Nomads and Gastronomes

by Dwight Furrow

Chef Morimoto’s Buri-bop

Flavors are nomads. They lurk in disparate ingredients and journey from dish to dish. They cross generations and geographical borders putting down roots in far-flung locations, pop up when least expected, and appear in different guises depending on specific mixtures and combinations. Flavors are a molecular flow continuously reshaping each other in reciprocal determination.

The task of gastronomy is to understand this complexity. But how? As I noted in a previous post, there appears to be no global similarity space mapping relations between flavors/aromas and no rules governing how they should be combined. Are there strategies for grasping this contingency and complexity?

In general, we humans have developed two strategies for dealing with complexity. The first, macro-reduction, is of ancient lineage. We develop a taxonomy of categories into which we can neatly slip any object we encounter, carving nature at its joints, as Plato wrote. Any phenomenon can be understood as a particular instance of a general category which can then serve as a norm to judge whether the phenomenon in question is a good example of its type.

In the food world, this means we think of flavors in terms of the ingredients and dishes in which they appear, which are then grouped according to the culture from which they emerge. We divide the world of cuisine into “Italian food,” “Chinese food,” “Mexican food, etc. and these categories guide our expectations about what food should taste like. Read more »

Why We Have No Theory of Gastronomy

by Dwight Furrow

The term “gastronomy” has no agreed-upon, definitive meaning. Its common meaning, captured in dictionary definitions, is that gastronomy is the art and science of good eating. But the term is often expanded to include food history, nutrition, and the ecological, political, and social ramifications of food production and consumption. For my purposes, I want to focus on the conventional meaning of gastronomy for which that dictionary definition will suffice.

We have thousands of recipes from all over the world and, thanks to food historians, this data spans many generations. From this vast database, we know the combinations of ingredients that cooks have used to satisfy our need for enjoyment. We have practical guides to the techniques and methods that make each dish successful as elaborated in countless media devoted to cooking. And we have a robust science of cooking that explains the chemical interactions that occur when dishes are properly made and that also expands our understanding of what is possible. But we don’t have a general theory of the organization and structure of dishes that explains what it means for something to “taste good.” In other words, we can give accounts of what it means for a paella to taste good according to conventional standards of paella making, while acknowledging widespread disagreement on some of the details. But we have no theory of how that is related to a butter chicken or ossobuco tasting good. In gastronomy there is nothing akin to music theory or theories in the visual arts that elaborate the general conditions for the composition of recipes and no account of what kind of aesthetic achievement a dish or a meal is.

This is not to say there are no rules of thumb that guide chefs and cooks. Good dishes must be skillfully made, balanced, have enough flavor variation and texture to be interesting, be appropriate to the season or occasion, and be made from quality ingredients. But these factors make only a minimal contribution to a conceptual system that would organize the vast and highly differentiated world of cuisine. Read more »

The Flavors of Home: The Art of Comfort Food

by Dwight Furrow

6a019b00fffe15970b01b7c76df05d970b-150wiWhen we eat, if we pay attention at all, we focus on the pleasures of flavor and texture. But some meals have a larger significance that provokes memory and imagination. So it is with comfort food–the filling, uncomplicated, soft, and digestible comestibles that haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home.

Apple pie, ice cream, chocolate cake, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup-their smell and taste can unfetter a flood of memories because our brains are wired to associate good feelings with specific flavors and aromas, especially when the flavors are fat, salt and sugar. In the face of such powerful stimuli, we succumb helplessly to the endorphin cascade. The foods of home have such a grip on us that we go to a great deal of trouble to bring our food with us when we travel. The spread of various foodstuffs throughout the world was made possible by armies, both military and migrant, determined to carry the taste of home with them. A visit to any ethnic market in a major city reveals the importance of these taste memories to our sense of well-being.

