My dinner with Derrida. (Food).
London has changed a lot. Paul Levy dates the moment of transformation to 1972, when "Philippa Pullar, the author of Consuming Passions, a history of food and the British, took me to a restaurant in Lower Sloane Street in London." It was Le Gavroche, one of the restaurants that inaugurated the British worship of food and chefs. At its peak, Le Gavroche had three Michelin stars.
By the mid-1980s, the "foodie" appeared--satirized in Mike Leigh's movie Life Is Sweet, with the Regret Rien bistro and its ambitious menu of dishes such as "liver and lager." The nineties were the decade of the celebrity chef, with chirpy-Cockney lad Jamie Oliver selling more than one million cookbooks and gorgeous Nigella Lawson as the food goddess. Now, just across the road from our London flat in Exmouth Market are French, Italian, Cypriot, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Spanish-Moroccan, traditional English, Peruvian, and Thai restaurants, plus a Starbucks. Even on a country weekend, guests are served cheese souffle along with the Sunday roast.
The academic world also has changed a lot, and the food evolution has been semiotic as well as sustaining. Since the sixties, among both U.S. and U.K. scholars, food has signified sex, power, and art. In 1963, with the celebrated eating scene in the movie Tom Jones, food began to stand for erotic desires and possibilities. In her wonderful 1999 memoir My Kitchen Wars, cookbook writer Betty Fussell described her discovery of sensuality in French cooking while she was at Princeton University in the 1960s: "Every new food opened up new sexual analogues. To explore the interstices of escargots with the aid of fork and clamp, each shell in its place on the hot metal round, each dark tongue hidden deep within the whorls and only with difficulty teased out and eased into the pool of garlic-laden butter--what could be sexier than that?"
My husband and I ate escargots on our wedding day in 1963. But the academic world was still largely priggish and pleasure denying, especially at the Quaker college where we started out. I remember going to a dinner party where six tidbits of pickled herring on toothpicks were reverently distributed to the guests as a first course. My Jewish family in Boston were not gourmets, but we had waded in pickled herring. I had to get used to the idea that an interest in food was crass and anti-intellectual. But in 1964, when my husband and I moved to Davis, California, we were stunned and thrilled by the hedonism of the academic lifestyle, with professors owning stock in vineyards and hosting long, many-coursed dinner parties of elaborate dishes.
Alas, this golden age of plenty quickly degenerated into competitive cooking that made social life a burden for faculty wives. Fussell recalls how "dinner parties were important ammunition in the fierce competition among our husbands--and ourselves." In our concrete faculty housing at Princeton, we slaved over tians, confits, bombes glacees, and foods pureed, marinated, caramelized, glazed, steeped, tossed, and poached. Our insignia, as Fussell notes, "was the copper bowl and wire whisk." Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher were our idols.
But when we gained access to professions and careers, our competitive cooking had to stop and the whisks were left to rust. Cooking became the artwork of great chefs like Alice Waters, who launched Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Meanwhile, the academic men and women who were whisking in the sixties began traveling and tasting in the eighties and nineties. Today, Julia Child's biographer Noel Riley Fitch and Bert Sonnenfeld, her husband (a bon vivant and professor of French at the University of Southern California), send happy e-mails describing great restaurant meals--like Thanksgiving dinner at Lespinasse in Manhattan: "medley of tiny vegetables with truffle oil, lobster tail tarragon, wild turkey with sweet potato puree, pecan tart with cinnamon ice cream." Cookbook writer Betty Rosbottom, married to a professor at Amherst College, leads summer tours to the great restaurants and cooking schools of France and Italy.
I SUPPOSE IT WAS INEVITABLE THAT the next phase would be to make food, cooking, and eating an academic discourse--a breakthrough that may have come when Susan Leonardi, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, published an article on recipes in PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America). "Historically," says Darra Goldstein, the Williams College professor and cookbook writer who edits Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, a new quarterly published by the University of California Press, "there's been a rift between academic inquiry and what the popular press was writing about food." (Indeed, says Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine and author of the best-selling memoir Comfort Me with Apples, it used to be that "smart people didn't care about food.") But now, Goldstein thinks, food studies has become as chic and timely as women's studies or film studies: "Food is one of the best ways to understand a culture and the rituals around it; you can see a panorama of culture through the prism of food."
