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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 deserveto be hit with a dead cat -- but you try sneaking one through security these days.)
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.
When I write about the food at Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue), for example, I'm really writing about Sean Kelly, who turned down checks with an awful lot of zeroes and turned away investors because he wanted to cook his own food, not someone else's. When I reference the achievements of Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), and now Flow(1612 Wazee Street, in the Luna hotel), I'm saluting Duy Pham, who puts in eighteen-hour days in the kitchen, then goes home and dreams about food and menus. When I sit down and talk food with Ian Kleinman from Indigo (250 Josephine Street), I'm yapping with a guy who has more balls than a dozen Macaroni Grill kitchen managers, who cooks what he loves, what he learned from his father, Stephen Kleinman, who's spent most of his life in the business.
When I expound on food, I'm thinking about the folks who understand that it's all about love. It's about those mushy emotions that Fisher spoke of, and some of the darker ones as well: lust, pride, arrogance and obsession near to madness. Watch a chef spend thirty hours babysitting a demi-glace. Watch a champ poisonardepicking fish out at the market, the way he'll finger, sniff and stroke the flesh of a fine shank of o-toro sushi.
And when I talk about food, I'm talking about myself, because everything I eat is tasted through a filter of memory and experience. I know nothing but what I know, and all that I know comes from thousands of meals already eaten, tens of thousands of hours spent cooking and thirty years spent living. Do I love the smell of thyme because of the years I labored as a prep cook stripping it from the stalk? No. I love it because its smell was on my wife's fingers the first time she cooked for me. Do I love lobster because I've been told that lobster is good? No. I love lobster because I once sat beside my parents on a sticky green bench at an outdoor lobster shack in Maine eating lobster that had been pulled from the traps not an hour earlier. To this day, I adore lobster with the pure joy of a ten-year-old boy being told that the appropriate instrument for eating this particular delicacy was a hammer.
Here's another quote I always keep close at hand, this one from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910:
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; ...who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."
I am that critic. I am that man who does not count, that dumb-ass gawker now standing on the sidelines, pointing fingers when the mighty stumble, applauding when the worthy succeed. I understand that.
But I am also that ten-year-old boy, merrily whacking away with a lobster mallet; the twenty-year-old poisonarde lovingly stroking the tuna belly; the 27-year-old kid smelling fresh thyme on his soon-to-be-wife's fingers; and the thirty-year-old critic, asking only that every cook out there come to the table with the same passion that I've carried from one side of the industry to the other, and the same understanding that when we're talking about food, we're not just talking about food. We're talking about life.
Road trip! When we're talking about food, we can also be talking about politics. This month, the redistricting battle in Texas drove several of that state's Democratic senators across the border into New Mexico, thereby preventing a quorum and a vote on the issue that Democrats are sure to lose. And last Wednesday, five Democrats from the Colorado Senate took off for Albuquerque in a show of support for the wayward Texas eleven. Ron Tupa, Ken Gordon, Bob Hagedorn, Joan Fitz-Gerald and Peggy Reeves all piled into a minivan and -- in a scene that has National Lampoon's Senatorial Vacation written all over it -- made the long drive together, arriving in the Land of Enchantment about nine hours later.
But before they started the engine, they made sure the minivan was well stocked with nothing but Colorado's finest products: beer and peaches.
I'm certain my copy of How to Plan a Successful Political Exiles' Cocktail Party states that the proper gifts to bring when relieving a siege of expatriate Texas politicos are ammunition and funny hats. Of course, I'll bet the beer and peaches went over just fine, too.
Leftovers: Although Denver's proposed no-smoking ban is now on hold, some local spots have taken the law into their own hands. The Hoffbrau Bar and Grill in Lakewood (at 3355 South Wadsworth Boulevard), Lakewood) has gone smoke-free; according to owner John Damico, the decision was a "no-brainer" after he did a little market research. And as of August 14, smoking is banned entirely at the Mercury Cafe (2199 California Street). Owner Marilyn Megenity is pretty excited about it; she actually used the word "yippie!" in her announcement. Twice.
No "yippie!" in this announcement: In last week's "Trust the System," I botched the hours for Bear Creek Tavern (29540 Highway 74, Kittredge). It's open every day but Tuesday and until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Finally, according to a press release recently received here at Bite Me World HQ, the Raelian Movement (remember?) has come out in favor of genetically modified food. According to the release, the Raelian Movement -- founded by His Holiness Rael in 1973 and recently made infamous by its allegedly successful cloning of a human being -- feels it is "important for people to understand that GMOs are tested for toxicity, allergenicity and safety," according to Dr. Hortense Dodo(and I'm not making that name up). "GMOs are not contaminating non-GM and organic crops, nor threatening the diversity of the entire ecosystem."
Ably getting Dr. Dodo's back, His Holiness Rael adds, "It is all too easy for Westerners to proclaim from the top of their obese tower that GM foods are dangerous. However, what is more hazardous for [Third World countries] is not to have any food at all. The rest pales into insignificance."
All right! So that puts agricultural megacorporations like Monsanto and Meristem Therapeutics, the Boulder city government, the Raelians and me (see Bite Me, July 17) in favor of GM crops, and pretty much the rest of the free fucking world on the other side of the debate. Nothing like being in good company.
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