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Transplanted Canadian, New Yorker writer and author of Paris to the Moon, Gopnik is publishing this major new work of narrative non-fiction alongside his 2011 Massey Lecture. An illuminating, beguiling tour of the morals and manners of our present food manias, in search of eating's deeper truths, asking "Where do we go from here?"
Never before have …
A Small Starter: Questions of Food
We have happy days, remember good dinners.
We eat to live? Yes, surely. But why then did the immortal
gods also come to the table, and twice a day?
IN THE early morning— six- forty, precisely— of May 24, 1942, a young professor of German, a resistant who had taken the underground name of Jacques Decour (his real name was Daniel Decourdemanche) and who taught before the war at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, wrote a letter to his parents:
You know that for the past two months I have been expecting what is to happen to me this morning; so I have had the time to prepare myself for it; but since I have no religion, I have not given myself up to any meditation on death. Here are a few requests. I was able to send a word to the woman I love. If you see her— soon I hope— give her your affection. This is my dearest wish. I also wish that you could keep an eye on her parents who need help badly. Give them the things that are in my apartment and which belong to their daughter: The volume of the pleiade, the fables de la fontaine, tristan, les quatre saisons, two water colors,
the menu of the inn les 4 paves du roy.
All these last days I have thought a lot about the good meals that we should have together when I was free. You will eat them
without me, all the family together— but not sadly, please! I don’t want your thoughts to dwell on the good times that we might
have had but on those that we really have shared. During these two months of solitude without even anything to read I have run over in my mind all my travels, all my experiences, all the meals that I have eaten. I even composed the outline of the novel. I had
an excellent meal with Sylvain on the 17th. I have often thought of it with pleasure, as well as of the New Year’s supper with
Pierre and Renée. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.
Three hours later, what was going to happen to Decour happened to him. He was shot by the Nazis in the courtyard of the prison. Yet there he was, in the last hours of his life, thinking about sending a menu from a little inn near Versailles to his girlfriend’s parents. (They must have eaten there, once.) His last thoughts turned to his best- loved meals. Of course, he’s nobly trying to ease the horror for his parents, but he’s also trying to find something to hang on to. Questions of food, you see, have taken on a great importance.
Questions of food seem to have taken on a great importance for us now, too. An obsessive interest in food is not a rich man’s
indulgence, confined to catering schools and the marginal world of recipe books. Questions of food have become the proper preoccupation of whole classes and cable networks. More people talk about food now— why they eat what they eat and what you ought to eat, too— than have ever done before. Our food has become our medicine, our source of macho adventure, and sometimes, it almost seems, our messianic material. Good food, or watching it get made, anyway, has become, in the age of Rachael Ray and Food Network, a popular sport, and even the many who still prefer fast food to fancy or fresh get to prefer it loudly.
But if our own obsession (and the obesity it fathers) keeps increasing, its spirit seems at odds with that of Jacques Decour’s
last thoughts. Not just the gravity, but the pathos of the feeling he evokes, and its humanity, seem very far from the questions we ask about food. We do feel a kinship to him beyond our pity at his end and our wonder at his courage. A kinship because his sense of food—of the rituals of the table, the memories of eating, even as the noise of our cross-talk and cable clatter increases— still shares in our own sense of what makes us human and what forms the core of our memories. For us, as for Jacques Decour, what makes a day into a happy day is often the presence of a good dinner. Though we don’t always acknowledge it enough, we still live the truth Darwin saw: food is the sensual pleasure that passes most readily into a social value.
Yet our questions of food are very different from Decour’s. We tend to argue about matters of taste, about the health of the planet, about the rights and wrongs of vegetarianism— all questions, finally, about what to eat. And we ask these questions expecting material answers: the right way to cook or eat. Decour’s questions are posed in a different key, one we can only call humanist: a view that life is a whole— that we can live fully, and that we ought to, with our pleasures as much as with our principles. He is talking about what goes on around the table as much as what’s on it. We can’t help feeling amazed at the sense of his letter but also a kind of unease, even a certain guilt, in his presence. Our questions of food, even the most high- minded, seem so small compared with his.
