In clearing out some old bookmarks on a desktop, I came across a link to an essay written by Ingrid Rowland almost five years ago. Her continuation of a conversation started by Italian columnist Giacomo Papi, however, remains thought-provoking for food dorks today. In fact, I think the perspective we have half a decade later, in addition to the experiences we have been permitted in the intervening years, might even make the consideration more valuable. If nothing else, it’s been rattling around between my ears for a day now, so I figured I’d share.
In pertinent part:
"It all started, [Papi] maintains, in the 1980s, when bow tie pasta with salmon in cream sauce began to appear on Italian menus:
Cooking began to be an aesthetic experience. Thirty years later, the salmon has been replaced by tuna (tartare, seared, with ginger), risotto is triumphant, the cream has disappeared, and every ingredient comes mysteriously supplied with its own geography…Thirty years later, it is impossible to eat and discuss some other subject. It is impossible to sit at table without analyzing, forkful by forkful, every flavor and ingredient…as if the experience will be incomprehensible and insipid without commentary. It is the triumph of meta-cuisine. Taste no longer affords pleasure on its own. Just as contemporary art exists only if someone talks about and interprets it, so cooking only lives, these days, in the comments of its consumers.
The consequences of meta-cuisine for society are dire, in Papi’s view:
‘Food has replaced fashion…The mouth has become our most important organ. It is a transformation in keeping with our era, which seems to be concerned mostly with channeling its own voracity. Cooking is the art of our time. Because eating is the only sensory, and hence aesthetic, experience that is entirely fulfilled in consumption. By destroying the work of art.’"
Now, undeniably, I’m guilty of having been a willing participant in this process. At the same time, however, I find myself recognizing the feelings of a growing fatigue borne out of such participation. It manifests itself in unseemly ways - an ice cold can of Coors in lieu of a room temperature, carefully-crafted porter; a sad snack of potato chips and onion dip; a plate of wings at the bar, never really “tasted” or examined, attention focused on the flickering images coming from the corner of the ceiling.
Ideally, the best dining experiences combine both. Food prepared and presented with thought and care, but without such excruciating detail and fuss so as to distract from company and conversation. Finding that point of equipoise at the table where the harmony elevates each element, yet none demands dominance. Where the journey home is simply summed up, “What a fantastic meal. I never even thought to ask about the sauce with that salmon.”