Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Reflections on Food at Dawn


I have just finished watching episode 2 of Chef's Table: France on Netflix. I suppose that's a geographical spin-off like NCIS LA, but it's unfair to mix the two shows in the same breath because NCIS is full of authoritarian law & order whereas Chef's Table is a completely human celebration of food. Each episode focuses on a particular restaurant somewhere in France, interviews the chef in depth, explores the chef's ideas and inspiration, and thoroughly documents the behind-the-scenes action in the kitchen. The chefs of both episode 1 and episode 2 have intimately spiritual relationships with their gardens where they grow the vegetables and herbs for their kitchens. That ancient Gallic sense of terroir connects the earth to the table, and the goddess is present at every meal, whereas here in the States that thin thread that ties food to its origins has been scrubbed, sterilized, and manufactured out of existence because we Americans eat food not from farms but from factories. Episode one's chef has vegetarian leanings, and for a while he took the risky path of actually having a vegetarian French restaurant but nevertheless succeeded and won a third Michelin star.

Episode two focuses upon Alexandre Couillon who with his wife runs a seafood restaurant on a remote island in France. He has his garden, but he also has a working relationship with many fishermen. The episode opens when he is counting scallops, smelling them, and sorting them out. Then he calls up and leaves a message on his scallop source's phone to the effect that "The scallops you gave me are shit. You should either replace them—which you should be able to do because they're in season—or else just call the whole thing off."

I have been thinking about how to eat healthier food—to make a long story short, I'm willing and like the arcane healthier foods, but there are logistical problems because I often cook for someone other than myself. I am a minimalist in a lot of ways. I believe in owning as few things as necessary and methodically solving the problems of life through a minimum amount of ownership. And I am thinking about the same way of changing my way to eat. When I say that I don't mean like a crash diet but I'm changing the way I eat all the way around. So naturally I googled "minimalist diet," and this led me to a blog by Joshua Fields Millburn titled "A Minimalist's Thoughts on Diet." Millburn shares this blog with Ryan Nicodemus, and together they are called The Minimalists.

Millburn's list of foods is pretty close to what I eat much of the time—it's the rest of the time I have to worry about, but isn't that always the case? It's a variety of the eighty-twenty rule (in this case something like: eighty percent of the problems come from twenty percent of the behavior). Millburn describes eating a lot of vegetables, very little meat, but fish and rice, which sounds great to me. He gave up bread, which I like when I buy good French bread made from only yeast, water, salt, and a high-quality flour like champagne wheat—so named because of its color. There's a lot of carbohydrate haters around, and they talk as though they have the science worked out, but I don't think it is.

Twenty years ago there was a bitter rivalry between the followers of the Pritikin diet and the Atkins diet. Pritikin said focus your diet on carbs and eat very little fat, and you don't need nearly as much protein as you think, but walk or run and burn those carbs off. Atkins said avoid carbs at all cost, and eat lots of fat with some protein instead—and, oh, by the way, you'll probably go into a bizarre blood chemistry state called ketosis. I researched both diets. Pritikin made more sense, so I went with it, and it worked, and that has left me questioning Atkins and other diet fads and fashions ever since. I'm wary of the gluten-free business that has cropped up recently, and while I don't eat a lot of bread because it is caloric, I'm not worried about gluten.

Even though I am a tongue-in-cheek ovo-lacto-pescado vegetarian (pescado is Spanish for fish), I need to walk. I don't eat excessively except on special occasions, and I could lose weight just by walking. But I compulsively hibernate in the house during the Infernal Season of Texas Summer. But this is ending for the year. I'm excited about a sports coat I've ordered, which will serve as my winter jacket during the cool weather of fall and winter. That's what jacket is enough most of the time especially if I can play a little bit.

So this minimalist diet was pretty good except there was one part right in the middle of the article that slapped me in the face:
I no longer look at food as entertainment. Food is fuel, nothing more. I can still enjoy a great conversation over a healthy meal with friends—I simply don’t let the food be my source of entertainment. I enjoy the food I eat, but I enjoy the rest of my life, too.
Those four sentences said that he no longer eats for entertainment or, I suppose, he could say pleasure. I can see eating most of the time for sustenance alone, but the purpose of that minimalist sustenance eating is for the sake of the splurge meals that are the suns that illuminate culinary and social life. For example he says that he no longer eats "bottom-feeding seafood (lobster, crab, and other garbagemen of the sea)." I wouldn't eat those creatures all the time, but I love Lobster, and I don't eat enough of them to seriously affect my weight or health. So I'm certainly never going to say never about lobster or even about crab.

