Bite Me

Something to Chew On

That Lin Yutang quote on the menu at Bambino's reminded me of other famous words on food by folks considerably brighter than myself. In particular, it reminded me of this long lovely from M.F.K. Fisher in The Gastronomical Me:

"People ask me: why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power, security and love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow unfaithful to the honour of my craft. The easiest answer is, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems that our three basic needs, for food, security and love, are so mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one. I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love."

Fisher was on to something: Food has become hugely important these days. It used to be that foodies could name on one hand the restaurants for which America was famous (and I'm talking Chez Pannise/Rainbow Room/Four Seasons famous, not "most famous BBQ in Dudley, Oklahoma" famous). Today, celebrated restaurants are everywhere. Same with chefs. Once we had only a few who were truly shaping cuisine, who could get up under the klieg lights on Good Morning America without millions of Midwestern housewives saying, "Who the heck is he, and what's he doing to that poor chicken?" Now you can't swing a dead cat in the offices of any major TV network without hitting a Bobby Flay, an Emeril Lagasse, a Rocco DiSpirito or a Mario Batali. (It's not that some of those guys don't deserve to be hit with a dead cat -- but you try sneaking one through security these days.)

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Food drives the network morning shows and spawns reality TV, movies and celebrities. Gourmet porn is big, with dozens, if not hundreds, of new cookbooks hitting the shelves every month, and food magazines outnumber all the gun, car and confession rags combined. Back in the day, if you had a culinary-arts degree, it came from one of two places: Johnson & Wales (which turned out mostly mid-level hotel managers and some decent front-of-the-house floormen) or the Culinary Institute of America (which spewed forth cooks, almost exclusively, who were of little or no use to any working kitchen). Now C-school grads can come from anywhere.

On the one hand, this is decent news. Food service is my field (both as a chef and as a critic), and I like to see the business doing well. When some 29-year-old line cook from South Jersey hits it big, gets his own Food Network show, his own cookbook, his own fan club, I'm happy for him. Especially if he deserves it. God knows that if the man in the thousand-dollar suit ever came knocking at my door and told me that NBC was interested in doing a series about a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, ex-chef-turned-restaurant-critic in Denver, I'd sign my name so fast the contract would catch fire.

On the other hand, there's a downside to food's new popularity -- an ugly, desperate, obscene, almost atavistic streak that's turned cooking into a commodity and the restaurant game into a blood sport. In this culture, one successful dish can launch a whole line of trademarked frozen dinners. One appearance on the Today show can find your grinning mug plastered all over your own brand of custom spice blends. Diners become more obsessed with getting a prime table at the week's hot boîte than with what they might be eating; food trends sweeping out of PR firms each quarter are greedily snapped up by menu designers frantic for the next big thing; chefs expand their empires on the backs of new cookbooks or on the advice of their publicity pros -- not necessarily because they are so loved they need a second dining room just to hold all of their fans.

It happened (and continues to happen) in the world of professional sports, where there are guys playing not for any love of the game, but with their hearts in their agents' pockets, eyes stuck firmly on the next big endorsement deal, their ass belonging to Nike. It happened (and will always happen) in the music industry. And now it's happening with food.

Which is why it's important to remember those lines from M.F.K. Fisher. She said better (and more briefly) what I've been trying to say since I started this gig: that because the best cooking is about love and pride and history and memory, when I write about food, I'm writing about all of those things, and more.

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