Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Raw and the Cooked

I'm fairly new to Anthony Bourdain's show on the Travel channel, No Reservations, but I'm already a fan. I was a bit taken aback last night, though, when he went off on Charlie Trotter's book, Raw, at the end of the segment on New Zealand. Having spent a couple of years in Chicago, where Trotter is spoken of in soft, reverent tones, and having watched his own jazz-infused television show (The Kitchen Sessions) enthusiastically, I'm also something of a Charlie Trotter fan. Although the contrast between Bourdain and Trotter couldn't be more evident, I was still surprised because Bourdain strikes me as being a sort of food-libertarian, allowing for almost any perspective in the quest of really good things to put in one's mouth.

I must confess that I haven't read Raw (co-authored by Roxanne Klein), so I don't know much about it except its premise, which involves the idea that raw food can be exquisitely prepared and every bit as tasty as cooked, and is thus consistent with the apparently growing Raw Food movement. Bourdain, on the other hand, is an aficionado of most things edible, however they're prepared, as long as the results please the palate. His point on the New Zealand show had to do with enjoying ethnic cuisines without culinary prejudice. Part of his agitation may have resulted from an on-camera near-death experience, but Bourdain insisted that eschewing certain foods for whatever reason indicates profound disrespect for the culture that produces it.

Over the past forty years, I have come to embrace culinary anarchy myself, after a long journey through the history and philosophy of food. I grew up primarily in Asia, where, as the typical picky-eating ugly American child, I ate little of what was prepared for me by excellent cooks. People were always having to boil eggs for me. I do have some fond memories: soba in broth in both Japan and Taiwan; Mongolian barbecue (now available in this very town, albeit in a somewhat homogenized, tamed version); steamed rice buns, sour plums, and other "fast food" one could buy from street-vendors in Taipei; tempura and sukiyaki in rural Japan, along with sweet milk-candies that I can now buy in the local World Market. What I loved best were fresh leechee nuts, carambolas, and pumelos that grew on trees in our yard on Yan Ming Shan near Taipei, or on the slopes of Seven Star Mountain, where I wandered at will under the collective eyes of our cook-houseboy and villagers along the mountain trails. We had two different cooks named "Lee" whose wives and children were my closest companions when I wasn't in school. Both Lees were superb cooks, and tried continuously to find ways for me to enjoy Chinese food. Oddly enough, the person who finally succeeded in awakening my culinary instincts was an Italian friend of my mother's, so that I learned to cook northern Italian food in Taiwan. My favorite restaurant was the Marco Polo in Taipei, where my thirteenth birthday was held (to the embarrassment of my parents when my classmates made rude jokes about the salamis in the kitchen).

Back in the States, my major influence was my grandmother, who had been a vegetarian since the age of fourteen, when she came home from school to a meal that featured (she found out later) the calf she had been raising. All of her children were omnivores, and she dutifully roasted chickens, turkeys, and all sorts of meat, but never touched it herself. I spent most of my holidays with her, and although she'd supply me with meat if I asked for it, she was always clearly pleased when I didn't seem to miss it. Her rejection of meat was so strong that even when she began to slip into dementia at the age of 99, she continued to insist on meatless meals until she died five years later.

In college I had had two culinary muses: the Greek wife of the Classics department chair, and later the Greek wife of an archaeology professor (she was also my Modern Greek instructor). Both of these women not only taught me how to cure olives and make spanakopita; they also embodied the connection between food and family, and drove home the importance of culinary traditions in the preservation of cultural meaning.

As I became more thoughtful, I also became more selective in my food choices, and eventually became a vegetarian myself--not because I thought it was wrong to eat meat, but because I reasoned that if I couldn't take the responsibility for killing an animal, I didn't deserve to eat it. This went on for about fourteen years until I buckled under pressure from my own children. During most of this time, I also kept a Kosher home--which may have prolonged the vegetarianism, since it made the whole process of kashrut much easier to accomplish. Both of these experiences certainly fortified a notion of the power and importance of food in human culture. Further studies in anthropology and the history of technology made it clear that we are, in fact, what we eat (books like Mary Douglas's The Raw and the Cooked and Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner). In addition to anthropological treatises, I read everything M. F. K. Fisher ever wrote, along with myriad books about artists and writers and food (The Joyce Cookbook, Monet's Table, etc.), and even more about the history of food and regional traditions. But it wasn't until I had a family of my own that all of these strands came together to make me think seriously about what it means to eat.

Once I became interested in Morris, I began to ruminate on what it would mean to eat well in his terms. In News From Nowhere, food is an emblem of community: carefully grown, cheerfully prepared, and gratefully enjoyed. Mindfulness about what we eat precludes wastefulness, overindulgence, greed, and many of the ills that have produced the "fast-food nation." One of the best remedies for problems like obesity, disrupted families, stress, and other modern dilemmas lies in the way we eat: if we were to eat mindfully, we could begin to reverse most of these symptoms. Movements like Slow Food could lead us in the right direction, but this particular effort seems to have taken hold more quickly in countries where people have traditionally taken food more seriously than they do in the U. S.: Italy and France. (I must mention, however, that like many such efforts, mindfulness involves choices that not everyone has the means to make. Those of us who can, however, should.) Every time I order pizza, I enjoy it less because I see it as a cop-out: acquiescence to the status quo, and an inability to consistently follow principles that I know are necessary for change.

Which brings me back to Anthony Bourdain and Charlie Trotter. Both of these men practice culinary mindfulness, albeit in significantly different ways. Trotter is a culinary priest; his kitchen, while encouraging improvisation, is grounded in the rituals of the trained chef. Watching Charlie Trotter cook is like participating in a discussion of the Talmud, following the Rabbi along as he leads us through the knotty texts of both Torah and commentary, until we emerge slightly wiser than we were before, and with a new perspective. Traveling along with Bourdain is a much different experience. His is the serendipitous exploration of variety and diversity, but grounded in a fundamental realization that different cultures' cuisines can tell us more about who they are than any amount of museum-going or any number of visits to "culturally important" sites. I probably couldn't ever gut a wild boar (no matter how much a scourge it is on the New Zealand landscape; I have enough trouble cutting up a chicken), but I still admire those who can kill and butcher what they eat. Seeing Bourdain tuck into slow-roasted pork and native root vegetables with a group of Maoris who clearly appreciate his enthusiasm provides a different model for how to accomplish a broader culinary perspective.

My uneasy compromise between being a vegetarian and being an omnivore has been made simpler lately by the increasing availability of humanely raised and killed animals. Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is also helpful, because it explores the difficulties involved in becoming mindful in the modern world. As a result, although bits of the picky-eater child still remain (along with remnants of my Kosher training, so that creatures like shellfish and crustaceans still seem largely inedible), I have become rather more adventurous. I will always love Mediterranean cuisine more than Asian, but I am slowly trying to "educate my desire" by including more foods I should have taken advantage of as a child. And while I admire Charlie Trotter's expertise, and understand, to some extent, the attraction of raw foods, Anthony Bourdain is my master now.

A note: The image included at the beginning of this post is the work of one of my students, Chelsea Gilmore, in response to a design problem that focuses on the relationship between photography and art during the nineteenth-century. We recreated a Cezanne still life, photographed it, and then students manipulated the photographs back into "paintings" in the style of one of the movements we had studied. Chelsea's response was to create a new post-Impressionist version.

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