democracy is instead an immense, isolated kingdom of fear and virtual convenience; peasants vying for spectacle, for action, for someone to pay attention to their contrived ‘doing.’
(Sotto voce: the creators sit mute, attendants in Plato’s Cave; their opaque shadows splayed on a cruel wall. Walls and fires that they built, harvested, nurtured, cultivated: now they are isolated, like God, from their creations).
It takes a certain person to cook: to bake, to braise, wash dishes, to work a line. A certain shade, a certain chromosome ajar, an answer without a question, a door left open too long…we envy the glory of capability, celebrate the dexterity of a mind who can perform the most mundane functions with the fingertips of a God making Adam. A craftsperson—a cook, a baker, a brewer, a butcher—is not an artist. We are not priests, politicians: the craftsperson is a pupil of discipline and a child of commitment. Bound to the rules as the earth is bound to gravity; sacrificed on the altar of tradition. We are wed to those who came before us; we were engendered by finite experience and we will never stray from that pivot. Craft breathes us in.
Chefs make imperative, transformative decisions about ingredients which, when their choices are made, create cuisine. The agency inherent in the creation of food—not just its interpretation into ingredients—is more important than the cooking. The cult of personality which silhouettes popular chefs and food services is typically supported by a cadre of well-trained, tech-savvy mandarins who can package, market, and broadcast form, but not translate substance. The desire is to consume an experience, not food. When we find the courage, if we so desire, to mine the human soil for its true custodians—the moonlighters, the dishwashers, the factotums, the menial, and the meek—we will find a luscious theatre of characters that can stand on equal footing with the best of them. If we truly want to elucidate and revive our edible geography, then we must re-define the nature of the message. We must exalt the humble, anonymous people who work on holidays and in the middle of the night; we must respect the distillation of craft through thousands of years of tradition, with limited modern inputs, calloused into the palms of vendors at farmers markets and men on shrimp boats in our sweltering August. Cuisine is not a collision of cultures, but a reciprocal/consensual consummation of various people at a certain time in a particularly evolving place; like a needle whose thread cradles itself within the spool of this city. The plate on the table is only as good as the soil in the field.
Food’s creation, like love, is born from principles, rules—it is imbued with gravity, innate with everything we may intuit. Wine has “nerves, legs, body, nose”: we endow the food we love with the traits of the individuals we strive to become. We grope towards balance, finesse, poise, composure, maturity—the genuflection of patience, the gestation of age—just as we seek such characteristics in our food.
Sometimes I feel like New Orleans’ cuisine is attendant, like Tom Sawyer, at its own funeral: bewildered in the rafters, looking down on the casket. Cuisine devout as an old lady, massaging rosary on the rocking chair; defending a past that makes her present impossible. The church of tradition—we bathe in the tepid water because it is calm, comforting, easy; this city may be as alive as ever, but we’re still eating dead tradition. Why? The entire paradigm is overlooked—salvation arrives from below, not above—and without a healthy economy of small food producers, grocers, and farmers, nobody will survive or evolve—this saturation, this cuisine, however grand, is so old that it now appears new. Like Columbus falling off the flat face of a round world, the idea so hyper-modern it’ll leave you two steps behind where you left. It’s not about what is coming; it’s about where it’s coming from: heed the narrative, not the Narcissus.
But bubbles burst, on the surface. They travel away from the flotsam, resilient in their delicacy, evicted by gravity; sent to the lips of the fracas. Things are changing, if we so desire to control that change. There is exasperation, as I have experienced, when the expectation is top-down. Change flows, incongruent with gravity, like the blood of a tree, upwards from the bottom. Roots nourish the growth of leaves, and soil dictates the health of roots: one tree does not make a forest.
Like the spokes on a wheel, the centrifugal force will propel a momentum that is guaranteed to turn such weight. And, if ten years ago, or ten months ago, we couldn’t see the spokes but could fell the momentum…well, now the points in time are beginning to emerge like stars at twilight. The clarity at times may be merciless, and the pseudo-momentum is nauseating, but the truth is the re-invention of the wheel is beside the point. It is a problem of ontology, of communication, of nurturing the very carbon of a public food system: food is only as good as the people who make it. Let’s put some muscle on the flesh.