Food and pleasure

It was no accident that the origin of agriculture was associated with the emergence of organized religion and the probably coterminous development of the arts of fermentation.


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Food and pleasure

(From Lionel Tiger's 'The Pursuit of Pleasure')

Society Was in Ferment but 3867 BC Was Still a Good Year for Burgundy

Something else may have been added at that formative time too. Booze. The anthropologists S. H. Katz and M. M. Voigt of the University of Pennsylvania have speculated that the development of agriculture was decisively stimulated by the discovery that when the treated and mashed seeds of grain lingered with liquid the mixture fermented to became beer. Despite the common suggestion that beer was first produced some 5,000 years ago, an earlier date of 8,000 to 10,000 years ago is suspected by Katz and Voigt. Some of the earliest pots of that period reveal the trace of beer. They surmise that this was such a desirable product that people made sure they had the grain with which to make it. They also speculate that the desirability of the liquid directly stimulated humans to cultivate grains that till then had been gathered in the wild. If agriculture was an emotional step backward for humans, moonshine eased the transition.

Women were principally responsible for this innovation. In pre-Columbian Peru women made the beer chichia by soaking some grain, chewing it to begin the fermentation process, and then returning it to the original pot. If we take seriously the general enthusiasm of contemporary people for alcohol, we can conjecture that those ancestors of ours would hesitate to stray too far from their stash of beer fixings, in contrast to those foragers who liked to move on. Perhaps alcohol was an unexpected ancient inducement to settle down. Virginia Badler of the University of Toronto has discovered traces of wine in fourth-millennium containers associated with the Sumerian traders of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. These containers were found in dwellings of some opulence – which suggests that then, as now, wine was associated with the good and satisfied life. My suspicion is that there will be future discoveries showing the presence of potable winelike beverages even earlier in our history; the beginnings of agriculture probably mark the onset of the wine trade. Our ancestors were physiologically much like us, and likely to respond as we do to strongish drink, which is one of our favorite pleasures. How many contemporary Americans – or English or Italians or Chileans or Australians or practically anyone else – would willingly move to a wholly "dry" jurisdiction?

Some major and very populous groups – Muslims, some Fundamentalists, some Hindus – have strong inhibitions about consuming alcohol. Often the prohibitions relate quite directly to one theological assertion or another. Believers disdain the fruit of fermentation because they accept that God wills them not to drink. Faith is the deciding factor. As the British wine scholar Hugh Johnson has noted, the Islamic restriction on alcohol had a theological origin rooted in particular problems of social disruption during the time Koranic lore was being established; evidently, a fracas in Medina led to Muhammad's instruction from the archangel Gabriel (with whom he had several interviews) to forbid both wine and gambling, which were the work of the devil. Drinking in certain other social groups, too, is an indulgence often associated with improper behavior. It appears to threaten the sense of controlled obedience that worthy believers try to maintain. At the same time, sizable numbers of people abstain from alcohol for reasons not necessarily related to religious authority. It has been estimated that some 40 percent of Americans are teetotalers. Many of these people may simply not like alcohol or enjoy the effect it has on their experience and behavior.

But if Katz and Voigt are correct, this did not pose a problem to our forebears. Perhaps then there wasn't (and to this day there isn't) a necessary connection between religious belief and strict temperance. The opposite may even be true. This is suggested by Hugh Johnson's comment that the word "divine" is related to "de vin" – of wine – and the fact that there is frequent use of wine in religious ceremonies or festivity. There is a consistent if sporadic religious commitment, at least by the Catholic church, to the grape, even though its mind-changing properties may affect behavior in potentially impious ways. A number of important liqueurs, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse, are produced by monks. It was the Franciscan missionary Fra Junipero Serra who introduced the grapevine to California around 1770; and the Christian Brothers still produce brandy there. Champagne was perfected by the Benedictine Dom Perignon. And admirers of the lusty Rhone wine Chateauneuf du Pape should thank for their enjoyment Pope John XXII, who evidently as a matter of some needy priority established vineyards near Avignon when it became politically necessary to relocate the papacy there for a while.

