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Pass the plate

Cuisine comfort in a wild world

Editor’s Note: This story was provided by a national syndicated news service and edited by TTV editorial staff.

Food has the power to change our minds. But can it change the world?

In the last few decades, food from cultures around the globe is finally being treated with respect it deserves. This is true at all price levels and in all communities, and it has the power to break down silos within society. Both in traditional and fusion form, at budget cafes and pricey hotspots, there is interest in cuisines that were previously obscure. Some items have become mainstream to the point where they’re now just lumped in as another American dish.

Twenty years ago, the average American had never tasted Pad Thai or Korean-style short ribs, and now you can get both in the frozen section at Costco. Neither is as good as you’d get at a real Thai or Korean restaurant, but the Costco meatballs aren’t as good as an Italian grandmother can make either.   

Twenty years ago, if you photographed your meal in a restaurant, the entire staff was alerted that a critic was in the house. Nobody else did that. I bought a small camera and a jacket with large pockets, but sometimes I was still caught. Fast forward to now: as soon as your plates arrive, at least one person at the table has a phone camera out. The shot is on the internet seconds later with a pithy comment.

“Food porn” has actually been a thing since Gourmet Magazine pioneered luscious food photography in the 1940s, but it has become a sport of the masses in the smart phone era. The term “celebrity culinary explorer” would have been so much gibberish only a decade or so ago. The fact that Anthony Bourdain’s death affected so many people so deeply shows how he and his endeavors touched both the self-selected elite and the masses.

For another example of the way food has changed in our minds, take a look at the bar. Classic cocktails went from drinks for old men to hipster accessories in an astonishingly short time, and new brands and flavors of the straight stuff proliferate. Beer became the new wine, and wine became a gold mine for boutique producers. Local draft cider is now a thing. Farmer’s markets went from natural food enthusiast destinations to tourist attractions with live entertainment and vendor booths.

The fact that this could happen in an era when fewer and fewer people actually cook from scratch marks a trend that feels almost countercultural. So does the rising interest in food history, both online and in person. Museums are scheduling culinary programs to woo foodies through their doors, and organizations of culinary historians that welcome amateurs are seeing an influx of curious younger members.

Today more than ever, we’re putting our creative energy, enthusiasm and intelligence into thinking about food. How could anything possibly be bad about that? As a food writer and food historian, I can’t see a problem—but as a citizen, I think I do. The obsessive interest looks a lot like a reaction to the strident, brutal, confrontational rhetoric that is all around us. Thoughtful, sensitive and aware people are so repelled by current events that they tune out and seek something else. They may focus on food, music, sports or some other passion, and that’s healthy if it’s really a respite from the daily grind and they reemerge invigorated.        

I worry that they won’t. The people who flocked to Berlin cabarets in the 1930s to get away from the brown shirts in the streets, or who attended Dada art shows in the new Bauhaus-style buildings, undoubtedly thought that sanity would soon return. The Romans who debated abstruse philosophy while Caligula declared himself a god were no doubt happy to ignore the crowned buffoon who was sinking deeper into madness. (And if anyone is casting a historical play about that era, I have a great idea for the costuming. It involves a wig in a color and style not found in nature.)

It’s unusual for me, a person who has put over three decades into the study of cuisine, to give this warning, but I have a platform so I must do it. Escapism has its dangers. I urge you to go out and explore the cuisines of the world and our country and our neighborhood, and teach yourself to recreate the items you like at home.

While you’re in those international restaurants and ethnic grocery stores, learn a bit more about the cultures represented there. It’s trendy to try food that’s someone else’s tradition, but don’t forget about the people behind the dishes. They are our neighbors and fellow citizens, and we need to understand them in this country we share. That’s what food has to offer. Go and learn, maybe check out some books on the topic, but at some point shut the books and turn off the computer. Reengage with the world outside, and put some effort into making it a better one. And after you do, reward yourself with a good dinner. You will have earned it.