The Meaning of Food or How to Read a Rutabaga

rutabaga2 One of the big hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes or menus refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem?

If fine food is about anything it is about food traditions, and dishes and menus have meaning to they extent they are expressions of a tradition. Chefs and their critics provide “readings” of a dish in light of past renderings of that dish and the sensibility that lies behind it.

So I read with great interest, New York Chef Sara Jenkins’ plea to American chefs to pay more attention to their own traditions instead of echoing the accomplishments of Europe.

American chefs, it seems, too often become enamored with the technique and forget the foundations of tradition, flavor, and sourcing that hold the best recipes together. As a result, we end up mixing together eight or nine different ingredients whose only commonality is the their trendiness. I do love the freedom that comes with America’s lack of cultural definition. In this country, chefs are not chained to making a regional food simply because that’s what their patrons grew up eating. But with freedom comes choices, and sometimes there can be too many choices to navigate. When chefs abandon all tradition, they often lose the integrity that makes the ingredients come together into something profoundly satisfying and alive.

Even the molecular concoctions of el Bulli (Spanish chef Ferran Aria’s home before it closed) were based on tradition. During her visit to el Bulli, Jenkins writes:

That night, the most memorable dish was a salty tomato sorbet with a crisp crouton on top filled with olive oil. Again, I admired the apparent simplicity of the dish, three ingredients paired perfectly together in an unexpected format. It wasn’t until the next morning, eating my standard Catalan breakfast of toasted baguette rubbed with a ripe tomato half and drenched in olive oil, that I realized what I’d eaten the night before had been a highly innovative reworking of something that the chef, Ferran Adrià, probably eats every morning for breakfast.

Genuine art is not merely an interesting collection of colors or shapes and edible arts are not just a collection of pleasant flavors. Aesthetic properties must connect to and resonate with something already present but latent in consciousness, tapping into a reservoir of meaning that makes them available to the emotions, the intellect, or sensibility. In the Edible arts, perhaps more than in other media, that reservoir is a food tradition.

Diners come to the table with a history of experiences that will shape what they taste. When chefs do not pay homage to that history, food lacks meaning. Flavors without context are like a pretty, yet pedestrian landscape painting. Pleasant enough to experience but without the deeper meanings that we expect from works of art.

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