In Veritas, Vino

Obviously, wine plays a sacred role in various religious practices – most dramatically in the Holy Communion of Catholicism. (Johnson notes that white wine was used originally, to avoid the problem of garishly stained religious garments.) In various Jewish ceremonies and festivals, prayers marked by wine are in order – for example, during the Passover seder. Schnapps – whiskey or brandy, but anyway, a dark, strong liquor – was a common and I think typical feature of toasts and celebrations in my recently arrived immigrant family. Among Protestants as well as other groups, toasts with wine or stronger fare – such as fierce mao-tai in China, or vodka in Russia – are common. Particular religious festivals are often associated with alcoholic drinks, such as eggnog or grog or glug at Christmas.

This is not to suggest that any or all of the religious groups that use alcohol in one way or another intend to stimulate drunkenness, profligate expenditure, or some other imprudent or irresponsible behavior. But many religious authorities not only condone but also promote at least the modest use of alcohol in the context of legitimate and sometimes sacred occasions. This implies an understanding of the simple fact that people are likely to enjoy it in an acceptable manner. Alcohol in small amounts invariably provides some pleasure to virtually everyone and stimulates a sense of convivial comfort with fellow consumers. At the very least, the association of alcohol with religious celebration reveals the good "marketing" sense of the supervisors of religious groups. They have it within their grasp precisely to decide what is acceptable and what is not. In general, they have decided to allow alcohol.

Were it true that religion is the opium of the people, as Karl Marx announced, then alcohol is the neo-opiate at the core of many religions. Of course, it is not so simple, since religious ardor has a drastically more serious point and broader mandate than promoting a feel-good enthusiasm at ritual meetings. But one step at a time; a good time is had by all at a modest local gathering fueled by a touch of alcohol. It seems to offer a congenial overall setting for more serious observances. It is also an implicit reassurance that the system of dos and don'ts that religions invariably promote is neither dully heartless nor wholly opposed to pleasure. Ethanol helps the clenched fist open to God.

The buzz of booze is a plus. Sacred affairs and normal daily life come into agreeable contact across the cortical tissue when we are stimulated into affability and comfort by flavored alcohol – the ancient liquid friend. From infancy on, human beings are uncertain about unfamiliar people. But as I have noted, usually the first firm drink at the cocktail party suffuses the victim of personal uncertainty with some confidence that he or she is at least an adequate person, able to survive this sudden tournament of strangers. Human beings no longer live in communities of ninety souls. A major job requirement in industrial communities is that it is often necessary to confront strangers. This is why alcohol has often been so important in business – the two-martini lunch was principally about fear. Not license. Not pleasure. But alcohol seemed to help. Probably it did for a time, whenever there were strangers on the horizon. But once it became quotidian, day-in-day-out, no. Enter the alcoholic, stage right and left. And this is why Arthur Miller's surgically revealing play about his character's death would have been trivial had Willy Loman been a drinker, not a salesman.

God, This Is a Tasty Riesling!

Even the gods may join in. I've described how before a feast or funeral or wedding or installation of a chief or just a bash, West Africans will pour a libation of gin or other liquor into the earth, for the ancestors (who are also gods) to enjoy. Then they are part of the party. This is less the worship of ancestors than their inclusion. The liquor helps complete the circle. In its sudden warm way, alcohol expands the comfort zone. The party now includes the dead and the future. The members of the party can embrace the convivial event confidently and with a sense that the social world, even the heavens, are populated with friends. When a West African baby is "outdoored" – brought outside the house for the first time and hence into the wider community – several drops of water and several of liquor are touched to the infant's tongue, to instruct it early about this evidently important difference. The water of our vastly ancient aquatic origin. The alcohol of our brand-new settled farmer's still.

