Personally, I think aestheticizing the sense of taste is a classist, morally indefensible notion, a function of privilege rather than of necessity, especially when it comes at such expense…

Isn’t the economy collapsing precisely because the means of human subsistence have metastasized into abstract, tradable commodities, removed from the reality of daily life except as tools of finance?

—From “Comic Strip,” by Chris Ware, The New Yorker, November 24, 2008

Photo: Preparing cucumbers.

For a recent dinner party, I decided to make spiced pecans, jambalaya, cornbread, sweet cucumber and radish salad, buttered peas and onions, and, for dessert, a fig, pecan, and bourbon bundt cake. The recipes come from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and a special issue of Gourmet which focused on southern food. None of this is food I ate growing up in Orange County, New York, about two hours from New York City. Some of it I have tasted in my travels, some I had never eaten before. I prepared my ingredients and cooked, even as I felt the weight of my foodie readings on-line and in print, including my collection of cookbooks, which are sometimes screeds advocating a “lifestyle”: vegetarian, flexitarian, locavore, nose-to-tail, the oxymoron “humane butchery,” faddist and deconstructed, old-fashioned and real—the philosophy of cooking loomed in the background as I sliced radishes.

I was making dinner for some friends. I enjoy the process of the handmade, the scientific and the mystical union of grain and water and heat: I like to cook.

Corn bread
Photo: Cornbread in cast iron.

I cannot cook from inside some authentic tradition, reach back to my roots, for my roots have been all but ripped out and discarded in the typical American hybrid fashion. Joined with my parents’ rejection of their ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds was the fact that we ate everything growing up. Ask me what a typical dinner was at home and I have no answer: typical was not knowing what we were going to eat. Sure, the plate was often composed of a meat and a vegetable and a starch, but I remember nights of the multiple artichokes or tempura or burritos or stir-fries. For special breakfasts, we’d eat bagels and lox or bacon and eggs. At the bachelor pad of my newly single father, we’d eat pickled herring in sour cream or Italian subs with mozzarella balls that had been scooped from the deli counter’s stainless steel vat of brine. In the summer at home we grilled corn and burgers, we ate “big salads” kept in a giant green Tupperware bowl in the fridge. If we named our food culture it might be “American sundry.” We had traditions like eating lobster at my grandparents’ home in Maine, but that was more an accident of geography than generational continuity. Perhaps there was an authentic fish stew or a beloved recipe from my grandmother for a uncooked cranberry relish that told us we were with family.

I held on to the mythology of a family recipe in the form of that cranberry relish. I ate it every year growing up and disdained the sad, canned, sweet cranberry sauce so often found on other tables. One year, far from family in Hawaii, my roommate and I were hosting a grand Thanksgiving. I called my grandmother for the cranberry relish recipe, and she said, “Well, it’s fresh cranberries, oranges, walnuts, and sugar, you just put them in the blender. It tastes better if you make it the day ahead.” I was taking notes, feeling pride in the passing of generational knowledge. She sighed, “I don’t know the exact amounts. You’ll find the recipe on the back of any bag of cranberries you buy in the supermarket.” Ah. And so I did. My tradition is therefore taken from wherever I choose to take it. At this dinner party I steal some southern cooking and make it mine.

Photo: Cooking.

I steal from Naples, Laos, Hunan, Vietnam, Catalonia, Lowcountry South, Southern California, New England, Bolivia (more Chuquisaca than La Paz), Lebanon, Belgium, Morocco. Yet, I try to buy local food, local beef, pork, kale, radishes. I eat everything, but I sometimes revert to meatless eating because I apologize less to chickpeas than to chickens. And I really really love beets. I peel, I chop, I fry, I boil. Instead of grace, we have taken to saying a Zen prayer I found in The Tassajara Recipe Book: “We venerate the three treasures, and are thankful for this food, the work of many people, and the suffering of other forms of life.” Or sometimes it’s just a quick “Itadakimasu” (“I humbly receive” in Japanese).

Fig cake batter
Photo: Fig cake batter.

I am not much attracted to deconstructed food, food outside the context of shared enjoyment. I am not much interested in fads per se, but how can one ignore the news of what might be good, or more importantly, what might be rediscovered? The older I get and the more I cook the more I believe in simple food, housewife food, whether that be a housewife in Mumbai or Paris or Alexandria (Virginia or Egypt). I must steal recipes and make my own book of classics. Some favorites now include chickpeas and pasta from Naples (or rather, from inland Campania), a faux-Japanese steak salad from a Jamie Oliver cookbook, a “Moroccan” lentil soup from Fields of Greens, and now a jambalaya from the Lee Bros.

My aesthetics are in the work, the actual preparation and application of heat. I make dishes. I feed people. I dislike the word “foodie” because it implies some of us are not influenced by food, are not making conscious or unconscious choices about what we eat. Are we (fortunate ones) not eaters a few times a day? Perhaps you do not cook or think much about food, but if you eat, someone else cooked, someone picked, prepared, canned, and something died to feed you.

I like to cook and I have the time, so this is not a chore, but a privilege of leisure and wealth. I recognize this, and try to honor the food, where it came from, and the people that brought it to me. Itadakimasu indeed.