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April 15, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—April 15, 2008

I have a perpetual bone to pick with those who refuse to acknowledge the culinary arts as Art with a capital “A.” Art communicates ideas, expresses emotional content, stuns one sensually—just as food should do. But to suggest such an argument in a serious conversation invites ridicule and scorn from a great many people.

The most common counterclaim to food as Art is that it’s too practical. The best food, it is argued, is the most nutritious (!), and good nutrition is not an aesthetic question. What balderdash. What makes us human, as the Republic so elegantly puts it, is our love of “relishes”—those useless, utterly impractical condiments like vinegar and salt. You could just as easily argue that the best films are the most wholesome or that the best paintings are the most accurate. Practical value is quite beside the point.

The more dangerous argument, actually, is the pervasive and insidious charge of frivolity. Focused concentration or determined analysis of a plate of food in itself is considered silly by most people. And what’s even more unsettling is that the more effort put into the consideration, the sillier one appears. A vegetarian may be scorned a little here and there for his “silly hang-up,” but a vegan will be viewed as practically insane: “How can they do that when it’s obviously so bad for their bodies?

The counter to the charge of frivolity is quite subtle, but I firmly believe in its veracity. The perception that the aesthetic consideration of food is frivolous stems from an inability to locate any serious problem for the culinary arts to solve. The only way to argue against this charge is to pick out an aesthetic aspect of cooking and highlight its importance until its worth becomes undeniable. Many of these points can be developed successfully; the simplest, I think, has to do with pain and its relation to good eating. At least, that’s the argument I understand best, so that is the one I will try to develop here.

You see, you can only go so far in the appreciation of food without encountering serious pain. New flavors are, frankly, frightening. Organ meats, for instance, always retain an earthy character which can bring the uninitiated close to nausea—and if you can’t overcome the fear of being poisoned implicit in that nausea, you will never achieve the sharp pleasure of andouillette de Troyes, or the comfort of a steak and kidney pie.

The quintessential fear food, pervasive through cooking literature, is the oyster. The oyster is the most improbably delicious of all the many delicious sea morsels. Every chef or cook from Carême to Bourdain has a first-oyster story. My personal first was in Ireland, at age 12. I was frankly terrified by the glinting, mottled ooze staring up at me from that little shell—I think everyone is. It’s essential that you be terrified of the oyster, in fact. If you aren’t terrified of the first one, there’s very little reason to eat it.

The significance of the fear is that it draws you into a particular connection to your physical being that nothing else can. Holding an oyster in your hand, or forking up a heap of pig-gut sausage, you are looking directly at an aspect of your humanity that you’d probably rather not. In seminars, Professor Jonathan Lear, in seminars, sometimes calls this aspect of self “your goo”—the parts that sweat, stink, etc. Thus, your feeling of revulsion is primal, deep, dark, and mysterious.

Having successfully swallowed the thing, you (hopefully) reach a sort of epiphany: You discover that “goo” tastes good. All of a sudden, from this revolting, stinky little puddle, comes the taste of the sea: a pure, clean, completely unexpected flavor that is literally beyond words to describe. People talk about “living in the moment” in all sorts of vague ways, but this is very specifically a connection to your momentary status as goo.

It’s very difficult for any other art form to give you goo consciousness, simply because no other art form is indispensable to your physical survival. In a metaphorical sense, all art “sustains” us, but food also sustains us physically. The revelation is gooey, so it has to come from something gooey. There is no other way.

So, if you consider yourself a true art lover, go eat something that seems disgusting. If you want to live in the moment, try and finish a spicy plate of Pud Cha. If all you’ll eat is Ramen noodles, then you might as well only read Danielle Steele and only watch soap operas.