Small, even introductory amounts of alcohol appear to possess the power to re-create the affable, familiar certainties of the meal around the fire at the mouth of the cave. It is hardly surprising that some religious institutions benefit from this property. It is probably also no accident that the major organized religions originated around the turbulent period of history in which people began to depend on animals for work and for predictable food, and on foods they cultivated and ate – some of which they fermented in a multitude of ways and then drank! Agriculture was and is a dif6cult way of life – which is one reason people leave it and stream to what are often dauntingly unpromising cities, where even catch-as- catch-can life appears to be more appealing than farming. This begins to explain why barely 3 percent of Americans grow all the food for the USA and much for other countries besides. Though there are other, rather heavy political reasons – for example, the disproportionate power of rural voters – I suspect it is also an underlying and basic reason why the rich societies in Europe, North America, and Japan so extravagantly and peculiarly subsidize their farmers. They have to, because otherwise people wouldn't farm.

It was no accident that the origin of agriculture was associated with the emergence of organized religion and the probably coterminous development of the arts of fermentation. Something had to be done to lighten the present and future of the lives of farmers. Booze helped. But when the average American, Briton, and Belgian has to drive over forty-five miles back and forth to work each day, the old arcadian inebriation is no longer Falstaffian and appealing. The car is the enemy of the cocktail. The pleasure of release, at home in the farmhouse, from the constraints of long growing seasons and the hazards of nature is replaced by terror of the sound of screaming rubber and collapsing metal. To this day, there remains an association between spirits, especially wine, and home. It appears that 75 percent of wine in the United States is consumed in homes, and of those occasions when it is, 82 percent center on sharing food.

Yesterday, Six Hundred People Dropped By for Dinner

When I was a college student I worked as a kitchen helper – dishwasher, actually – at a construction camp in Frobisher Bay in the Canadian Arctic, where the Distant Early Warning radar line was being built. In the social assembly of the dining area, the chef was the ardent, temperamental master with the power of employment over people and a firm grip on the mood and rhythm of the kitchen, to say nothing of its product. All three individuals who had the post during the two summers I worked there exhibited a quantum difference from anyone else in the kitchen in their sense of self and their willingness to define the lives of others. Of course, this was partly a show of the industrial-relations kind, partly simply their jobs, partly idiosyncratic, and partly the romanticization of the Leader, the Chief, the Chef.

There was also the huge practical matter that this man was responsible for ordering well in advance appropriate and sufficient food, which was flown in at great expense from lower Canada and then had to be converted into some eighteen hundred meals a day acceptable to a crowd of hardworking and demanding individuals marooned in this outpost for at least six months at a time. For entertainment, movies were shown twice a week at the United States Air Force base, which was the core of the operation. There was a weekly softball game for those who could tolerate the battalions of mosquitoes that took advantage of the two warmish months of summer. There was no alcohol. While there were some Eskimo families in the area, a detachment of Mounties enforced a firmly announced ban on fraternization.

But there was food, which played a more salient, dramatic, and even poignant role than in the average factory cafeteria. These were men placed in a demanding situation in order to earn exceptionally large sums of money. In return they placed commensurate demands on the kitchen. They came to expect food that suited their newly acquired income status. This was exaggerated by what was presumably an emotional neediness produced by the isolation, the unusually bleak social circumstances, and the fact that they were financial prisoners of the camp. Therefore the dining room was no dainty tearoom. It was an aromatic, turbulent arena. The contract arrangements under which the DEW line was being built took account of the fact that no one had built such structures in the Arctic before so there were many unknowns. Hence the deal was cost-plus – that remarkable situation in which the more money the contractor and associates spend, the more profit they retain. Thus the kitchen was under little obligation to be thrifty – which, paradoxically, increased the pressure under which it labored. What, only one kind of roast and no shellfish and no steak for lunch? No meringue pie, only dreary fruit tart? Spaghetti with no big meatballs? After all, cost-plus. Everyone seemed to arrive at the same time and the line had to be served rapidly and fully. Though we dishwashers were not directly concerned with the clientele, it was also clear, since we were in the kitchen, how firmly the chef had to coerce not only his staff but also the food.

It is interesting to watch cooking for six hundred. It is rather like the reverse of archaeology. You see the various layers of taste and structure added to the food as it is prepared and then cooked, and it becomes clearer – the quantities are so graphic – how the tastes and textures of food are taken apart by the diner, even if he doesn't specifically or even generally understand the composition of what is being eaten. It is a lively, taut business in which time, taste, heat, texture, and appearance are always in a close connection that the cook must watch like the mugger his mark. It is fast-moving predictive chemistry, because the cook is supposed to know the outcome, which is what the recipe is for. But the recipe is not enough, because, of course, the ingredients are still forms of life – they are more or less fresh, too watery, too grainy, the fish is unduly fragrant, the beef has had too much exercise, the vegetables have relapsed into tasteless cells, the oven has a dead spot in the right corner. Cooking for six hundred is a corrida with many small bulls and an exigent audience. The chef now has a few hours in which to defuse the problems. Unlike the conductor, who achieves his music immediately, the orchestra of food is on two-hour delay. And the chef must taste it in advance, before it is ready.

Building a Library of Tastes

p>Good cooking involves the solution to a mouth-puzzle. This is the essence of the food passion: how to create or re-create that special sense of a particular food imagined or once tasted – for example, the Salzburger Nockerl served at a lush hotel at which I had lunch after visiting the Max Planck Institute in Sieweisen in Bavaria, or the shrimp remoulade at Galatoire's in New Orleans, or the garlic potatoes at Nick's Diner on Ilfield Road in London in the late sixties.

Had Beethoven been deaf from birth, he could not have thought his music through. Cooks must consume as skilfully and knowingly as they produce. Even if they learn from and enjoy reading cookbooks – which I do, having been captured first by the books of Elizabeth David – they nevertheless must have tastes in mind and experience to fit to the emerging story on the page. And this does not happen in a cultural vacuum. Presumably, the best stake out a place in whichever tradition of cooking they locate themselves. The Renaissance French did not think good taste in food was inherited, as were courage and the right to bear arms. It required a setting for its exercise.

Making good food involves tasting it intelligently, again understanding its immediate sensory archaeology. As part of some research in I990 on the Four Seasons hotel group, I interviewed Bruno Louhet, the wonderfully passionate chef of the Four Seasons restaurant at the Inn on the Park Hotel in London. At twenty-eight, he had already gathered the first Michelin star for a London hotel restaurant, and each week created a novel menu surprise that neither he nor his staff could recite until he began inventing it around three-thirty on Monday afternoon. But the tastes and the invention came from his mother and the food of his youth in rural France. He remembered well, and presumably watched, and the heat and range of his interest kept the memory of long-ago food vivacious.

The food epiphanies to which I've briefly referred, and mercifully many more, are the opposite of my stations of the cross. Chefs create them, and while there is no doubt some trick and routine and fakery to all of it, finally the chef is confronted by his small family, the order for a table of six regular customers, just himself, or six hundred Arctic workers in Frobisher Bay. The taste and meaning must measure up. There was no question that the chef in our Arctic kitchen forcefully commanded the isthmus between emotionally needy hunger and the accumulated lore and art of mass catering. Finally, the meal was his aria, even though there was a supporting chorus and noisy orchestra. His audience was of individuals, too. Even if hundreds ate the same food, each mouth had its own reception for the general product. As Brian McNally, who has operated some conspicuous "hot" restaurants in New York City, has said, restaurants "involve engaging in an intimate act in a public place."

