Edible Schizophrenia

We have a schizophrenic relationship with food. Food can be a profession, a passion, a daily source of joy; it can also be a way to make ends meet, a necessary evil, and a daily source of stress. What and how we eat affects our health, how we feel, and how we feel about ourselves. While food comes in many forms and can be prepared in limitless ways, our beliefs about what even constitutes food is shaped by our environment, culture, and personal ethics.

Why all the fuss about food? Simply put: with limited exceptions, we need to eat every day. The vast majority of us eat several, regular meals a day, and when we don’t, it’s because we can’t or consciously choose not to (and in those cases, food is significant in its absence). Like it or not, we’ve got to deal with it, and so we tend to make a big deal out of it.

Some might ask, “so what?” or “who cares?” To those, I would say, “screw you, this stuff is important.” Those same people might reply, “fine, but who the hell are you, anyway?” I thought you’d never ask.

In December 2011, I left a job as a line cook at Washington, DC’s Blue Duck Tavern. Before that, I attended culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD. And before that, I worked in politics — eight years for two U.S. Senators, and two years at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I don’t know whether that makes me a cook who used to work in politics, a government employee who learned to cook, or just a guy who made some questionable career decisions. Whatever I am, it’s because at some point, I decided that food is important enough that I wanted to make it — cooking it, eating it, thinking and writing about it — the focus of my time and energy.

I am not going to tell you that I always had a passion for cooking or that my earliest food memory was forming meatballs with my grandmother when I was three. In fact, for most of my childhood, I disliked more kinds of food than I liked, and I didn’t weigh 100 pounds until I was in high school. I watched my dad cook — he enjoys cooking and is pretty good at it — but never really cooked with him (he hates being helped). And partly because I grew up on an island whose seasonal economy meant its handful of restaurants were closed eight months out of the year, I never spent much time around anything that could be called “fine dining.”

As a result, until I graduated college and had to really fend for myself for the first time, I didn’t think of food as anything other than a way to fill up my stomach. If it happened to be good, all the better.

After college, the realities of living on a budget and having to provide for myself increasingly steered me toward the kitchen, and I figured that if I was going to cook, I might as well figure out how to make stuff I liked. Not having the slightest grasp of the fundamentals of cooking, I was strictly a recipe guy, scouring the internet and the few cookbooks I owned for familiar dishes: lasagna, pork chops, barbecued chicken, spaghetti sauce, and other staples of my gastronomic repertoire to that point in my life.

I was a novice, and my ingredients came mostly from a tiny, poorly stocked grocery store near my house. Nevertheless, it began to dawn on me: food, when prepared thoughtfully with fresh ingredients, tastes good. I simultaneously discovered, thanks to efficiencies of scale and the presence of culinarily challenged roommates, that such meals were even more enjoyable when shared with other people.

Over the next decade, as I continued to struggle with my professional trajectory, my non-working hours (and many working ones) were increasingly devoted to thinking about, preparing, and consuming good food. As a hobby, it was impossibly fun. As an intellectual exercise — a self-imposed challenge to figure out how to make a variety of different dishes the right way — it was stimulating, with every new discovery only serving to fuel an unquenchable thirst for greater knowledge. And as an existential aspiration — the idea of being a chef — it was cool.

Somewhere along the way, I hit a breaking point, and the balance between my love of food and my lifelong relationship with rational thought tipped in favor of the former, and I left my political career to attend culinary school. That experience, along with my brief stint at Blue Duck Tavern, cannot be adequately described in less than several volumes (I’m working on that), so it suffices to say that I saw a lot and I learned a lot — about the finer points of cooking, but also enough about the lifestyle and demands of the profession to know it wasn’t for me.

The dust having settled somewhat from this upheaval, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that I am now a decent cook. I have a deeper and more intuitive sense about how to prepare food than I did before; I picked up some tricks and techniques by working with the pros; and I think I cook food that tastes and looks good. But I am not, and never will be, Thomas Keller, Michel Richard, John Melfi, or even half of the line cooks at Blue Duck, and I have friends and family whose natural talent for cooking — if not their experience — equals or exceeds my own.

I am also not an authority on food, nor do I think people do or should care about what I think about the subject, per se. I only believe that the various facets of my relationship with food over time — as a disinterested bystander, devoted hobbyist, policy-maker, professional cook, and always enthusiastic diner — are relatable, and might encourage people to think more and harder about their own relationships with food, as well as about what it means every time they cook and eat a meal with friends or family, go out to a nice restaurant, grab a burger on the go, or consciously forgo a meal.

The significance of food is broad, but it’s also deep. Every morsel of food ever eaten came from somewhere and was eaten by someone, however long a path it traveled along the way. Food piques our interest at a molecular level (there’s scarcely a type of food whose nutritional content we haven’t dissected) and as a global policy challenge, where the objective is to ensure that all people have access to the amounts and kinds of foods they need to live long and healthy lives.

If you’re still reading, you definitely love to eat, probably love to cook, and are interested enough in the broader implications of food to engage in either of the first two pursuits thoughtfully. In other words, you agree that food’s important — in all the crazy ways we make it important — and, hopefully, you’ll keep reading.

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