One reads Laura Miller’s review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters with unwavering chagrin. Here is a review of a clearly ideological book, a review written by a humorless bourgeois reviewer who boasts about cooking “the vast majority of my meals from scratch,” but who does not wish to dissipate from the self-righteous upper-class foodie twits who refuse to comprehend the ineluctable associations between food and class. In Miller’s view, cooking is considered by Americans either “an elite hobby” or “an esoteric mystery,” and Bittman’s book exists as some halfway house (or, perhaps more appropriately phrased, a luxury rehab clinic) transforming eating into a Pollan-inspired prescribed formula for “better living,” with cooking becoming something accomplished with little to no effort. The snarky “Yummers!” with which Miller attempts to level the ostensible country bumpkins could just as easily be applied to Miller’s unchecked conformism.
What has not occurred to Miller, who is here an eager and unquestioning acolyte of Bittman, is that cooking is not necessarily about subscribing to a handbook, but very much about the act of discovering tasty combinations in the process. (And incidentally, a Lancashire hotpot, contrary to Miller’s anti-casserole prejudices, ain’t necessarily a bad thing in a pinch and does get people excited at a potluck.) More important than any of this is that cooking is a practical act in which one must feed a family. When there’s less than $100 in the weekly food budget to feed a family of four, sacrifices become necessary. But here’s the good news: from limitations emerge spontaneity and innovation. The bad news is that the Bittmans and the Millers of our world see fit to capitalize on these underground innovations without acknowledgment and more than a little bit of douchery.
Let’s consider some examples.
Impoverished 18th century Italians began adding tomato to their flat bread, others perfected the formula, and pizza took off. And if you want to go back further in time to find the flat bread prototype, you can find this passage in Book VII of the Aeneid:
Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:
“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”
Sushi emerged as a method of preserving fish. In China, fermented rice was wrapped around a salted piece of fish. This was known as nare-sushi. And the original idea was that you would crack open the rice bubble and enjoy yourself a nice piece of preserved fish. Then some culinary innovators in Japan realized that you could enjoy eating the rice as well and came up with seisei-sushi.
John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, held his corpulent title on an innovation that emerged because Montagu was too much of a lazy bastard to leave the gaming table. The man aspired to chow down while playing cards. We’ll never know whether or not some hapless stiff in the kitchen was threatened with being sacked if he did not satisfy the Earl’s gustatory wishes. But one thing remains certain throughout history: behind every culinary decree and resultant innovation is the desperate eleventh-hour maneuvering of a terrified and often underpaid chef.
I am not against the pursuit of good food. Anyone can be a foodie if they apply some sensible chops to the task. I am on record singing the praises of MFK Fisher, whose excellent volume, How to Cook a Wolf, considered how to love food in dire times. (And let us likewise commend Jeffrey Steingarten for having the courage and curiosity to try just about everything.) But I am against the idea of being so blinded by your gourmet pursuits that you cannot possibly consider that there’s some good eating to be had with the common folk. Miller is notably bothered by the idea of balsamic vinegar being available at places like Applebee’s, and the way she marinates in her seeming “superiority” by eating in a fast food restaurant “once a year, and only when I’m ravenous and trapped with no other alternative” is disgraceful. More egregious is her failure to consider the above-mentioned hypothetical family of four. Why is the ubiquity of balsamic vinegar a bad thing if people enjoy it? Like anything along the wondrous trajectory of human development, food shifts from its origins, whether they be lower-class or upper-class. But why should we be discriminatory about it? If there is good food, should we not let other people know about it? Do such efforts not augment the taste buds of everyone? In fact, don’t we have a certain obligation to improve upon food as we cook if we can? (There’s that spontaneity in the kitchen again.)
It has also never occurred to the Bittmans and Millers of our world that there may indeed some virtue in vices, and that attempting to maintain a svelte physique merely through healthy eating is only half the problem. (There’s this little thing called exercise.)
But there’s also something more irksome here. If you’re calling for “responsible eating” and you’re not considering the origins, needs, spending patterns, and eating habits of everyday people, you’re a smug simpleton of the highest order if you think your casual condescension translates into revolution.
© 2009, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.