Just so. Eating involves placing rather complex substances into a bodily orifice, changing their state, and incorporating them into the body – surprisingly intimate, considering all the matters of manners that arise: don't slurp, don't burp, don't chew noisily, or do, depending on where you are. It is no surprise why this is a matter fraught with emotionality and symbolism. Even fast-food restaurants must compensate for their bureaucratized cuisine – no cooks there, just teenagers with checklists – with an elaborate array of colorful and presumably evocative symbols: the famed arches, a southern colonel, Roy Rogers, Burger Kings and Dairy Queens. As Calvin Trillin has despairingly put it, many restaurants are "themed." Serving essentially industrialized food in environments made redolent with clear meanings, they use architectural spice, however simple, to conceal a prosaic menu. The point, obviously, is to augment the potential coldness of the experience with an apparatus of emotionality that satisfies extranutritional needs and punctuates dining time with colorful experience.

I return in my mind to a hotel restaurant I was urged to visit in rural Japan while writing on Japanese food. The chef had trained in France and produced outstanding and interesting Franco-Japanese food displayed with unusual artfulness. The food was indeed interesting and inventive, if also prodigiously expensive. But most arresting and even alarming about the entire experience was the chef's chef d'oeuvre. It was a model in pastry and icing about five feet high enclosed in a glass case at the entrance to the restaurant, a replica of the Church of Saint Sulpice in Montmartre in Paris. (That's the white one, perched on the hill, with improbable minarets; it looks more like a massive dream-state visitor from another planet than a church in urban France). Here was a wholly bizarre confectionery echo, in flour and sugar, of an already improbable architectural object. Thus was the marriage of two culinary cultures celebrated. The ardor and ambition of the cook had been preserved in this quite remarkable and unexpected form and the spectacle was justifiably famous. The model was quite perfect – controlled insanity – and it was a reminder in its intensity of the chef's station at five minutes to noon and five minutes to six PM in the kitchen at Frobisher Bay.

It's Not Negotiable

Obviously, all practitioners of the arts that please the senses are to some degree committed to an aggressive understanding of sensory physiology and psychology. But painters, sculptors, and musicians need not always please – they may shock, revolt, trouble, abuse, irritate. They may shout or drum or stamp their feet at their audience. They may assault the audience's certainties and excite their fears and ridicule their deepest morality. The dramatist may unhinge their expectations of life by the suddenly plausible behavior of outrageous or despicable characters.

But the chef, or the winemaker, or the confectioner – they must please. Otherwise, in any kind of open market they will not survive. The mouth is less tolerant than the brain or whichever organ of the body assesses politicians. To prosper where there is choice, the cook must yield up foods that taste good and seem healthy – unless his product is supposed to be punishment, as in prisons or some hospitals, or in the schools for children of affluent families in nineteenth-century England. There the deliberate goal is to permit no pleasure. The absence of it certifies the guilt or lowliness or poverty of the hapless diner.

Once again, pleasure becomes a coin of the realm, if only in negative sense. From one report , even the traditional last meal of a prisoner condemned to die in the gas chamber of San Quentin in California must be consumed in a bare room containing only a toilet, and while the diner is standing, holding his tray. In addition, because of regulations governing pre-executions, the individual may wear only underpants and socklike footwear. Providing the last meal – up to fifty dollars is allotted – is presumably a form of compassionate gesture. But the conditions under which it is consumed emphasize the punitive nature of food in this extreme and dramatic situation. It is also pertinent that the individual in the episode described – who was reprieved at the last hour – had requested that his fifty dollars be used to provide ice cream to other death row inmates. Food as emotional currency. This was refused by the authorities. The doomed convict instead ordered full-dress pizza for one.

And here we have the other side of the family dinner, the bistro lunch, the lovers' duet dinner of warm assertion. In between these extremes is the primary issue, of food, survival, and the avoidance of hunger, which is satisfying enough in itself.

What unites these approaches to food is the volatile element of pleasure that food provides to the central nervous system and the bubbling, ramified pleasure it provides within the central social system. A number of times a day, people have the opportunity to turn necessity into virtue, to convert nourishment into an aesthetically interesting intimate drama, to use the instruments of taste and smell as skilfully as musicians use their ears. It is a remarkable luxury. There is always something new and arresting and traditional and tasty stewing on the stove. You can smell it from here.

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