Cuisine for Ponderence

“But some of us are beginning to pull well away, in our irritation, from...the exquisite tasters, the vintage snobs, the three-star Michelin gourmets. There is, we feel, a decent area somewhere between boiled carrots and Beluga caviar, sour plonk and Chateau Lafitte, where we can take care of our gullets and bellies without worshipping them.”
J.B. Priestley (1894-1984)

Aside from my role as husband and father to two obnoxious dogs I also work in the building trade as a roofscape designer. Many of the designs I’m required to produce are very complex and I often dwell on them long past office hours. This tends to permeate my dreams and I sometimes wake up from nightmares about rafters, webs, purlins, joists, and worst of all, the stubbed bobtail truss. Occasionally though my subconscious moves on to things unrelated to work and in these instances I receive glimpses of the true priorities of my disturbed/disturbing psyche. One such dream woke me up Thursday morning.

I was out with my wife in an American mall. Freya was off to the bookstore to browse in the cookery section, as is her wont. I had recently purchased a nearby coffee shop and wanted to go check the place out. The employees of the shop were unaware of the new ownership and so I entered anonymously. I approached the counter and ordered a “large coffee”. As anyone au fait with the modern coffee shop scene knows, this was not appropriate. The Yuppie movement of the early 80’s saw the rebirth of the beatnik coffee shop. With the rebirth came the introduction of Yuppie style pretension. The result is that now when you enter one of these establishments you must order a Vente café latte with a triple shot of espresso and biscotti on the side. As I had digressed from the preferred modus operandi, I was refused service. I argued that I was just looking for a plain 20oz. cup of black coffee. I was eventually served my coffee and a sandwich and sat down within earshot of the counter. I could hear the trendy college kids talking about how square I was and it was clear that they knew they were on the cutting edge of all things new and hip. I finished my food and drink and walked over to the window to put up a HELP WANTED sign. The employees said, “Hey, man, what are you doing to our window?” I said, “advertising for help.” They looked perplexed and it was at this point that I revealed I was the new owner and they were all fired.

This dream is probably a reflection of my own aging process and an awareness that I am definitely not cool and hip anymore. It also speaks of a desire to get my own back on the people who are now “cool” and “hip”. The way I interpret this dream, however, is as a social commentary on the pretensions that have become an accepted part of the “foody” culture.

I found the book American Psycho highly tedious, but it paints a good portrait of the young professional movement that leached all the charm out of music, architecture, art, literature, and, for our purposes, food. The yuppie predilection to put form before function made the process of going out to eat thoroughly un-enjoyable for just about anybody outside this elitist subculture. The funny thing is, it was definitely for the best. Thanks to the ridiculous demands of the yuppies, most people now have access to better ingredients from all over the world. Elizabeth David famously wrote that the only place to get olive oil in England in the 1950’s was from the chemist as it was considered only usable medicinally, but in 2006, in the middle of the Essex countryside, I need only walk half a mile to buy tapenade, plantains, chorizo, or wasabi powder.

So now the playing field has been levelled and even an entry-level cook can obtain specialist ingredients, good quality produce, and organically reared meats. The result is that we should all be eating better, palates should be more sophisticated, and cuisine should be the last domain of the socialist state. But wait! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the kitchen, a new wave of pretentious food snobs are trying to erect the barriers again. These people are trying to use food to create a glamorous lifestyle for themselves. They are the people you see on Come Dine With Me for whom entertainment is about making a big impression rather than camaraderie, companionship, and communion.

There’s nothing wrong with elegance, but not at the expense of enjoyment. Nobody wants to be a guest at a dinner party where the host is in the kitchen primping the appetizer and crying because the soufflé is lopsided.

The ironic thing about this group is that the recipes they tend to embrace to make them feel more aristocratic are foods traditionally referred to as “peasant food”. Risotto is on the menu of every Michelin star restaurant in the country and yet the origins of this delicious and versatile dish are the result of economic necessity. Cassoulet, Pot Au Feu, and Pate have developed from centuries of rustic French tradition. This isn’t to say that these foods don’t belong in the best restaurants in the world, of course they do, but they are more at home on a farmers table than on the Queen’s.

Now I love Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Ina Garten, Keith Floyd, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Anthony Bourdain; I get guilty pleasure from watching Delia Smith because I secretly enjoy being patronised; and although I become irate with Gary Rhodes for all his poking, patting, and prodding of the food on the plate, I can’t fault him on the strength of his recipes. The truth of the matter though is that my lifestyle more closely resembles Justin Wilson (The greatest Cajun chef who was kicking it up a notch years before Emeril was born (Bam!)) than any of these people.
A few years ago, we went to see Keith Floyd live in Bury St. Edmunds. During the Q&A session I asked what his favourite culinary experiences were during his trip to America. He answered, as I predicted, that southern food is the most closely associated with proper cuisine. Anybody familiar with the region will tell you that while the various cultures in the South have never managed to fully integrate, at least the flavours have. Soul food, Cajun, Creole, Caribbean, African, and European have all emerged and mingled into a new and timeless melange. The strength of this cuisine is the fact that it hasn’t lost touch with its’ humble origins and the great thing is that the lifestyle gurus haven’t seemed to take notice yet. The food probably isn’t clean enough, healthy enough, or hip enough for culinary groupies. I hope it stays that way.

No comments: