Monday, August 20, 2012

Food! Glorious Food!

General Washington cracks a nut with
his bare hands at Raleigh Tavern in 
Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot.
I wrote here about how I love food but find writing about food boring, but here I am ... writing about food. Truth is, I have a great fondness for food and plenty of opinions, but... your everyday food reviewing/writing is an activity that I find less than interesting. There are things I find fascinating about food, though, so – lucky you – I’m going to share some of these crazy loosely-connected, half-baked (wink) musings regarding everyday sustenance. Here goes...

Raleigh Tavern doesn't serve food today, 
but you can go there for plays and such.
To begin with, we just got back from Colonial Williamsburg and at every meal, I was reminded me of how NOT simple a basic bodily need like food can be. You see, in Williamsburg, there are several historic taverns either rebuilt or still operating that attempt to recreate ye olde tavern of yore... through period-style furnishings, decor, dim lighting, staff in colonial garb as well as roving musicians playing colonial-era tunes and actors who will plop their historically-clad rumps in a chair at your table and ask you what colony/territory you hail from and which coach you came in on. 

Dish of Pork... my favorite!
In addition, they include on their “Bill(s) of Fare” dishes that are similar to what may have been served back in the day, like, say, “Dish of Pork” (my favorite), or “Colonial Game Pye,” or “A Chop of Shoat.” I know that these dishes have been altered to accommodate available ingredients, and to please our modern tastes – or at least not offend them... I still like to imagine that I am back in time, quaffing a frosty mug of draft cider and tucking into a steaming dish of Dueling Beef Collops. 

Communion – best meal ever!
The food is hearty and delicious... and while there, I couldn’t help but wonder how long people have been taking food – a basic necessity – and making it into something altogether different... It is apparent from the stories in the Bible, that people used special meals to foster community and seal contracts. Communion is my favorite “meal” of all in this regard. And ever since, people all over the world have been making food into an experience, an extravagance, a complex scientific creation, even a way to be trendy. 

How did baking evolve from this...
First of all, science. I have always wondered about the evolution of cooking. First of all, early man must have been spectacularly hungry. I mean, who was the first person to eat an egg... and why?! Who thought of cooking meat? How did baking evolve from ground grain + water, baked on a rock, to a rockin’ creation like Death By Chocolate (invented and served at Colonial Williamsburg’s The Trellis restaurant)? And there’s a reeeeeally stinky fruit called a durian that I came across on my trip to Singapore... who was the first person who tried to eat it? this?
For every food that we take for granted, there had to be a first time. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys wrote lovely descriptions of the first time he ever ate toast... or drank orange juice: “I drank a glass, of a pint, I believe, at one draught, of the juice of oranges, of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but, it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt." I don’t know why, but I thought it was funny – I guess because we regard foods like OJ as part of the everyday table of life and here is the actual record of someone trying them for the first time when they weren’t ubiquitous. It’s a bit like watching my kid encounter new foods when he was an infant and would actually try new things. I loved watching the faces he’d make, the grins and grimaces. I gave my little niece (who’s now 18) her first Moonpie at two, and she gobbled it down and licked her fingers to pick up the crumbs.

I love this fan/artist's idea 
of how the hero of 
the Outlander books
would look.
And speaking of food in the old days, I’m a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s sexy Outlander novels, about a World War II nurse who time-travels to Jacobite Scotland, marries a hot, hotblooded – but educated – Scot. In one scene, when the husband is traveling with friend, he shows him how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, telling him that his wife taught him. It’s really hard for me to imagine a time without that most basic of foods, the grilled cheese sandwich.

One of the
Rich Kids of Instagram
On this same note, I read in Slate that there is a show called Time Machine Chefs, in which the participants have to cook something using ingredients and methods available at a certain time period. I absolutely can’t wait to see this... it sounds right up my alley... Although... despite my weird interest in this topic, I in no way wish to revert to those times. I’d be cooking all day, wouldn’t I? No time to blog!

Here's how those a-holes 
spend money.
Anyhoo, another thing I wonder about food is how we have managed to turn food into such an extravagance. The town I live in has a humongous gourmet food store/restaurant... which I love. Lots of people love it! Need a weird food from another country, a rare gourmet ingredient, a state-of-the-art cooking utensil, or obscure microbrew? This place has it. I remember, though, going there when I was fresh out of college and making $5 an hour... picking up a $15 jar of marinara sauce and thinking, “That’s a LOT of beans and rice.” Or store brand mac and cheese mix, or ramen, or whatever your “poverty-period” diet consisted of. 