Why do we care so much about our food? There’s a sociological explanation (it’s a signal of status), a psychological explanation
(it takes the place of sex), and a puritanical explanation (it’s the simplest sign of virtue). But all these, while worth pursuing, seem to be at one side of Decour’s questions. Thinking about questions of food an hour before his execution, Decour wasn’t thinking virtuous thoughts about his health, or even the planet’s health. Thinking about meals he was thinking about something else, about that inn near Versailles, about Sylvain and Pierre and Renée and about the parents who had raised and were now to lose him. Food represented for him the continuity of living, and what gave form to life.
Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When “gastronomy” was on
the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything— the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is
made to matter.
I love to eat. I love to eat simple food and I love to eat fancy food. I love to eat out and I love to eat at home. I love the Grand Véfour in Paris, where the banquettes are made of velvet and the food is filled with truffl es, and I love the coffee shop down the street, where the eggs all come with greasy potatoes. I’ve loved to eat since I was little, when my mother, a terrifi c cook, would make all the dishes, large and small, near and far. I learned early on the simple path between eating well and feeling happy. And, as all eaters do, I also early on learned the short, sudden path between desire and disappointment: my fi rst strong taste memory is of taking a deep bitter swig of vanilla extract in a dark closet into which I had sneaked the bottle, sure that something that smelled that good had to taste good, too. (It doesn’t.) If all my pleasures are gathered around the table, all my disillusions
taste bitter, like that vanilla.
Getting older, with children of my own, I was trained enough to cook for them— my wife’s feminist mother had purposefully neglected her daughter’s kitchen tuition. And, over the years, I wrote a lot about cooking and eating, as a writer is bound to dwell on the things he loves. But though I had written happily about what food tasted like and what it looked like and also about the odd personalities of the people who made the best food, I was left, decades on, wondering: what did it really mean? Why did we care? What was, so to speak, the subject of food? The attempts to make food “art” I found embarrassing, and the attempts to make it adventure I found absurd. I recognized sexual politics in that effort, the result of traditionally women’s work now being done by men, including me. Men being men, they had to assert themselves by trying not to seem too obviously feminine, pretending that cooking was really just as macho as NASCAR, and so producing the taste for rattlesnake testicle ragout. And with the coming of Mr. Perfect, something more insidious happened: the sheer brunt and dailiness of women’s real lives— the everyday dance women still must do for family life to go on—was subtly undermined by the cooking husband, or host. (Putting on an apron and making a sauce is the easiest of household chores, and a neat way to escape doing the others.)
In place of Decour’s Big Questions, we had many small ones. Should we eat locally? Stop eating meat altogether, and if so, should we do it out of humanity or for our health? All questions worth answering—and yet, weren’t they still to one side of what we really felt when we came home to share dinner and felt happy when we did? Certainly within the new rites there were intimations of a new order, and of a new table, of a larger meaning to our questions of food. I could see, for instance, that in the past twenty-five years, two big things had happened in the world of fancy food. One was the growth of the pure- food movement, best captured in the name “slow food,” and which encompasses localism, seasonal cooking, farmers’ markets, organic produce—a whole host of interlocked activities and styles that spoke to the old, the past, the lost, the sustainable, the recoverable, heritage breeds, and forgotten peasant wisdoms. The other was the growth of “techno-emotional” cooking, as its founder, or anyway its first pope, Ferran Adrià, likes to call it, more often referred to as “molecular gastronomy.” Adrià and his apostles use gels and foams and aerations and freeze-dried powders, outré rearrangements and deconstructed plates: the gleeful appliqué of new technology to cooking. This doubleness suggested a kind of ongoing confrontation between two forces in life, the eternal-natural and the techno-inventive—a confrontation, so to speak, between Hestia, Queen of the Hearth and Home, and Willy Wonka, King of the magic mountain. (Hestia had nymphs and rustics on her side; Willy, an army of Oompa- Loompas.)
I wanted to imagine an apocalyptic final battle for the fate of food. But actually, though often opposed to each other in principle, the people who supported one didn’t fight much with the people who practiced the other. What were they really after? What was really going on with these questions? What did it all mean? We shouldn’t intellectualize food, because that makes it too remote from our sensory pleasures; but we ought to talk as intelligently as we can about it, because otherwise it makes our sensory pleasures too remote from our minds. The knowledge that our senses are part of our intelligence is what makes us human. We alone know our fun. The sweetness in our morning coffee is at once a feeling, an idea, and a memory. Eating is an intelligent act, or it’s merely an animal one. And what makes it intelligent is the company of other mouths and minds. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal.
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