Food, Glorious Food, by Elayne Riggs
For the last week of job searches and interviews, I’ve not been very immersed in pop culture, unless one counts giggling at some Craigslist classifieds. I’ve kept up my blog reading, I’ve played computer games, I’ve suffered the first couple of plothole-ridden episodes of the Terminator TV series for a few minutes each, I’m up to Oz book #16, I’m through most of my DCU comics from November/December, the usual consumption. And it occurred to me — consumption. There’s a huge foodie contingent out there, which more and more resembles other pop culture fandom, so why not pontificate about food this week? After all, everybody eats. Even Stephen Colbert has been known to down the grits and lo mein on his show, and who can forget the immortal Eddie Izzard "Cake or Death" routine?
As a woman of some girth and experience, I have a love-hate relationship with food. I unapologetically love food itself, the pleasure it gives me to eat a satisfying and delicious meal, even to prepare one. But I hate the way corporations and people (most of whom don’t even know me) take it upon themselves to lecture me about my food intake, particularly when I’ve never sought their advice, based solely on my outward appearance. I despise our current Culture of Deprivation, which in reality consists of mixed messages since we’re also encouraged to decadently indulge at the same time. I despair that "moderation" seems to be such a dirty word in our world of extremes.
I grew up with the relatively moderate Four Food Groups chart (grains, fruits & vegs, meat and dairy). This predated the modern Food Pyramid, which presumes to advise people not only on how to vary their diets but on the proportions the USDA deems appropriate. Of course I implicitly trust a government agency among whose tasks it is to inspect meat and yet there’s all this e-coli and mad cow and goodness knows what else. And hey, the current acting Secretary of Agriculture is the ex-president of the Corn Refiners Association, so I guess we’ll all be hearing scads about how bad high-fructose corn syrup is for us, being probably the highest contributing factor in the decline of culinary health in this country. So you can see where I maintain a healthy skepticism toward changing food standards (like changing weight standards, beauty standards, etc.). People aren’t charts, and what works well for one doesn’t necessarily succeed for another.
My mom tells me that, as a baby and a kid, I ate just about everything. There are only a few foods I decidedly do not like. Of the foods I’ve tried more than once, I can’t stand lima beans, beef liver, coconut, natto, uni… that’s about it, really. And I can even tolerate a few of those foods in some instances; I love chicken livers (particularly chopped), I remember I could deal with coconut in piña coladas, I even had very fresh, chilled uni once that was borderline delicious. I like that I’m open to new tasting experiences, within reason. One of the things I always admired about my first husband Steve (himself an ex-short order cook) was how, when he was in the Navy, he would always be eager to sample the local cuisine at foreign ports while most of his buddies went for the nearest McDonald’s. There’s just so much cool stuff out there, why go for the least common denominator? Heck, he still gets mileage out of telling the story of how he once tried blowfish in one of NYC’s only licensed fugu-serving sushi restaurants. I chickened out; after all, one of us needed to be healthy enough to call the hospital just in case.
I’m a fairly dedicated foodie at present. I subscribe to a number of food blogs, including a few written by well-known chefs. My favorite food bloggers are probably Tony Bourdain (whose Travel Channel show No Reservations is must-viewing) and Michael Ruhlman, and I also love the group blog Serious Eats, for which cartoonist Larry Gonick does weekly comic strips. I’m fairly addicted to cooking shows (aka "food porn"). I sometimes watch them to expand my vocabulary or pick up cooking tips, sometimes to make fun of the chefs or the show format, and very occasionally to get recipe ideas. Ever since we got The Food Network on our cable system a few years ago (we were among the last systems to get it; we still can’t get BBC America where we live — god bless cable monopolies!), I’ve been mad for Iron Chef (particularly when they showed the original charmingly-dubbed Japanese shows — we used to bet on how far into each episode the Holy Trinity of foie gras, truffles and caviar would show up) and Alton Brown. Mom and I share a favorite cooking host, Lidia Bastianich (whose shows run on local public broadcasting stations), who I think is a great example of the modern TV chef personality. She’s personable, her recipes are fairly easy to replicate, she includes her delightful family in her programs, she gives decent advice, and she’s completely disingenuous if not oblivious about how rich and privileged they all are. At a recent personal appearance, attendees were charged $250 a head! But hey, that included her new $35 book, so it must be a bargain.
The obvious difference in financial status between the modern TV chef and his or her audience is the main thing that irks me about just about any of these shows. There’s always the implicit assumption that viewers have the same access to ready cash as the professional celebrities who cook in huge kitchens with dozens of stovetop burners and roomy fridges in which to store things and broilers that are bigger than my oven and lots of expensive gadgets. I’ve never had a broiler that wasn’t this tiny afterthought at the bottom of my oven. I’ve never lived in an apartment where the kitchen wasn’t the second smallest room. Heck, I don’t even own my own home. "What about the rest of us?" I sometimes want to shout to these pop culture icons as they nonchalantly pick herbs from their gardens out in the rarefied air.
