“Our food is an assemblage not of nourishment only, but of meanings.”
One of the things that most fascinates me about the culinary arts is the way in which living material is first sacrificed, then transformed into something else that is both life-sustaining and vital in its own right. A living cow becomes a beef carcass, and every part of it becomes a dish that nourishes different tastes, philosophies, and cultures. It’s been said that cuisine is alchemy, and I believe it. But for me, it’s not so much about changing the ordinary into the extraordinary. The ingredients are already extraordinary. The alchemy is in recognizing that even as the ingredient appears to undergo a transformation, it also remains totally, fundamentally itself, simply yielding up the worth that it’s possessed all along.
In this blog, I want to mainly focus on those ingredients that people have forgotten or think of as worthless. Food culture has long appreciated the glorious elevation of a farm-fresh, heirloom carrot into a roasted and glazed gem drizzled with red-wine reduction, or of a choice cut of tuna plucked from the brine of the sea that morning and sliced into shining, semi-translucent cuts of sashimi. It’s true that these techniques of applying heat, knife, and so on transform the product to bring out the best in it. They’re a magic of their own sort, which I will linger over at points. But these things have also been in the public eye, on the public plate, and been well-digested by our culture by now. What about the carrot-tops and peelings? What about the fish head and its bones? These actually bear as much worth as the carrot picked at the peak of perfection or the $80 plate of toro tuna.
This is not only something that other cultures across the globe understand, but a principle which was firmly at the root of Western food culture since at least the Middle Ages. For instance, in medieval Europe French cuisine was considered to be the epitome of elegance in the West, but was also heavily invested in using its ingredients—including offal—wisely, wasting nothing. The alchemy is in the perspective as much as it is in the baptism of flame or the fine ministrations of the knife. These things together enable the ingredient to reveal its own unique value, but it must begin with our perspective.
It may seem an odd place to take this conversation, but the kind of alchemy I’m talking about might best be exemplified by a corpse resting on the seabed, transforming into pearls and coral. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the sprite Ariel offers consolation to a grieving Ferdinand, who believes that his father has drowned, by describing the death at sea as a kind of exchange of one kind of vitality for another:
…of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
This philosophy rings as true for human beings and the places they occupy in the world as it does for the ingredients—once living things themselves—that become our food. If we stop and take a second look at something, look at what it really is, we understand that nothing is without its own value and vitality. It’s always undergoing a “sea-change,” transforming and yet perhaps becoming more itself as its worth continues to unfold in new ways, both exquisite and surprising. We should remember this, whether we’re thinking of food, judging the people who eat it, or even judging our own worth.
This blog celebrates all the strange and wondrous foods that our world has to offer—especially those products that have become forgotten or despised. Part and parcel of this is encouraging respect for the whole plant or animal and minimizing waste—the bones, tongue, and liver of the cow are just as desirable as the loin, the beets greens as savory as the beets themselves. And finally, I want to destabilize certain boundaries our culture has set up to divide cuisines into “high-” and “low-brow” cuisines, “fusion” and “traditional.” Many dishes we consider fancy now were initially seen as “trash,” and vice-versa; although many cuisines pride themselves on being traditional, no tradition is truly free of other cultures’ influence and therefore of some kind of fusion, and so some dishes that would be scorned as “non-traditional” actually speak to more about a particular people than we’d want to admit. All of these things, for me, boil down to the simple idea of looking twice at a thing before you judge its nature and value.