Edible Language

Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine (April 2010).

A long long time ago, in a land far far away, I ran a gallery that had a philosophy of integrating art and life. Gaya (in Bali) includes a restaurant and, after I left, added a gelateria. I love gelato, mostly because it comes in hazelnut. “Ice cream” doesn’t come in hazelnut. It comes in double-caramel-fudge marshmallow rocky road, chunky monkey, or whatever flavor can stuff the most chocolate, nuts, and other goodies into an ice cream bucket. The more explosions, the better the ice cream. Like a Hollywood movie.

On most days I’ll take Taxi Driver over Tarkovksy’s two-hour landscape pans, and, similarly, I’ll usually take a Brooklyn pizza over its poor Italian beta version (do I dare wax poetic about the lasagna pizza at Broadway and North 7th, run by Mexicans, a full lasagna on top of a pizza, or would that kill what little is left of my credibility?) But ice cream’s not pizza. There’s something about the purity of a hazelnut gelato that trumps the multidimensional density-whorls of New York Super Fudge Chunk.

I went to Gaya last week, excited to get a pure, perfect, hazelnut gelato, ready to hit the pause button on my day. (Like Andrei Rublev, their marketing materials say, “Don’t forget, gelato is slow food.”) And was told no hazelnut. I’ll come tomorrow, I said. None tomorrow either, they said. The horror, the horror, I said. They couldn’t import the right hazelnuts, they said. Hazelnuts, sure, they’re everywhere. They grow on trees, they said. But the right hazelnuts are only from Italy. And not just Italy, they must be Piedmont hazelnuts cultivated from either Asti or Cuneo province. Hazelnuts from Umbria or the area between Lazio and Campania, for example, are good for pastries, but inappropriate for gelato. So Gaya Gelato had no hazelnut. Plenty of other flavors, a divine chocolate, for example, but not what I wanted.

From a business perspective, there’s exactly one gelateria in the world that can get away with not serving hazelnut: Hugo’s in Bologna. For everyone else, not serving hazelnut because of disapproval over the province of provenance is, frankly, nuts.

But the sheer nuttiness of it is a reminder that food is deeply non-rational. Sure, Gaya could explain by talking about image, reputation, long-term growth, etc., but at its core “wrong province” is not a business decision. It’s an artistic one.

Okay, so I’m cynical. I see nuts, I think art. You write about anything, you get cynical about it. That’s how it works.

But at this nutty end of the spectrum, food truly is an art form. One that is even more deeply subjective than the others. We meet our food muse while we’re still in utero. When you talk about food, you talk about your mother. By comparison, the muses for visual art, music, poetry, and literature are latecomers who introduce themselves largely during our teenage years. The first real meal I ever served my son was from the Pakistani Tea House, the day his pediatrician told me to forget special baby meals, just put whatever I eat into the blender and share. I imagine he’ll have a soft spot for Lamb Saag for the rest of his life, and always consider the Indian version to be just a little bit off. Sort of like the way Polish cooking will, to me, always taste like a disaster. Because my childhood food in Slovakia was similar enough to fit in the same “genre,” but influenced enough by Hungarian spices that the bland Polish versions seem like they were prepared in a padded room by a handicapped cook with a swollen tongue. All the flavors are so round, so lacking in edge—I can feel my mouth-IQ drop just by thinking about bigos popularny.

Art is a great machine sucking in reality and excreting it back to us in bite-sized chunks. As a society, art is our digestive process. And so food has been a natural subject for it from the time of the earliest cave paintings to, well, to almost any artist one can name—it’s no coincidence, after all, that Leonardo da Vinci is an anagram of Vindaloo and Rice, or that Munch, Bacon and Poussin are all painters’ names—think Rembrandt’s The Pancake Woman and Feast of Belshazzar, Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Hieronymous Bosch’s (and Bruegel’s) Gluttony, Cezanne’s Bread and Eggs, Manet’s Picnic, Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, and so on. The Last Supper might well be the most famous painting of all time, at least judging by the dozens of artists cranking out simulacra of it here in Indonesia. And then, of course, there are Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. For a fuller list, or if you’re wondering what Bruegel’s peasants are eating, or why Chardin decorated a brioche with an orange blossom, pick up a copy of Food in Painting: From the Renaissance to the Present, by Kenneth Bendiner.

On the silver screen, there are countless foodie movies, from the struggle for survival to sensual satisfaction, from Chaplin eating his boot laces as spaghetti in The Gold Rush to Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover, where the cook as artist is balanced against the thief as ignorant glutton imagining himself a gourmet, and even the color of the food has associative value, linking black caviar and truffles back to death, cannibalism and the chaotic dissolution of order that is the end of the meal. The 1987 movie, Babette’s Feast, started a new genre of chef-as-hero food movie. In Eat Drink Man Woman, it took Ang Lee over 18 hours to get the food on the table for the first day’s shoot, including over one hundred dishes, Big Night climaxed with thirty 11-kilo kettle drum timpano pasta pies, Tom Jones shows food as foreplay, and La Grande Bouffee as death, debauch, and self-destruction. Even operas have joined the table: Sergei Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or.

But given that food is a rather important part of life, ranking in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs immediately behind coffee, the sheer volume of art about food is hardly surprising. It’s metaphoric possibilities are bottomless.

Love? From Tampopo’s egg-yolk scene to Dali’s Cannibalism in Autumn, a portrait of a couple fusing together in a kiss, devouring each other, forks and all, love and food have always mixed, whether you’re a romantic (Like Water for Chocolate) or into pushing the extremes of taste and sensuality (In The Realm of the Senses). What’s love, after all, without a good 69 from time to time?

Religion? When Christians want to commune with Jesus, they eat him. When Balinese Hindus make offerings, they carry food to the temple on their heads. Muslims have an entire month devoted to specialized rules about eating. Jews use foods like bitter herbs to help tell the story of Exodus for Passover.

Julia Roberts recently filmed a movie in Bali called “Eat, Pray, Love.” Most people here refer to it as “Eat, Sleep, Shit.” Even in parody, food is food, a pillar of life, the stuff you put in your mouth. “Eat” doesn’t need to be changed: it already stretches from low to high, its meaning is the most unstable. We describe the finer things in life as being “tasteful” and yet taste is the least intersubjective of all descriptions, its adjectives sometimes nearly meaningless. We may all agree that salt is salty and sugar is sweet, but give me minestrone and chances are I’ll say it’s too salty, or put a spoon of sugar into that all-important coffee and I’ll gag from the sweetness. Meanwhile the Italian on my left is dumping a salt mine into her minestrone and the Indonesian on my right is shoveling sugar into his coffee. Or the worst possible culinary decision, almost enough to indict a whole culture: the American preference for mixing the two by putting salt into their chocolate.

It’s generally considered trite to equate food with culture, but having lived in a dozen countries I’m beginning to wonder, reverting to the state of an untraveled, uncultured ignoramus that thinks Japan equals sushi, that culture equals food plus language. The rest is salad dressing. Watch the skill of a true sushi chef, the precise ritual movements combined with the rawness of the fish, and suddenly Japan = sushi doesn’t seem so reductive anymore. The movies Soul Food and Goodfellas would seem to agree. Or look at the difference between the Italian and French ideals of food—the former are obsessed with achieving a Platonic ideal of purity in their ingredients, a tomato sauce that captures the true tomato taste of the one mythical tomato growing on the one true hill of their mom’s home town; while the latter seek out the most complex sauces achieved by an almost alchemical process that requires the rarest unicorn blood mixed with peasant potatoes and at least six mystery ingredients sourced from somewhere beyond Byzantium.

Even in the most intense globalization, the Polish man in New York City will probably prefer his bigos popularny and the Pakistani woman will eat out at the Pakistani Tea House. They’ll go and try each other’s food, and might even pick up an idea here or there for their own home cooking, but it took my own mother decades in Canada to drop the heavy Slovak food in favor of international fusion-style stir fry. Her cooking changed at the exact same pace as her ethnic identity. Others maintain it (food, ethnicity, etc.) across generations and passports, holding on to it in their new countries as a sort of prosthesis of origin.

I say prosthesis because it’s an artifact. This April, the International Journal of Obesity published a Cornell University study of 52 paintings of the Biblical Last Supper made over the last thousand years. It found that over this period the size of the main meals in the paintings has gradually grown by 69% relative to the size of the heads of Jesus and the disciples, plate size increased by 66%, and the loaves of bread by 23%. Not only does art imitate life, but our roots grow out of our brains, our past out of our present. I thought I loved Slovak food until I went to a Slovak restaurant a few months ago that prided itself on using authentic traditional cooking methods (i.e., buckets of lard). I felt ill for three days and remembered Derrida’s line that “I have but one language—yet that language is not mine.”

Watch someone eat—how they eat, what they eat, who eats with whom, the order in which they order—and you’ll learn about who they are. When I lived in Japan and went out to eat with my co-workers, I was labeled as “selfish” if I ordered a different dish from everyone else. In World War II, the Nazis caught American spies by watching them cut their steak into little cubes and then eat with their forks in their right hands. In Bali, it took me years to become accustomed to friends taking their meals and eating them alone, in a corner, by themselves, food as a private bodily function, something to be hidden and accomplished quickly in a culture where sharing is mandatory.

Some of these food rituals are being washed out. In a typical irony of globalization, I’m often the only one at a roadside stall eating with his fingers these days, while the Balinese customers use western silverware (or, rather, aluminumware). When I was still running the gallery, an Italian artist, a “maestro,” saw me eating and complained to the gallery owner that it was unacceptable that his gallery director would eat with his hands, even in Bali. I pointed out that according to Bartolomeo Scappi’s (personal chef to Pope Pius V) five-volume comprehensive review of Italian cooking published in 1570, Opera dell’arte del cucinare, the reason behind the simplicity of Italian spaghetti sauces was precisely because the rule at the time—truly conservative etiquette—was that spaghetti must be eaten with one’s hands. Time had kept the thin sauces, but changed the ritual.

We are what we eat. And what most of us are is a fragmented mix of authentic and inauthentic, with no way of resolving the ambiguity between the two, no measure of authenticity except the most circular, hermeneutic hints revealed to us at each new moment by the things we create and consume, by our food and our art.

I’ll take that lasagna pizza now, with hazelnut gelato for dessert. Only Piedmont nuts, please.

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