I’ve tried to grow herbs, but I have a "black thumb" and they always seem to die on me. My brother got me an AeroGarden for my 50th birthday last month, but I’m reluctant to open it. I can’t even figure out where in our 750 square foot apartment I could put it! Not in the dining room, as we don’t have one (that’s where Rob’s studio is). Maybe on the hutch we bought to go against the wall (where most people with larger kitchens would have an island). We needed the counter space, since the only other counter availability lies between the fridge and the sink. Heck, we had to get burner covers in order to use our dish drain over part of the stovetop. Dishwasher? Garbage disposal? What’s that? We live like many real people of modest means live, and you can’t blame me for wishing some TV chef, any TV chef, would occasionally acknowledge that.
That said, Robin set up against the kitchen wall, above the hutch, a beautiful pot rack we bought at Ikea so I can hang up my pans and various handled gadgets. I do like my gadgets. A hand-held grater! A garlic press that works! A strainer big enough to rinse off a cup and a half of rice! A digital meat thermometer (for my digital meat)! A measuring-cup plunger! A chef’s knife! A decade ago when all I owned were a couple of paring knives, an actual large cutting implement was unthinkable to me. So part of me acknowledges that I’ve learned from watching these shows that one does need some basics in order to attempt cooking, and I make a game out of looking for stuff that I never knew I wanted until certain cooking shows called my attention to it.
But I still don’t quite get the hang of the hobby. I’m interested in cooking, but I definitely like eating more. Cooking involves pre-planning, and I’m one of those people who congratulates myself if I remember to transfer meat from the freezer to the fridge two days before I want to use it (without actually having a recipe in mind; I buy whatever meat’s on sale). I’m usually so exhausted after the mis en place (translation: stuff that sous chefs do so that TV hosts don’t have to) to enjoy the creation of meals, and too exhausted after the cooking to enjoy eating. And cooking involves clean-up (translation: stuff that dishwashers do so that TV hosts don’t have to). If I could cook sans drudgery like these folks for whom ingredients magically appear, most pre-purchased and pre-washed and pre-chopped, I suspect that the activity would be a lot more fun for me. As it is, it’s just way too much time on my feet. I’d make a lousy culinary student.
When someone else does it for me, though, I thoroughly enjoy myself. We’re blessed to live in a really great area for cheap take-out. I can order a tasty Chinese meal with both duck and lobster for less than ten bucks. We frequent an all-you-can-eat sushi place. There are about a half dozen sushi restaurants in our area, in fact, at least three of them kosher. Then there’s Italian, Thai & Vietnamese, Indian, steak houses, diners, chicken and ribs, a real cornucopia. Even fast-food franchises if one simply must, and I do profess an occasional hankering for KFC (my sodium allotment for at least two months!) or Dunkin’ Donuts bagels. And a short drive away on the main drag in Yonkers you can find everything from Red Lobster to Outback to Charlie Brown’s.
Eating is literally a sensual experience. It employs at least four of our five senses (not sure about the aural aspect). It can be social or intimate. It can be celebratory and traditional; we’re never without a fold-out table full of sweets in the living room during the holiday season. It can be nostalgia-inducing and comforting; who doesn’t have a favorite "comfort food"? It can be basic survival. But it is something to be savored, always. Down with the insidious mindset of deprivation! Up with the idea of variety and moderation! If you learn to listen, really listen to what your body says it wants, you’ll discover many amazing things. For instance, this morning I craved an omelet, and this afternoon I just had to have a salad, despite the annoying prep. I have much less of a chocolate-driven sweet tooth now that I have easier access to M&Ms and Hershey’s Kisses; I find there are only so many I care to eat in a sitting.
Oh sure, I have a few nemeses. I don’t buy red meat, but have been known to occasionally order a steak. Due to heart considerations, I try to stay on a low-sodium diet, which is a lot tougher than a low-fat one because sodium-free foods just don’t have that faux-diet cachet. They’re not supposed to; what all these "lifestyle change" food-supply programs never seem to mention is that the goal of healthy eating (healthy living, in fact) should be health, not weight loss. And salt is one of the things that diet foods employ to provide taste because they don’t dare use the most logical and easiest purveyor of flavor, fat. Give me fat over sodium (and particularly over high-fructose corn syrup) any day! I also eschew most alcohol (not that I was ever a big drinker, but it’s just not a good idea for my BP and such), although I still imbibe in antioxidant-rich red wine and the occasional iron-rich Guinness.
But I don’t miss either salt or booze that much. There’s more fascinating food available, even to city folk of modest means, than ever before. I once heard Joe Bastianich (Lidia’s son, winery owner, business partner of the Great Mario Batali About Whom Nobody Ever Has A Bad Word) note that the biggest change in modern culinary habits has been the advent of overnight shipping. I’ve seen this change happen in my lifetime. Julia Child opened the door to what good cooking and eating could be; FedEx and their ilk blew the hinges off. On the whole I’d rather buy locally and fresh if possible, but it’s still easier and cheaper to get to a supermarket than a farmers’ market, and easier still to pick up the phone and satisfy a hankering for rotisserie chicken or unagi don or pizza. Without apologies.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, has way too many dreams featuring Anthony Bourdain, and would love to land a job at a foodie-oriented corporation.