It seems both funny and obvious that the new field of food studies should pick up on other trendy academic fields, including deconstruction and postcolonialism, just as these subfields themselves are going out of fashion. Marion Nestle, chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, explains: "We're trying to establish food studies as a completely legitimate academic field of study, with very high standards that people will take seriously." That food studies and women's studies are a natural match has not always been a popular opinion. "It was a forbidden subject in the earlier years of women's history," says cookbook historian Barbara Haber. "Anything to do with cooking and food was seen as retrograde and bad for business." Haber credits scholars in multicultural studies for showing that food is a fast track to the heart of a culture.
Gastronomica is a glossy publication with beautiful and clever illustrations, such as the cover of the first issue, which features a striking image--a woman eating a man's hand--from Luis Bunuel's 1930 film L'Age d'Or. Editor Goldstein writes: "We speak of intellectual hunger and food for thought, but we forget that these concepts were once the subject of serious inquiry--from Erasmus, who advised readers to digest material rather than merely memorize it, to Montaigne, who described education and digestion as parallel functions." She adds that Gastronomica "aims to renew this connection between sensual and intellectual nourishment by bringing together many diverse voices in the broadest possible discourse on the uses, abuses, and meanings of food." The first two issues of the journal contain articles on the quest for cinnamon, the chocolate and lard sculptures of Janine Antoni, the first French cooking school in New York, early cookbooks by black Americans, Sicilian cheese in Arab recipes, love of McDonald's, and turtle soup. There is a poem called "Ripe Peach" by Louise Gluck and a drawing by Mike Glier called "The Romaines of the Day."
Contributor Fabio Parasecoli applies terms from literary theory to food history. Nouvelle cuisine, he writes, was like New Criticism. The new, creative chef must transform and re-invent classic recipes that constitute the canon. Among the new techniques is deconstruction. Even Nigella Lawson explains how to "break down pesto into component parts." Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who has been compared to his fellow Catalan Salvador Dali, gives Jacques Derrida and other philosophers and theorists the credit for inspiring him. "A deconstructed dish," he explains, "protects the `spirit' of each product it employs and preserves (even enhances) the intensity of its flavor. Still," he adds, "it presents a totally transformed combination of textures."
Of course, in the restaurant, deconstruction can be a bit of a shock, as Adria admits: "When patrons are expecting the Curry Chicken they ordered from the menu and are served a curry ice-cream with apple jelly, coconut soup, chicken broth, and raw onion rings, they are usually taken aback." I bet. But perhaps for some the pleasure of being in the avant-garde of creative cuisine will soothe the disappointment. Adria's deconstructed soup, with its corn mousse, cauliflower mousse, tomato puree, peach granita, beet foam, almond ice cream, and basil jelly, is certainly entertaining to read about, if not to eat. The next phase, perhaps, will be virtual or conceptual cuisine, where the food is not only deconstructed but imaginary.
Patrons might also be surprised by Lisa Heldke's postcolonial take on eating out. "When I went away to graduate school," writes Heldke, who teaches philosophy and women's studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, "I entered a world of experimental cooking and eating, a world heavily populated by academics and people with disposable incomes who like to travel. It's a world where entire cuisines go in and out of vogue in a calendar year." But gradually, Heldke became disenchanted: "For one thing, various experiences made me feel uncomfortable about the easy acquisitiveness with which I approached a new kind of food, the tenacity with which I collected adventures. Was such collecting really just a benign recreation, like stamp collecting?"
Or was it not benign at all? "The unflattering name I chose for my activities was `cultural food colonialism,' which made me your basic colonizer," she continues. "When I began to examine my culture-hopping in the kitchen and in restaurants, I found echoes of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European painters and explorers, who set out in search of ever `newer,' ever more `remote' cultures which they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery."
Overall, I have the uneasy feeling that we are coming around full circle, to another point where the simple pleasures of cooking and eating--or going out and eating--become sources of moral guilt, political incorrectness, and theoretical anxiety, in addition to the familiar concerns about carbohydrates, proteins, sugars, and fats. Sensational exposes of the restaurant business like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential may also act as deterrents to enjoyable dining out; and the anti-genetic-modification, pro-organic-foods movement seems to be adding another layer of ideology to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meanwhile, though, the guys who run Al's Cafe-Bar in Exmouth Market are thinking about expanding from the full English fry-up to German home-cooking. Deconstruction will have to wait. Apfel strudel comes first.
ELAINE SHOWALTER is a professor of English at Princeton University.
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|Title Annotation:||social aspects of food|
|Publication:||The American Prospect|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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