Eat the Rich

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.

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8 Comments

  1. If I had money or time, I would code a web database that was the opposite of a cookbook so that poor people could eat well, too.

    What do I mean?

    Cookbooks all work the same way. You flip through the pages searching for something that sounds good to you, and then you see if you have the tools to make it. If you don’t, you keep flipping until you see something that fits with your “kitchen” and abilities. Finally, you settle on something close to what you want and then drag your ass to the store to buy the four ingredients you don’t have. Taragon, for instance.

    People who must cook to save money as opposed to people who choose to cook because of some sort of ethical position end up making the same four dishes because that’s all they can remember every time they shop. They shop like scared rats, afraid to buy anything wrong. One of the dishes they make is always pasta with something old from the refrigerator mixed into it (like baking soda), often still cold.

    If I had money or time, I would create a database of recipes that was instead indexed to INGREDIENTS. You would plug in what kitchen tools and ingredients you have, and then it would tell you what recipes you can make, broken down by amount of people you need to feed, prep time, and nutritional value.

    YOU HAVE:

    A spoonful of flour
    A cup of hot water
    A knuckle full of salt
    Fire
    A spoon
    A cup

    YOU CAN MAKE:

    Crackers
    Salt-Water Soup
    Room-Temperature Water Paste Salad

    People could upload every accidental discovery, and people could rate the recipes as they use them so that everyone is part of the open-source discovery-making process. Sort of like “Pandora” for food. We would all discover what ingredients are extraneous and how to get the most out of what we buy.

    This would make going to the store great. You just buy whatever you can afford, toss in something peculiar, and then see what new recipes you can make when you get home. Also, this would reveal what ingredients are the most universal for your particular palate so you could make sure to always have them in stock and to always use them up in every recipe you can find that calls for them, so that nothing goes bad and your kitchen doesn’t become a rotten sinkhole due to your drinking binges like mine would be if I had a refrigerator.

    “Chuck, it says we can’t make anything. We are going to starve to death.”

    “Smash one of them earwigs, Mary, and then type in “earwigs” and see what we get. Also, type in “dignity, perseverance, and toothpaste.”

    “We are saved! I love you!”

    (Chuck and Mary spent all their money on a laptop and this month’s internet bill, evidently. Bad Chuck and Mary! Type in “remorse!”)

    Maybe this open-source ingredient database already exists. If so, let’s hear about it! Let’s use it!

  2. So OK, Laura Miller’s a bit of a ninny, as any reasonably aware Salon reader knows. But I’m interested to know what your beef is with Mark Bittman in particular. Speaking as someone cooking about 80% vegetarian and mostly organic, whose weekly household food budget is less than a typical dinner for one at the local upscale restaurant, I’ve actually found Bittman (speaking mostly of his blog and his How to Cook Everything/Vegetarian book here) to be a valuable resource, and his “mostly vegetarian” diet a reasonable and workable alternative to my former meat-centric ways. I haven’t read this book in question yet, but everything I’ve heard from him regarding food has been so inoffensively moderate, I’m curious to know what positions he’s taking that are so controversial.

  3. Your writing is possibly the most advanced case of adult thesaurus-itis I’ve ever seen. Almost every single word has been replaced by a clumsier, “fancier” substitute.

    Is this some sort of performance art?

  4. I guess what I was trying to say is that you should ignore your “inner thesaurus”.

    That little voice that told you that “dissipate” or “ineluctable” made sense the way you used them above.

    You’ve more or less admitted that you think more syllables = importance, in your post about how “France” is too short of a name for such an important country.

    If that were the case, Ouagadougou and Montevideo would be the world’s most important capital cities, and every sentence would be improved by adding “ineluctable”. I’d like to respectfully disagree.

  5. I love the vocabulatory swagger. The contrast between ‘corpulent title’ and ‘lazy bastard’ is like watching a foodie wash down a teaspoon of caviar with a can of Coke,and I’m practically itching to use ‘smug simpleton’ in a sentence.

    Don’t change a thing!

    (Just discovered the blog after being a Bat Segundo fan for years. I love that too!)

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