Ten years before his untimely death, I happened to read one of the ubiquitous interviews of the time featuring bad boy chef Anthony Bourdain, in which Mr. Bourdain pointed out the recent change in the way we perceive food in the US:
Oh my God, we’re allowed to serve good food now! Chefs are actually empowered to decide what food you should eat. Back when I started cooking, no one even knew what good, fresh fish was, or had any idea what real Italian was. And if we would have given it to them, they would have screamed like stuck pigs. When we put together menus, we had to have a sirloin steak, we had to have a pasta, we had to have a salmon. By the time you filled up all the slots of things you had to have, you had very few slots left on the menu. Now, for the very first time, a chef like Mario Batali or David Chang can sit around, have a couple of cocktails, and decide what the next hot menu item is going to be. “Next year, it’s gonna be pork bellies or pig tails.” And more often than not, they’re right. They can make that happen, because people trust them and are interested in what they think is good. In the last few years, for the first time in American history, chefs are being allowed to serve their customers and get them to eat what they themselves believe to be the good stuff. We’re not cooking down to them. ~ A.V. Club interviews Anthony Bourdain
Interesting. It’s as if culinary philosophy in the US had diverged from that of countries like Italy; as if we had taken the wrong fork on the culinary high road and couldn’t find our way back without the authoritative Iron Generals of the Kitchens leading us toward a way of looking at food that Italy has clung to since food has been celebrated in literature.
Let’s go through some enormously compressed history. All food, up until fairly recently, was local, fresh (as possible) and minimally processed. Culinary ideas (pre-recipies) were passed on from villager to villager. Traditions emerged; people aspired to produce the best food within a narrow range of preparation choice.
Then, in the US, the industrial revolution created more wealth and introduced specialists, along came professional cooks. They cooked for individuals. They cooked for groups. They traveled. They cataloged ideas. They introduced huge changes that rippled through society, changing traditions, especially in the growing cities. They introduced cookbooks that went far beyond local church bicentennial cookbooks by emphasizing techniques and complexity. (Of course, in Italy, the Romans went through this phase 2000 or so years ago.)
Eventually, along came Julia Child.
As Bourdain points out, Julia was a cook. She understood cooking from the ground up, especially French cooking. But she never worked in the hot box of a restaurant kitchen. She wasn’t a chef, a leader, a boss. It doesn’t matter, because she changed the face of cooking in American homes—mostly by the introduction of technique rather than any ideas of freshness in the ingredients. But still, American cooking, especially in restaurants as Bourdain points out, was stuck on a few primary ingredients which could be bought anywhere, any time, thanks to the growing corporate suppliers around the globe. American was becoming a land where the tomatoes sucked, but you could get sucky tomatoes any time of year and at a good price.
So the question is: What happened that caused America to need hard-drinking, devil-may-care bad-boy chefs to rescue its cuisine and divert it toward “old world” values focused on local, fresh cuisine seasoned properly and minimally (optimally) processed? And more importantly, how did they do it?
I’d bet the answer to the first question has something to do with the food hysteria promoted by massive industrial food conglomerates trying to satisfy the demands for growth made by their stockholders. It was a great strategy.
Without even knowing what hit us, by the late ’70s we had been convinced on the basis of a few inadequate studies that just about everything we yearned to put in our mouths was bad for our health. All the elements of good cooking were trashed. Salt was deadly. Fat was deadly. Sugar rotted your teeth and made you susceptible to diabetes. Later, carbohydrates became deadly. Animal protein sapped the entire world of its easily digested greenery and was thus deadly on a massive scale.
Good God! What’s safe to eat now?
Answers started appearing in ridiculously large fonts on the ever increasing numbers of cans containing food. Low salt! Low Fat! Low Carbs! The industry could multiply their offerings and the shelf space devoted to them by simply modifying the recipes slightly for each element of the hysteria and then shouting it out on the can. Pretty soon even low fat and low sodium bottled tap water was thrust upon the market; there were obviously no limits to what could be made low fat (except for the ultimate size of supermarkets), especially if the product didn’t have any fat in it in the first place. The result? Industrialists buried in found money laughed all the way to the bank and to their hoity-toity restaurants where they dropped loads of it on really good food cooked by the masters—which could ultimately be their undoing.
Meanwhile, let’s imagine the responsible home cook simmering up a big ol’ pot of soup from scratch. Eventually it comes time to pour out the amount of salt the recipe says to start with. Shock and awe follows—“my God! What a pile of heart-wrenching badness!” And so less salt goes in. The soup tastes, well, flat and lifeless like you’d expect. Never mind the fact that the per serving amount of salt is actually minimal.
And so Campbell’s soup is better. Mainly because nobody had to see the enormous amount of salt they put in the stuff. So we gleefully piled the cans into our carts.
What happened next? Iron chefs. The Food Channel. The foodie revolution.
How had the message changed? The new chefs were born of tiny kitchens that seethed with hell’s sweet heat. They cooked and partied hard. Cooking had suddenly become a blood sport. The new chef was an iron-fisted warrior out to change the world. And the message had changed. People listened, primarily because they were fed up with industrial crap food and the endless, commonly agreed upon dietary lies that made food boring and unsavory.
These days, when Emeril bellows out “Pork fat rules!” people don’t say, “You fat bastard, you tryin’ to kill us?” Nope, they cheer from the bottoms of their hearts —every last one of them. When Mario shows you how to crust a bass in salt and bake it like the Italians do, nobody calls him a killer.
Chefs in white hats. We gotta thank them for their rescue from the mass food hysteria that diverted us toward crap food for a while. Or at least that’s my vision of culinary history.
Meanwhile, the Food Channel, recognizing that it had shot itself in the economic foot by featuring chefs who had no connections to their big, industrial food advertisers, booted most of them in favor of ditsy dimwits who cook things from bags and cans. Has the revolution run its course, or is the Food Channel just sliding into culinary oblivion? Once we taste real food, can we ever go back again?
Perhaps it was the relatively late arrival of supermarkets that kept Italians from totally buying into the “food is bad” hysteria. I really don’t know. But I’m grateful for their apparent resistance to it, and despite some indication to the contrary, I hope that Italians can afford to celebrate their culture over a good meal with wine for many years to come—because I’d like to be able to join them occasionally.