Anneli Rufus has decided this is the year of weird ingredients.
Based on what I’ve seen these last few weeks at the Fancy Food Show, Good Food Awards Mercantile and Food Fete in San Francisco, plus what this city’s trendy restaurants are serving, food-makers are battling it out to see who can use the most obscure, incongruous, virtuous, freaky and/or allegedly life-saving components. I’ve seen Oreo Cookie-flavored popcorn. Coffee-leaf tea. Sriracha-brined salmon. Calendula-flower kraut. Energy bars made from spent beer grain. Toasted, sugar-coated, chile-lime and chocolate-covered mealworms (“farmed and raised with a natural diet of bran and carrots,” reads the maker’s website). Not one but two brands of chips made from ground-up crickets. Ghost-pepper chocolate. Seawater beer.
Mmmm. Cricket chips. She then asks several pertinent questions:
Is hot-cocoa mix containing “wildcrafted shilajit” — aka mineral pitch, which I have also tried — a pinnacle? Or is it desperation, difference for the sake of difference in a jaded, I’ve-tried-everything-already world?
I vote for desperation.
Regarding the “grilled-bone gelée, Dungeness crabshell gelée or duck-liver toffee crowned with bubbly foam” served at top San Francisco restaurants, she asks:
Is the new übermensch he or she who can speak of such foods straight-faced afterwards without a trace of shock?
No. That is a bit of a come down for übermenschen I would think, who are after all charged with standing athwart history resisting the tide of nihilism. (Is Hillary Clinton an übermensch?)
And then we get to the real pressing question:
…are culinary arts at last on par with painting, theater and dance, attaining unprecedented subjectivity? If so, is mealworm candy the equivalent of butoh?
I think the answer is yes, finally. The U.S. took flavor for granted for so long. Now that we’ve discovered how fascinatingly rich the world of flavor is, we are like the proverbial kid in the candy store shoving anything into our mouths we can imagine.
But there is one difference between the art world and the food world. The art world has had several centuries to make decisions about what counts as a good painting or masterful work of literature. The art world may seem chaotic, and indeed artists wildly experiment with new forms that seem bizarre to the uninitiated. But art movements come and go, the bad stuff is eventually ignored, the old masterpieces continue to inspire us for good reason, the works that survive eventually yield standards of judgment that we use to bring some order to the process of canon formation.
The food world has yet to develop those standards. But I suspect we will in time. In any case, the rampant experimentation is better than the conventional orthodoxies that used to characterize fine dining in the U.S.
That is a world well lost.