No bewilderment yet
Hunger. Until not so long ago having a meal was a far more important consideration than how to prepare it. Actual cooking, in the culinary term of the word, was done for –not by, of course – the happy few. Ordinary folk plugged away, burning off calories that would not be replaced with a hearty meal. Or with a meal. The list of affordable things to cook with was too short to be considered even a list. Ingredients were either eaten raw or mercilessly boiled. Offal meat and ugly fish sometimes ended up in a stew or soup, transforming it in a feast.
Ingredients are not an issue when you’re hungry. And empty belly doesn’t refuse soup because an ingredient lacks. Ending a meal saying you actually enjoyed it was only used as a macabre way of joking. Scarcity alternated with opulence, and although they say that hunger is the best cook, a single crop diet needed more than a chef. To serve cabbage all winter long asks for a cunning plan. And hunger. Whether eaten raw, roasted or boiled, cabbage tends to get on one’s nerve after a week or so. And furthermore, those appointed to prepare food, had to endure the scorn with very little to justify the monotony. “You’ll never be a big boy” simply sounded too ominous – the chances of survival were dim even with eating cauliflower every day.
Fumes of Negroni
A financial investor I met in a cocktail bar in a far East compared what he did with the work of cooks in ancient times. Transforming scarse goods into something more than the sum.
More money in his case, a palatable meal for the cooks. The bigger the initial investment, the greater the yield. For the investor money makes money, for the cook more ingredients make a feast. Inventiveness is accepted by people who can afford it, people that won’t be poor losing some money or hungry when the food spoils.
Learning from mistakes
Ordering a second Negroni cocktail he stated that waste generated great dishes, as great losses were no more than unpleasant teachings. You have to boil a swan to know it tastes awful. Clients who lost a fortune learned a valuable lesson. That is how it goes, he assured me. After two Negroni cocktails I kind of lost what he was on about and by three he lost the last bit of his modesty. He then ordered two pretty prostitutes and walked of. That must have been how the pauper felt when he saw the lord eating his way through a copious meal, his hunger pangs amplified by mouth water.
When more ingredients became affordable, the research for equilibrium and taste started. Local cuisines originated with trial and error. Eating many mistakes but never forgetting what lay back: hunger. Geography and climate much more than inventiveness and creativity give rise to what would become typical for a region or city. By having the same products, year after year, even hungry people knew them all too well, and learned how to give them a trace of interest. In many occasions people grew so used to certain ignoble ingredients that they started to foster them, sometimes even taking pride in having them on their diet. Nicknames as Onion-eaters, Offal-people, Eaters of raw meat or Cauliflower-folk can be found all around the globe. Some went so far as to exalt this doubtful behavior, using the consumption of particular ingredients to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world.
Trouble in paradise
With the basis for local cuisine laid out, variations popped up. Sometimes out of curiosity, usually out of mere negligence and ineptitude, changes came forth. Not the great and successful ones we all know, such as forgetting to bake dough and inventing yeast or leaving grape juice in a jar and turning it in wine. No, minor actions such as mistaken salt for sugar, forgetting to switch the oven off or adding some old bread, just not having to throw it away. No, rather putting in an ingredient simply because it was not there, or adding an ingredient, simply because it was there. The cuisine shaped up and pleased the palate. New generations grew up with food that was cooked to taste good as well as nurture. Hunger was no more.
A new direction
They decided that the palace kitchen was to produce artistic food, using techniques that required training, ingredients that were forbidden or extremely hard to obtain and dishes were given pathetic deceptive names. Chefs’ bruised heads were covered with a toque, tubers removed from their cavities and then -men and tubers – sent back to the kitchen. Recurring stories of noblemen pissing in poor people’s cooking pots is probably unrelated. With hunger out of the way their task was to keep the gap between popular and elite cooking as wide as possible. The two went along well, mainly because they lived separate lives and had no chance to quarrel.
A class is born
These indelible memories development a sense of affinity to a group, and as it goes with humans, distinct themselves from other groups. The inhabitants of the palaces leaned out of their window, confused and a trifle upset: the streets no longer stank to high heaven. And worse, the divine smell coming from their palaces no longer made poor passers-by stand still, living the illusion some of the aromas would materialize. Somewhere, in a moment of anger typical to people living in palaces, chefs were tortured with their own tools. A tormenter later told his friends he had rarely seen such a variety of instruments, and that he even felt a bit quirky using some of those utensils.
After the alienating experience of eating palace food, landing on known taste and flavour of the local cuisine must have felt liberating. Local food was lauded as traditional, pure, genuine, and in contrast with palace food, affordable. Well, basically as it was before, but now with attitude. A profiled image, a source of pride, charged with much more it ever contained. Most were happy to eat the same kind of food for the rest of their lives and complained when they couldn’t. Some populations more than others consider their local diet vital and irreplaceable. Others instead enjoy sampling and even take some of it back home. Some see it as a loss of culture, others as an enrichment, some protect, some uncover.
Thriving on hunger and confusion
The shrewd started selling books on how local food ought to be prepared, usually in a very arbitrary way. Discussions that followed resulted in more books and more confusion. In extreme cases local recipes were patented, afraid someone might roil the purity. As if working with a magic potion that when the wrong ingredient or the wrong dose is added, turns you in a toad. A hungry frustated toad.
Here comes the pundits
Confusion, created by self-proclaimed authorities, reigns, and even local people start doubting on how to prepare the food they have known and eaten all their lives. Just as in many other aspects of modern life rigidity and intolerance gained ascendancy, obstructing healthy change and turnover. The fervour and vehemence could not be more out of place than in the kitchen; more than petty and insular, this tendency is preposterous and confusing.
As if all the projections on local food did not bewilder enough, nutrition was brushed up. Although people no longer died of deprivation, nutritionist pundits saw it opportune to complicate people’s lives. These quacks claimed that whatever we were eating was wrong . And since every charlatan has his or her altar to maintain, every diet but theirs is noxious. Since humans have the tendency to believe in what they like, these frauds get away with most of what they propose and pretend. You are to blame for failure, they take the accidental success.
With the palace kitchen sacked and the local kitchen disrupted, science and swindlers sparring, confusion over food seems a logic result.
Confusion is the new hunger
People who are afraid tend to turn to strong leaders. A strong leader thus must keep people fearful. Confused people look for a beacon, someone to tell them what to eat. Agricultural markets thrive on confused masses on which to unleash crops and constituents. More than proposing they shove the product of the day – quinoa, almonds, pomegranates or cauliflowers – down your throat. Pick-pockets re-educated in diet experts need unhealthy people, preferably a trifle confused too. Confusion is, in other words, the new hunger.