I always loved eating. For a long time, I didn’t love eating much that wasn’t white, that was not very, very bland, or did not involve brazil nuts. I just didn’t like the risks involved in trying things. So, no red grapes, bacon, strawberries, dark chocolate lobster, cheeses with long names, lamb, beef, goat, shellfish or most things green. That started to change about six years ago, and I’ve been making up for lost time. All those things are now favourites, just as my father promised me they would be.
My parents are both good cooks, and I suppose I’ve been cooking in some capacity since I could sit on the counter and stir. Their approach, which has influenced my own hugely, could probably be described best as minimalism. They believe in food that doesn’t take too long to cook, doesn’t involve a thousand ingredients and doesn’t make you feel too awful afterwards. They’re very European in their tendency to throw wine wine on or in anything savoury that has even the tiniest prospect of turning out bland if they allow it to be served liquorless, and very London-ish in the geographic breadth of their repertoir (curry’s a big one). And they have always, always had a tiny kitchen, and made it work as efficiently as any I’ve seen.
On moving from London to Blue Hill, ME, pop. 2,000 on a good day, we were faced with some interesting prospects. On the one hand, there were eggs, chickens and lambs to be had that were raised in walking distance, and room for a garden which now supplies us with greens into November, among most of our other vegetables. On the other hand, there was not an acceptable (in their urban opinion) Indian restaurant within three hours’ drive, no Middle Eastern grocery shop, no population at all to supply them with the ethnic – or, in fact, English – comestibles or finished meals they subsisted on.
What there was was a coöperative staffed by be-dreadlocked Buddhist hippies and a kitchen to stock.
So, it’s not too shocking that, having listened to the homegrown-local-organic-good-for-the-soul sermon since the tender and permeable age of nine, I’ve taken rather a lot of it to heart. I’ve also gotten completely sick of it, and I don’t want to preach it. I believe in organic farming, yes. I also believe in genetically modifying crops if that’s what it takes to increase yields in a world where a growing population with money to spend on meat is driving up the price of grain to the point where certain people simply can’t afford to eat any longer. I think that food should be made out of identifiable ingredients and shouldn’t be shrink-wrapped years ahead of it’s consume-before date or shipped halfway around the world. I also know that a huge portion of the first world can’t afford to eat anything else. And that a lot of Americans don’t know how to cook rice. Telling them that they should simply spend more money – at least at first – to put more work into getting dinner on the table is insensitive, possibly elitist and, more to the point, unproductive. At a certain point it’s precious and fussy and hypochondriacal to refuse to eat a piece of meat that might not have pranced around happily in a big green field, been grass-fed, caressed, played violin music and slaughtered while angels sang in its big furry ear. People don’t want to hear it. Whatever the justifications are – health, environmental impact, corporate greed – in this culture we will always ignore them to do what’s easier. And I think that’s the great tragedy, maybe the great catastrophe, of the society I live in.
So, I want to know where it’s from. But I don’t want to eat rabbit food, as I feel I’m implored to do every time I step into a natural food centre in coastal Maine. I believe in whole grains, abstaining from endangered fish and cutting down on meats, sure. I also believe in butter. In eggs, cream, chocolate – yes, chocolate that may have been grown in Ghana, and made with sugar from the Philippenes and vanilla from Madagascar. Because food is meant to make you happy. It’s cultural, it’s interesting, it’s often the only topic I can discuss with my family without risking a screaming match (though occasionally dinner, too, has been the fount of a great rift). I believe in dessert and indulgence, but I believe in making it yourself, or at the very least knowing what’s in it… not only that you’re not consuming a thousand artificial preservatives and colourings and flavourings, but also that there is half a pound of butter and sugar in that pie, and that, no, it’s not just fruit.
That’s probably why, barring a few magnificent foods magnificently made (sushi comes to mind), I prefer what’s prepared in my own home, by me or my friends and family, to almost any other. We’re not necessarily better at it. But I know exactly what I’m eating.
Finally, I believe that food can be art. I think it can be that transcendent, in its conception, preparation, presentation. But it’s also what keeps us alive, and what there isn’t enough of for too many people in the world. And so it deserves not only respect as a lofty art form, but reverence as a privilege and, conversely, as a right too often deprived. And one person’s ideals can’t decide the importance or validity of what’s keeping another person alive.