Home cooking has this significance because meals are as much about relationships as they are about food. Unlike other animals, we do not eat when food is available. We dine at particular times, in particular ways, and with particular table mates. Families interact around the kitchen table and are defined by the small daily rituals of gathering, preparing, and consuming food. Meals bring families together physically and emotionally and the tastes and smells become associated with the achievement of social solace and acceptance. “Homeyness”, for want of a more elegant word, may be the most powerful and persistent meaning that attaches to food. Thus, the simplistic claim that food lacks meaning is obviously false. Mom's apple pie is as meaningful as anything in life for some of us.

But does comfort food have the kind of meaning that works of art have?

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Why Civilization Rests on that Roast

by Dwight Furrow

Roast chickenFood is part of nearly every aspect of social life. Both our biological families and the families we choose coalesce around food. We converse with friends over coffee, tea, a snack or a glass of wine. Going to lunch or dinner with friends is the dominant mode of socializing in modern life. For many families much of their communication takes place around the kitchen table. We share our tables with friends and family at celebrations where food takes on the ritual meanings of shared values or shared history. Even at funerals, at least at the wake, food is often served.

The other sense modalities do not lend themselves so easily to social life. We seldom think of visual experiences as paradigmatic ways of spending time with others. Viewing a sunset or a work of art in solitude can be wonderful, the solitude enhancing the experience. With modern technology we listen to music through ear buds designed to lock out the rest of the world. Although listening to music is sometimes a social occasion, only rarely is sociality essential to the experience. Touch is a shared social experience only in the most intimate of relationships. Taste, by contrast, is the sense modality that, as a matter of practice, is intimately tied to social life. Although we can and do eat alone, we only rarely contrive to do so, and few would consider it an enhancement.

The reason for this intimate connection between food and socializing is not hard to discern. Given the time involved in, and the necessity of, gathering, preparing and consuming food, no other activity plays such a prominent role in giving form to daily life. We divide up the day according to when and how we eat. Thus, only the most solitary lives avoid implicating others in food-related activity. But more importantly, when we eat and drink, time slows, the rhythms of the workday must decelerate, making it an ideal time for socializing. (Europeans, historically, have understood this well. Many Americans seem to resent the loss of those precious moments of “productivity”).

Food and wine are so intimately entwined with sociality that they are more than an instrument through which we pursue social relations—they have come to symbolize social relations. It is hard to think about the act of eating without visualizing a table with others present, especially if eating includes certain foods such as roasts, casseroles, and pies that are designed to feed multitudes.

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Habits and Heresies: Authenticity, Food Rules, and the People Who Break Them

by Dwight Furrow


Chicken Tikka Masala

Dishes are a representation of the food tradition from which they emerge. But what counts as an authentic representation of a tradition and who decides?

All of us come to the table with a history of eating experiences that have left behind a sediment of preferences, a map of what goes with what, an impressionistic bible of what particular ingredients should taste like and how particular dishes satisfy. Food is the constant companion present when love emerges, deals are made, and sorrow weighs. Thus, food memories meld with emotional cues and are appended to the minor and major ceremonies that constitute the routines of life. Flavors acquire an emotional resonance and symbolic power that enables them to express the style of a culture and provide some of the prohibitions and taboos that signify social boundaries and status. There is a right and wrong way to eat and woe to those who get it wrong—you cannot be one of us.

Just as linguistic meaning is encoded in physical inscription (writing) and phonemes (speaking), food meanings are encoded in the flavors and textures with which people identify, a semi-consciously held template that says Italian, French, or low country. This template cannot be fully articulated in a set of rules; one knows the taste of home even if one can't say what home tastes like. Although the original association of flavors with identities is arbitrary, conventional, and driven by accidents of geography, once established they are no longer arbitrary but consciously perpetuated via resemblance. Cooks working within food traditions create dishes that replicate that template because their patron's map and bible generate those expectations.

Thus, the relationship between flavor and meaning is not merely an association but a synthesis. Moral taste and mouth taste become one.

When a server puts a plate of food in front of you, the dish confronts your map and bible. The dish may or may not represent your tradition, may or may not represent your map and bible, but it represents some tradition or other, and expresses someone's style, and thus poses a question about where and how it fits. The dish refers to other dishes as an imitation, interpretation, challenge, or affront. Is it an authentic extension of the tradition or a violation worthy of scorn?

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