- Richard Foss
By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Writer
If you look at the way our regard for dining has changed from a mere matter of nutrition to a form of artistic expression, it’s hard to say that this isn’t a golden age. It’s not just that people are willing to spend more on their food, though they are. Right now you can get a $75 hamburger topped with caviar at Petrossian in Beverly Hills, or a $150 burger with shaved truffles, wagyu beef, and lobster tail at downtown’s Nick and Stef’s. These might have been put on the menu as gimmicks, but people are actually ordering them.
Novelties such as this aside, there has been an explosion of places that offer wildly experimental dining experiences, often at nosebleed prices. The French Laundry in Napa, Calif., where a meal can easily top $500 per person, mainstreamed culinary combinations that never existed in any culture. Many others have followed. The creativity is undeniable, and to some people it’s worth it.* If you have an esoteric meal that you will remember years later, a meal that changes the way you think about food, is that worth the $250 per person that Vespertine charges for dinner without wine? To some people the answer is yes, and they patrol the hot spots around the region looking for peak experiences.
More importantly, as a sign of our national evolution, in the past few decades food from cultures all over the world is being treated with respect. This is true at all price levels and in all communities, and it is breaking down barriers in society. When the foodie crowd hears of a great dining experience, they’ll venture into neighborhoods they’d usually avoid in order to get the bragging rights among their social group. Both in traditional and fusion form, at budget cafes and pricey hotspots, there is interest in cuisines that were previously obscure. Some items have mainstreamed to the point they’re now just another American food. 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.
Want further evidence of our fascination with food? I can tell you from personal experience that if you photographed your meal in a restaurant 20 years ago, 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 at it. Fast forward to now, when the moment 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 been a thing since Gourmet Magazine pioneered luscious food photography in the 1940s, but it has become a sport of the masses. I don’t even need to mention how food porn and the moving image have combined to create multiple TV channels and untold numbers of video streams about experiences near and far, but I will anyway just to remind people that 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.
The obsession, one might even call it a mania, for all things culinary has spread ever more widely. 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 a thing, and until recently it wasn’t. Farmer’s markets went from natural food enthusiast destinations to tourist attractions with live entertainment and food booths tucked between stalls doing a good business in arcane and beautiful produce. The fact that this could happen in an era when fewer and fewer people actually cook from scratch marks a trend that is almost counter-cultural; 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 like the Culinary Historians of Southern California are seeing new and younger members.
To sum it up, 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 almost frantic flight into obsessing about pleasure 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 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 brownshirts in the streets, or who attended Dada art shows in the new Bauhaus-style buildings, undoubtedly thought that sanity would return soon. 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. (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 restaurants and ethnic grocery stores you might even try to learn a bit more about the culture that is represented, because while their food is mainstreaming so are those people. They are our neighbors and citizens, too, and understanding them will be useful in the country we share. Go and learn, maybe check out some books on the topic, but at some point shut the books and turn off the computer. Re-engage 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.**
*I dined there in 2004, and it was worth it to me, but then again somebody else was paying. I still remember many details of the 21-course meal.
**If you want to have that good dinner on items I mentioned in this article, I recommend the following in our area: for pad Thai, Baramee in San Pedro is excellent. They’re at 354 W. 6th St., their menu is online at barameethai.com. Phone is (310) 521-9400. For Korean short ribs, try Kang Hodong Baekjeong, 1725 Carson St. in Torrance. The drive may be a bit longer than some other places, and you may wait a few minutes for a table, but it’s worth it. Their phone number is (310) 320-9678.