Do we know what makes a great meal these days? Or has our manic dependence on stars and science further confused our senses? What is Good Food Anyway?
In the end, its criticism. No matter the prevarications and disclaimers, the excursions and asides, the conclusion of any piece of critical writing about food has to pass judgment on the dish, the meal, or the establishment: is it good or is it bad; and what makes it good or what makes it bad.
We are living in a time when we are surrounded by chatter about food from all avenues, from friends’ photographs of their plates posted on social media to culinary skills turned into a competitive challenge on television. Patrons in restaurants are waxing lyrical about Maillard reactions as they eat their charbroiled sous vide steaks while the sommelier decanting the wine is chattering on about biodynamic vineyards and the organic reactions of tannin. The only thing I’ve learned from dining with people who are knowledgeable about food is that people who are knowledgeable about food are terribly boring to dine with.
Good Food Anyway
What has happened with food and cuisine is similar to what has happened with literature after Derrida and western classical music post-Stockhausen or art after Duchamp: like a child, we have taken apart a clockwork toy, and we have no idea how to put it back together again.The individual parts still move, like severed limbs, spinning impotent gyrations. There is a lot of noise, but very little movement. Who knows anything about food today? The figure whose brief reign as the world’s best chef is often held to account as much as to awe, Ferran Adria of Spain, but the questioning and departure from the classical tradition had started long before him, with Michel Guerard, Roger Verge, and even the great Paul Bocuse starting to question the tenets.
The reason Adria, more than any other figure, can be compared to Derrida, is how he systematically questioned the most basic tenets about food. What is its purpose? Why can’t a flavor exist independently of mass, or at least as little as possible? What is taste? What, for that matter, is food? And, what, most importantly for those who would judge it, is good food?
Into the existential vacuum left by this line of questioning charged several brigades wielding answers. The scientific contingent seized on what Harold McGee had been banging on about for years: That there is a science to food, and a reason why food browns, veast leavens, and meat cooks at specific temperatures. But they took this to its logical conclusion and beyond, waving their capillary thermometers and hydrometers: Good food was food cooked as best as our technology and understanding of the processes involved could be applied; culinary skills were about the application of precise science, not craft, not art. As one would expect from any debate that involves science, the humanist contingent responded: Be off with you and your soulless gadgets and laboratory approach! Good food is that which is honest and true, simple and homely, that is closest to what a family would eat at a farm, the fruits of the earth and the bounties of the seas, meat from organic, free-range, and fulfilled animals.
Between these opposing poles a plenitude of voices made themselves heard, too many to mention and describe, although it is worth noting that the movement trumpeting authenticity and the naif has gained much traction in recent years: Good food is that which is least adulterated, from family recipes passed in matrilineal line; or that cooked without pretense, uncolored by faddish trends, which explains the preoccupation with street food and food cultures that are not yet self-aware and commercialized, such as Lao or, closer to home, Cordillera highland food.
Were living in a time when more and more people are interested in food and gastronomy, when lines between restaurant cooking and home kitchens are being blurred (were seeing an increase in dining out for “home-style cooking,” even as sous vide machines are making their way into the kitchens of affluent enthusiasts). And people generally care more about what they’re eating and talking about what they’re eating. Yet it’s also a time of culinary relativism, when people force themselves to eat something because they’re supposed to like it: This important critic said it was good so it must be; this food is very, very strange but it’s the Imperial Cuisine of Kyoto so in order to be cultured I must like it; this spongy mass is actually quite disgusting but it’s authentic Eritrean cuisine so I should respect their culture and this new food experience; this molecular menu is really rather odd but I have paid S500 for it so I should enjoy it.
So what is good food?
To this I have no answer; I’m not the person who can put the clockwork toy back together again. I don’t think anyone can. Some, the food equivalent of George Steiner, have retreated into classicism and try to pretend the dismantling of the rubric of the traditional culinary hierarchies and categories never happened. I believe that, as a food trend, modernist cuisine has no place to go and that the inevitable backlash will be a revival of the casual staples from bistro and trattoria; but at the same time I don’t think food writers will be able to judge along the same lines as before going forward, and that the most reactionary of food critics, the critics of the Guide Michelin, have lost their footing irretrievably and that the three-star system will cease to mean anything in the future.
But as a reader I am a Barthesian, flawed as 1 know that author is, and to me le plaisir du text is why I continue to read; and the pleasure of food is why I continue to eat and try to think about food in an active and critical way. It’s the ultimate text, more elusive and allusive, more satisfying than any novel. And there is good food and there is bad food, but what we don’t know, now more than ever, is what makes it so.