Thursday, September 09, 2004

Nota Bene, Pt. 2

I finally finished The New Yorker's Food Issue, and like any good meal, its finish lived up to the promise of its start. My early diagnosis of literary-fabulism-masquerading-as-food-writing also held up, especially with Jerry Adler's essay on Lacerba, a restaurant in Milan specializing in Futurist cuisine.

Yes, apparently the unparalleled poet, theorist, and general brick-through-the-window leader of Italy's most famous avant-garde movement Filippo Marinetti also wrote a cookbook, "La Cucina Futurista." Many of its recipes are clearly inedible -- for example, chicken stuffed with ball bearings, "meant not to be eaten but to flavor the meat with the fortifying taste of steel" -- and it infamously (and for an Italian, insanely) calls for a ban on pasta, but it's more about making a revolutionary gesture than a gastronomical revolution. As Adler writes:

The food of the future, as Marinetti envisaged it, would ban spaghetti but include smoked camel meat, raw-onion ice cream, and fried trout stuffed with nuts and wrapped in liver. It marked a whole new way of thinking about food: the cuisine of the absurd.

From there we go to Bill Buford's equally excellent article on homemade Italian pasta. Here Burford triangulates a small, traditional trattoria in the countryside near Parma, classic Italian cookbooks from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and working at the pasta station at Mario Batali's famous restaurant Babbo in NYC. Of course, he's completely taken in by all of this, from the course behind-the-scenes curses and jargon of the station to the simple poetry of shaping pasta by hand: "I was being educated in texture: how you handle a long sheet of pasta like a piece of favric, how it interacts with the air, the ways you can stretch it and the ways you can't... Postage stamps, little moons, half-moons, and belly buttons. I feel compelled to pause for a moment and ask: What other culture has a tradition of serving up its national cuisine in the form of little toys? There seems never to have been a time when Italians weren't playing with their food." The comfort of pasta, Buford argues, is almost always at least partially the comfort of childhood. It's a fine, warm-hearted defense of the food Marinetti would have had done away with by his countrymen.

Perhaps the most beautiful and thoughtful essay in the collection, however, is Malcolm Gladwell's on ketchup. Ketchup is our most popular condiment and one of the few foods for which there is no real gourmet market: there has been essentially one kind of ketchup, the whole-tomato-and-vinegar formula perfected by Heinz, with only a few competing brands, for more than a century. Grey Poupon shattered French's hold on the mustard market with a gourmet product made with brown mustard seeds and white wine instead of white seeds and vinegar, and Prego did the same thing with its multiple varieties of extra-chunky tomato sauce in the early 1990s.

Prego's breakthrough was engineered by a man named Howard Moskowitz, a physicist and statistician who changed the way food products were developed and marketed with his notion of "sensory segmentation" -- basically, the seemingly common-sense notion that not everybody prefers the same things made exactly the same way, but that if you give people a number of choices, everyone can find something they like. Gladwell writes:

It may be hard today, fifteen years later -- when every brand seems to come in multiple varieties -- to appreciate how much of a breakthrough this was. In those years, people in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish -- the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right. At Ragu and Prego, they had been striving for the platonic spaghetti sauce, and the platonic spaghetti sauce was thin and blended because that's the way they, thought it was done in Italy. Cooking, on the industrial level, was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the old orthodoxy goes out the window. Howard Moskowitz stood up to the Platonists and said there are no universals.

This is more than just good copy -- it's really thoughtful, interesting stuff. But what's genius about the article is that after Gladwell convincingly makes the anti-Platonist argument on behalf of food diversity, he equally backtracks on behalf of ketchup. The article is titled "The Ketchup Conundrum," and with good reason: Heinz tomato ketchup is the single greatest success story of the food industry's Platonists, combining and perfectly blending aspects of all five fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami ("the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato"). Ketchup's appeal to us is in some sense elemental, which is partly why children love ketchup so much. Gladwell astutely notes that this also has something to do with the fact that condiments are really the only part of a meal a child has some control over themselves, but his picture of ketchup's appeal is powerful, even to someone like myself who can't stand the stuff:

Small children tend to be neophobic: once they hit two or three, they shrink from new tastes. That makes sense, evolutionarily, because through much of human history that is the age at which children would have first begun to gather and forage for themselves, and those who strayed from what was known and trusted would never have survived. There the three-year-old was, confronted with something strange on his plate -- tuna fish, perhaps, or Brussels sprouts -- and he wanted to alter his food in some way that made the unfamiliar familiar. He wanted to subdue the contents of his plate. And so he turned to ketchup, because, alone among the condiments on the table, ketchup could deliver sweet and sour and salty and bitter and umami, all at once.

I don't know if Gladwell realizes that this is an argument about Platonic recollection couched in Darwinian terms, but it works all the same. As Buford and Adler had already shown, there is something about food that suggests both the effort to conquer the new and the strange and the return to familiarity, each of which characterize both childhood and adulthood. "The terrible twos" are better called "the first adolescence," since the acquisition of language and the development of better motor skills make independence and agency possible for the first time. In your second adolescence, from 11 to 21, you forget about food, when dining or preparing food becomes an occasion for other things -- a chance to work outside the home, a place to meet with your friends. It's only in childhood and on reaching maturity that you begin to discover and rediscover the simple, wondrous pleasures of food.

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