10.18.11 Food is the most direct connection between necessity and art in culture. Whether you are an Oglala who prizes a salted slice of raw kidney from a fresh kill, a Basque with a taste for reconstituted salt cod in pil pil sauce, or a Virginian with specific thoughts about Surry County ham, our cuisines show how we adapt and ultimately exalt the foods that keep us alive, and in the process create a shared identity.
These days food is all over the media, made fetish by people like Guy Fieri and, more intelligently, Anthony Bourdain. Growing up, the options were more limited. I watched Jacques Pepin and Julia Child, Justin Wilson, and Martin Yan on PBS with a passion that confused my contemporaries and family members. I still have crystal clear memories of Wilson, the Cajun chef, tipping his chablis liberally into an etouffee before sighing with pleasure, whooo weee; of Martin Yan showing off his no-look knife skills in staccato bursts before urging, “Any-one-can-do-it,” turning English, somehow, into a tonal language; of an older Julia cooing pigeon-like over her shoulder at Jacques, her arms elbow deep in something fowl.
My fondest memories of childhood are sitting on the step chair in our little kitchen as my mother produced miracle banquets for 20 to satisfy auction-related promises to my expensive private school. Is it because smell and memory are so closely linked? Or because food punctuates both celebration and mourning, that it plays such a powerful role in what we remember, and therefore, what we pass on?
Enjoy the feast this week, and, forgiving Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist ideologies, appreciate his sneaky appreciation of hot food in an ancient land:
“‘Oh yes, it is a good curry,’ said the Mahratta.
‘And cheap,’ said Kim. ‘But what about caste?’
‘Oh, there is no caste where men go to––look for tarkeean,’ the Mahratta replied, in the prescribed cadence.”–Giles Morris