A life in which the pleasures of food and drink are not important is missing a crucial dimension of a good life. In my Three Quarks column this month, I explain why good wine and good food matter so much. This essay is a amalgamation of several blog posts on this topic that have appeared on Edible Arts recently.
As I wrote last week, to live is to be completely immersed in a sensuous environment, the often overlooked background atmosphere that deeply effects how we feel about life from moment to moment.
Food and drink are a symbol of that sensuous environment because they are a constant source of the small pleasures in life that make life meaningful and satisfying.
If that is right, then the home is the place where happiness is enacted.
At home, we are surrounded by a plenitude of familiar sensations, and food and drink are a prominent part of that atmosphere, the aromas and flavors permeating our lived experience throughout much of the day.
At least that is how it was in the past. The home used to a place of relaxation (unless the housework was unfairly burdening some household members and not others.) It was a place were we could fully engage with this sensuous dimension, without the distractions or turmoil of commerce. This is, unfortunately, no longer true for many of us working from home. Working from home has lots of advantages. But one of its complications is that, when work penetrates the home, the spell of that sensuous plenum is broken.
Many predict that working from home is the new normal as business see the advantage of cutting costs by eliminating the office building.
In this new reality, food and wine become even more important. As a symbol of that sensuous environment, they provide us with the feeling of the world receding even when it isn’t. The enjoyment of being immersed in the sensuous plenum of the home teaches us that this experience of enjoyment has intrinsic value—it serves no other purpose and is not reducible to its usefulness. In the midst of a busy work day, taking the time to savor is essential for mental health.
For this experience, the quality of the food and wine matters. But its goodness is the goodness of direct, unmediated pleasure that does not require fine discrimination or intellectualizing. Its goodness is not recognized through critical judgment. We are simply drawn to its quality and can sense it. Its goodness announces itself to us.
This is the nature of comfort food. The quality of the food expresses our dominion, our control over nature, our ability to create surplus and overcome need even when the phone is ringing, the Instant messenger is pinging.
In recent years, chefs have not only become celebrities; they have become role models for home cooks to emulate. Their advice for home cooks blankets the Internet and Food TV. It is disseminated in large,very expensive cookbooks replete with all the staging of an art show catalog, with recipes using ingredients that require a good detective to find.
Of course, they are the experts. Who better to learn from than people who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of flavor? So we watch them construct glorious meals in 30 minutes and buy their cookbooks hoping that all that expertise will rub off on our rushed and ill-planned everyday meals. “Knowing how to cook” has come to mean “knowing how to cook like Grant Achatz or Thomas Keller”. It is ironic that as people have less time to cook and few are inclined to bother, the standards for what counts as good cooking have ratcheted up.
I must plead guilty to this “mission creep”. I’ve worked my way through the French Laundry Cookbook, dabbled in molecular gastronomy, and have been known to spend the better part of a week preparing a meal. The problem is this is terribly unrealistic, and I feel less and less inclined to go to so much trouble. Fine cuisine really has become an art form but that has put fine cuisine out of the reach of time and budget-limited home cooks.
But more importantly, in adopting the standards of a restaurant chef, we risk diminishing the importance of everyday cooking. Home cooking and restaurant food have very different goals and embody very different values. Home cooking is about sustenance, family bonds, and everyday pleasures—the kind of pleasure that can spice up our lives every hour. The accessibility of everyday pleasures, their constant availability, is what is essential about them.
Restaurant food is about complexity, originality, and artful presentation using ingredients and techniques that are special precisely because they are unavailable to us at home. It is their rarity and inaccessibility that contributes to their value. We go to restaurants to eat what we can’t eat at home and be dazzled by the unfamiliar.
Both restaurant and home cooks aim to maximize flavor, both aim to please others and create an atmosphere of conviviality (although the restaurant chef will have less personal connection to diners), both take the potential of food seriously and seek to make it the center of experience but they do so in very different contexts with very different constraints. The advice of professionals is often useful when it makes us more efficient, but we need to keep in mind the differences.
This is not to say that home cooks should not be creative. But it is the practical, find-something-interesting-to-do-with-what-you-have-and-can-afford kind of creativity that home cooks need. I suppose this is the real value of amateur and semi-pro food blogs. They are a cauldron of ideas from people who must take the limits of time, equipment, knowledge, and money into account. It is they who should set the standards for home cooking, as the old family traditions of home cooking continue to erode, not the celebrity chefs that we admire but cannot emulate.
Who decreed that pancakes must be a doughy, one-dimensional breakfast food? Who made up the rule that syrup must taste of maple? These are habits acquired from the past when food was fuel and not yet a playground for creative adults.
I love maple syrup, especially the real stuff my Dad used to make from the sap extracted from our maple trees during the cold Maine winters. But really we can think beyond tradition can’t we? Break the rules? Thumb our nose at the ancestors?
Or am I committing sins against comfort food? Why change what generations have thought was perfect? Who has the right to commit such sacrilege?
Not a bit. This syrup is too good. These pancakes can be served for breakfast, lunch, supper, or as an appetizer.