When human beings or perhaps proto-humans first began to speak, the first topic of conversation was food. At that stage of history effort was exerted pertained almost exclusively to survival, and 80% of the work done to survive concerned itself with gathering and preparing food.

Food is essentially a social activity because it is shared in a group. I share food in my immediate group or with the band of people among which I live, but the manner of preparation is tribal. I cook food according to my culture, which is to say I cook according to my tribe.

Way back in the proto-human stage there was always a season in which all of the bands came together in one great big tribal group—a Burning Man not just for a hip minority but for everyone. This great assembly of every member of the tribe is most often called formally by anthropologists The Dance. The Dance included not only dancing but the sharing of stories both person-to-person or person-to-group, like big gossiping sessions, but also by the great storytellers of the tribe, the bards, walking books who recited the tribe's oral literature.

During the Dance there were also exchanges of recipes and methods of cooking. There was, no matter how rudimentary it may have been, an exchange of technology. And perhaps most importantly in the dancing itself was the opportunity for young people to meet each other because most commonly the bands in which people lived were exogamous groups, meaning they didn't marry within their own band. So the dance was the opportunity to meet people from other bands whom you could marry.

If the dance sounds a lot like a County Fair that's because the county fair is the dance a million years later. Many of the functions are there. There is in both the ancient Dance and the county fair the exchange of goods, stories, technology, and recipes. There is even the chance for an exchange of love. I won't go into a lot of details, but I cannot talk about the dance without mentioning that the patriarchal ruling class has often attempted to usurp the dance and adapted to its own purposes. American football for example excites and channels regional passion into militant nationalism. Also Hitler's rallies in Munich channeled the instinct for the dance into the Nazi cause.

Oddly enough, a species of bird known as the boat-tailed grackle spends its summers in small groups comprising one male and about a half dozen females. This creates the appearance that the male, who watches over the females rather jealously, fathers all the baby birds hatched by the females, though research has revealed that the females are getting DNA for about a quarter of their birds from somewhere else. Then at the end of the year, grackles dissolve their harems into a large group that raucously gathers in a single big tree. They make a lot of noise, which angers many people, but I watch with a smile and fascinations because this fall gathering resembles the Dance. I imagine all the birds sharing the adventures they had in their harems and introducing the young hatched during the summer.


Food inevitably played a great part in the Dance. People did not go to the dance and have a feast in which everyone said, "Well, I'm going to eat minimally. I'm going to have a smoothie and a few nuts." No, they feasted outrageously. If the occasional feast shortens the human lifespan—and I doubt that it does—then so be it. That's part of being human. But they likely ate minimally most of the time, then feasted during the dance and during festivals celebrated locally among the band. And that's what I do: feast when the occasion arises, and eat moderately the rest of the time. Eating lies at the heart of human nature. It was the thing that drove human activity, and feasting and celebration centered around food.

In cultures in which women tended the cooking—and that tends to be a majority because of the gender-related assignment of duties in a hunter-gatherer society—the serving of food on a table or on mats on the floor is a logical extension of the mother offering her breasts to her infant children. As such the domestically dominant female in her duties connotes an association between love and the presentation of food to her family. This is again something that has assisted since we were proto-humans. It underlines the importance of food's sacramental and celebratory nature. So when I read this minimalist saying that he no longer eats food for pleasure, it's like he is separating himself from a very ancient and critical practice of humanity. If it is even possible not to derive pleasure from eating then I still think that is emotionally suicidal to cut oneself off from the pleasure of eating. The solution of course lies in moderation. During a typical day where I'm not going out to eat, I am going to enjoy those few almonds and the delicious taste of my smoothie. This food is pleasurable and entertaining. It's just human nature, and denying it is like amputating part of the body.

In a way, this is the classic argument between stoics and epicureans, but it also sounds suspiciously like the contrast between the culture imposed upon us by the authoritarian ruling class and the culture of joy and humanity that is native to human existence.

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