Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The essence of things

Well, perhaps I've been clearing my throat for long enough. Time for some thoughts about Noshstalgia per se.

Most familiar foods have deep roots. But, at least here in the US - and to a lesser degree in the developed world generally - with each successive generation, food has less context, people know less about the things they eat. Less history, less culture, less procedural knowledge. To some degree, the current popularity of all things foodie has slowed the loss of cultural memory. But the prevailing trend, even among self-identified foodies, is to less knowledge and wisdom even in the context of more data. (put that way, one could make the same observation in most any domain). In fairness, we're all busy people, and there's more than ever to know about so many things. How and why should people make time to acquire context, wisdom, etc. where food is concerned? Won't whatever is on my plate taste the same whether I understand ancient history or not? Well...

I concede, at the highest level it is purely a matter of choice. Some people regard food only as sustenance, as a conveyance for nutrition. They are perfectly happy if their need to eat takes as little time as possible and avoids distracting them from their more important pursuits. I don't embrace this point of view, but neither do I condemn it.

Others - My readers (if I have any today) and potential readers - We choose to pay attention to what we eat, and perhaps even to exert ourselves in the procurement or preparation of superior foods. For us, taking steps beyond attentive consumption leads us to context. Preserves, confits, sausages, corned beef, bacon, maple syrup, indian pudding, woks, kebabs, spices, etc. - Why?

An understanding of the origins of things leads to an improved understanding of their essence. Understanding the essence of such things - the original design objectives, the practical problems that drove their creation and refinement - guides us in appreciating real quality. What's the point in preserves made with non-seasonal or improperly ripened fruit? Can they possibly preserve the character and singular pleasure of a perfectly ripened peach? What's the point in a wok of heavy gauge metal, or one set over a weak or diffuse heat source? Can it possibly deliver either the fuel economy or the cooking result for which the wok was developed?

For me, Noshstalgia is not simply an exercise in revisiting old recipes - it is a commitment to deeper understanding. It is a perspective that helps me focus my attention and efforts. Many fine authors have expounded on aspects of this consciousness - how to shop, seasonal menus, slow cooking etc. And implicitly, good food writing tends to include culture and history. But I am working on this blog because as I survey the web - as I look at so many food-blogs and cooking sites - it seems like people are mostly focused concrete details du jour - how to cook this, where to find that. Great information, no doubt but I hope I can lend a voice, and find a readership for digging deeper.

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