And now that I am older and do a bit better than $10,000 a year, I also purchase extravagant food items occasionally. Probably more often than I should. Remember the Death By Chocolate dish I mentioned? $10.95 a serving. I guess it’s about more than food, but everything in life. Have you seen The Rich Kids of Instagram? When I first scrolled through the tastefully antiqued snaps, I thought, “What a waste, and what a bunch of a-holes.” But, really, I can’t point fingers at anyone with the amount of cash we blow on non-necessities like dinners out, books, movies, music, clothes, toys for Bill, i-gadgets, and etc.. So, really it’s just a matter of degree... they are only slightly bigger a-holes than I am myself, seeing how there are hungry people all over the world who could buy a lot of beans and rice for the dough I blew today on a locally-made-cheese sandwich with sauteed mushrooms and pickled red onions at Neal’s Deli (which was delicious, by the way.)

Marie Antoinette, one of the Rich
Kids of the French Monarchy
I know this isn’t new – royal personage's have been dining on delicacies while peasants scratched for food for centuries. I guess that was one of the big complaints of the French Revolution when Marie Antoinette famously said, “Let them eat cake,” in response to the news that the peasants had no bread. 

Bob Geldoff, bless his heart –
he TRIED to feed the hungry...
As with most things, I don’t have the answer to this. I do like the local food movement... it is a case where people with money actually transfer that green to local hard-working farmers. Our farm share has made us feel a like a cog in this machine. And how about giving money and/or time to charities that help feed people? Couldn’t hurt, I guess. And though it shouldn't stop us from trying, this doesn’t always work. In the early 80s, Bob Geldoff tried to feed starving people in Ethiopia, but it is my understanding that the country’s corrupt government, actually used to food to control the people. In that case, food was power. 

... with a little help from his friends.
On a much smaller scale, in our house growing up, lack of food felt to us like a lack of power and maybe even a lack of love. We were kids who had plenty of clothes, toys, cars, vacations, etc., but our food was rationed out as if it were gold... due to a mom who, 1. grew up in the depression, and 2. was a champion weight watcher. I know food isn’t love, but somehow, my childish brain translated a lack of food as a lack of love. That’s why the Moore house is full of great things to eat, and weirdly, my child could not care less. Of course, he's probably imagining that love is contained in some other thing we aren't giving him! Although, I hope not.
Remember this?

Moving right along, another thing I think is odd is how nowadays food is a matter of fashion. Remember the seventies? Quiche and spinach salad... you know, the stuff real men don’t eat! My husband reads the New York Times religiously and follows what trendy people eat, trendy restaurants serve, and trendy cooks are all about at any given moment. 

Two trends in one!
A maple bacon cupcake!
Cupcakes was a phase... Right now, it’s bacon.  Of course, bacon may be on its way out now that Burger King offers a bacon sundae. And, as with music and movies, Tom likes staying ahead of the curve... he loves food trucks right now. If food is ordered from a little window and cooked and served from a mobile unit, he is there. Luckily our area has a lot to offer... my favorites being Will & Pops — a yummy grilled cheese sandwich truck, and Only Burger — best fries in the ENTIRE WORLD!

Great grilled cheese! The 
Will & Pop's truck is in town!
Anyway, I’m about to wrap up this journey through tasty world of food for thought and history and such in a double layer of wax paper and a Ziploc baggie... concluding nothing definitive except some arcane insights like this: Food is, apparently, not just food — unless you’re REALLY hungry, which many of us in the West, are obviously not. 

Yes, I know... I 
needed a pizza.
My bout with anorexia actually has given me the rare experience of being an affluent Westerner who has actually experienced real starvation. Not just, “Wow, I haven’t eaten all day,” hunger, but honest-to-goodness “I haven’t eaten in a while and don’t know when I will eat again” starvation. Yes, it was self-imposed, but it was not intentional. The result? When I finally allowed myself to eat, EVERYTHING tasted like heaven, even the most mundane of foods. No matter how the food was prepared, whether or not it was trendy, that food was going in my mouth and filling out my scrawny frame. And yes, I could have chosen haute, trendy foods, but honestly, I was too hungry to care. I chose quantity over quality at that time. Now that I am sated – maybe even over-sated! – I am able to pick and choose. That is a privilege not everyone in the world has, and my gratitude is profound.

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