The Endangered Amateur

“It is probably possible to divide the human race into butter eaters and non-butter eaters,” writes Robert Farrar Capon. The butter in question: unadorned and straight from the fridge, of course. Capon – Episcopalian priest, amateur cook, and author – couldn’t have more aptly defined the divide between true foodies and mere imposters. Capon’s book, The Supper of the Lamb, is rhapsodic and truly refreshing – an ode to the myriad and distinct pleasures of food and the art of cooking, a love note if you will. Capon’s message is simple: Celebrate food. Humble yourself to its mighty altar.

Legend has it that I was admitted to my Gifted and Talented Elementary School because when asked what was absent from a picture of fruits, I nonchalantly pointed out that, in fact, a persimmon was missing. Since then, I have tenderly folded egg whites into batters so that light fluffy soufflés might in the oven bloom, painstakingly caramelized julienned onions to a deep, lustrous mahogany, and grated mountains of Gruyere for Julia Child’s Soupe à l'oignon gratineé. My middle-of-the-school-week panacea is a tray of popovers, puffed and golden, anointed with fresh strawberry butter.

However, more and more, the feelings of love, wonder, and familiarity I feel towards cooking and eating are replaced by alienation and anxiety. These days, I find myself disillusioned and irritated by the haughty perch that high-quality food has come to occupy in the upper echelons of our popular culture. The label “gourmet” has become synonymous with “chic.” The “foodie” label has been perverted into a fashion statement. Everyone is suddenly racing on fixed-gear bikes (hemp-fiber tote bags in basket) to farmers’ markets near and far to stock up on heirloom purple sugar snap peas (nine dollars a pound), ancient frekkeh grains, and Araucana eggs (the blue ones–why these are especially desirable, I do not know). But these “gastronomes” are also there to see and be seen, and thereby to firmly establish themselves as true “locavores” (a designation of the highest social status one can attain in their circles). Yes, I do concede that traveling by bicycle is environmentally responsible, and that shopping at farmers’ markets promotes biodiversity and supports local farmers, and I lament the rise of big, bad agribusiness and carcinogenic pesticides as much as the next Upper West Sider, but the foodies among us have assumed an unwarranted air of superiority; they have adopted an attitude of exclusivity which I find irksome and shameful. (These new foodie types also often come clad in Levi’s 511 skinny jeans and boast effortlessly maintained flat stomachs – facts which I find suspicious.)

A culinary arms race rages on restaurant menus across the city. Eateries from uber-haute gastropubs to hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops flaunt increasingly obscure ingredients in worshiped, heirloom varieties. Offal and crudo dishes are now ubiquitous; truffles are too old school and quickly becoming passé. Menus now proclaim that the entrée of pan-roasted sweetbreads on a bed of heirloom tomato farrotto is finished with a 2-minute hen’s egg, as if that is a necessary qualifier these days (the question is begged: as opposed to what? A rooster’s egg?) With new food blogs added daily to the existing smog of thousands, it seems like you, the innocent, hungry traveler, have always arrived late to the dinner party. The simple taste and presentation of a plate of food have almost become secondary to its “chic” value, and the dish  immediately becomes a point of comparison, instead of being respected as a sovereign kingdom of gustatory delight. Far too often, the words: the best “_______ (insert food category here, e.g. bánh mi, bowl of ramen, char siu) in the city” escape the mouths of critics and eaters before any expression of reverence for, or appreciation of, the pristine and incomparable pleasure of pure taste. Whatever happened to “This is just plain fucking delicious”?

Whatever happened to fresh pasta with grated parmiggiano and a pat of butter?  In our zeal for the opulent pork belly and pickled Asian pear sandwich, we have overlooked the humble PB and J on warm and yielding freshly baked white bread. We have forgotten the grandeur of a stately bowl of chicken soup, broth sweet from sautéed aromatics and full of body from slowly simmered bones. We have lost our sense of wonder at the small miracles of the kitchen: Lemon juice will separate a pot of warm milk into curds and whey, the curds then just a half-hour’s strain in cheesecloth away from becoming ricotta; yeast will do your bidding for the cheap price of lukewarm water and some simple starch.

Our tendency to take good food and the pleasures of preparing it for granted is symptomatic of a common malady: our inability to subjugate our own egos to any power greater than ourselves–our infinite knowledge, our superior judgment, our exceptional abilities. In place of humble appreciation for the sumptuous fare in which we delight, we have passed off nature’s miracles as our own, annexing her glory to our ever-growing egos. We have come to use food as a tool to serve narcissistic ends. Let us not engage in this snobbery, asserting ownership over the world of food and cooking. Let us instead recognize food as something other: an other greater than ourselves and worthy of our respect. Let the greatest master of the grill among us not brag about her beautifully charred steak but recognize herself as a bystander to the remarkable process by which the thousands of flavor compounds in her rib-eye are created, the mailliard reaction.

Perhaps I too am guilty of being enamored with my own point of view. I cannot and should not prescribe our proper relationship with food—I can only express my own tastes. Personally, I find that participation in something so special as the transmutation of flour, water, yeast, and salt into a beautifully burnished, crusty, chewy loaf of bread is a reliable source of joy. I feel reverence for something larger than myself when I eat a bowl of fresh pasta with the simplest of tomato sauces. Akin to religion or music or sport, food offers respite from what can be the insufferably petty internal and external dialogues of life. Some people find a higher truth in a morning prayer, some find it at a rock concert, others in running a marathon – I find it in a beautiful butternut squash risotto. 

I wish now to return to Robert Farrar Capon and his book’s urgent and rare message.  In it, he describes himself as an amateur in the truest sense of the word–a lover. A lover of ingredients, of the endless variety of textures, colors, and flavors we have the privilege to produce and to savor. He challenges us to truly appreciate the bounty of culinary pleasures, to not lose our spirit of wonder and succumb to the boredom which inevitably leads us on a search for another road to gratification (e.g. competition and status-inflation). He leaves us with a lesson from which we could all learn:

“Conclusively, peel an orange. Do it lovingly—in perfect quarters like little boats, or in staggered exfoliations like a flat map of the round world, or in one long spiral as my grandfather used to do. Nothing is more likely to become garbage than an orange rind; but for as long as anyone looks at it in delight, it stands a million triumphant miles from the trash heap.”

 

 

Zak Schlesinger
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School
Gold Key