04 October 2006

What's So Wonderful About Fancy Food?

I don't know when I started feeling this way, but I love to hear all the latest food news about restaurants in my town and even others farther away. When people go to interesting places, I'm as curious about what and how they ate as I am in the other things they did there. When I go on a trip, I remember it better if I keep a record of what we ate.

It is in part about scents anchoring memories: Dining of course involves the nose and tongue, the chief olfactory organs. Then there's the wonderful world of flavor, with its myriad combinations done and never before done (my happiest summer discovery was a salad of watermelon, feta, avocado, and vinaigrette, those basic notes of sweet and tart all balanced in entirely new proportions). In The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I've just begun reading, Michael Pollan says our desire for new foods has increased our brain size, which has in turn incited us to experiment with more foods and preparations. We have grown a big brain so we can not just eat but eat well.

In my world, food options are plentiful and rich. We happen to live comfortably enough to shop at Whole Foods once a week for our meats and fish. I have a long list of best places to find things by price and quality filed away in my head when I set about my weekly errands. (Vitamin Cottage for veggies, nuts, and flours - everything's fresh, organic, and there are just a few things too outrageously priced to buy there, like mushrooms. Lucky's for very good $5.99/pound coffee, and King Soopers for orange juice and some produce and pantry staples, cereals and canned things. We get our two weekly gallons of hormone-free local cows' milk delivered every Thursday morning, which makes shopping much easier -- and the milk is excellent. And the occasional trip to the farmer's market or India's Market or the Asian Deli for something new and different.)

One of the highlights of our life together has always been dining out. It was something we did when we became friends, hanging out with our pals in cafes after school and in the summer. We went out as students, and when we first got married, went on the big European trip, and came home and settled into life in San Francisco, for a while, anyway.

I was lucky in the places we happened to live, too. In Berkeley we lived around the corner from Chez Panisse and exactly one block from Peet's, on the Northside. It was lovely. Our roommate had gotten this lady to rent out her house five blocks from the campus and it was in a location that just got better and better while we lived there. We could see the Coop (pronounced Co-op) and the traffic on Shattuck but it was relatively quiet on our corner. I frequented Peet's and the little Juice Bar Collective for amazing lunches. Now the neighborhood is known as Berkeley's "gourmet ghetto."

While we lived there, I worked for a guy who had his psychoanalysis practice on a boat in the Berkeley Marina. (He had really low overhead and got to write off a lot of his boat expenses.) I was transcribing his autobiography and doing his accounts. That was the first time I realized that you could really get into wine; his weekly wine expenses were in the $75-100 range, not counting dining out. When it was time for me to move on, my employer took me to lunch upstairs at the Chez Panisse Cafe. I don't remember what I had, but I do remember it being wonderfully fresh and simple. We went across the Bay with our roommates for one memorable splurge at Stars, Jeremiah Tower's glitzy restaurant. There was a revelation of a dessert that included basil and black pepper.

In San Francisco, when the dot-com boom was just getting underway and no one had yet been paid cash for any of those stock options, we lived in a neighborhood at the edge of a foodie destination all its own: My father would bring me there as a child for the lengua and intestine burritos (the latter were very salty, which I loved then). When we moved there, established Peruvian seafood restaurants shared blocks with Chinese takeout joints and tacquerias and crepe cafes. A few blocks down from our apartment were Lucca Deli and then The Flying Saucer. New coffeehouses were springing up all over. The neighborhood was blossoming. Once we had both moved up a little from our beginning salaries, we could splurge on a dinner at Chez Panisse, downstairs this time. It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

We then moved to Germany and I learned a few cooking tricks from our lovely host family there; six months later we moved back to our hometown. We wanted to make pesto, one of the new tricks we'd picked up in California, so we searched for basil (it was May), but were repeatedly directed to the dried spices aisle. Now it's at every store throughout the year.

And our town has become a place where you can always get excellent food. I like many of the same things I always have: a good burrito, a good burger, a good pizza. I used to be a nut for breakfast: it was my favorite meal. Now, not so much. But I also enjoy the times my husband and I go out for a nice dinner; we've had peak moments and made some of our best decisions over meals. Our daughter knows that going out is a treat, too.

And when we go to fine restaurants, there's something wonderful about setting aside that time just to appreciate the subtle arts of eating, drinking, and conversation. When we went to Italy for a week, I kept that feeling of relaxing over meals with me for a long time after we returned home, like a shawl I could wrap around my shoulders. I can still summon that feeling if I try, and our nights on the town help me keep that in perspective. There's nothing like eating together, and eating something totally unique and unusual amplifies each occasion.

It also allows you to celebrate the basics: Instead of just eating a sandwich, chips, and a soda in front of the TV set, you can revel in being able to taste. You can experience the careful balancing of texture, aroma, and color that a great chef can bring to a meal. Is seeing a meal for being more than just fuel learned behavior, I wonder, like perceiving an abstract painting as an expression of something seen and felt rather than just a random collection of strokes on a canvas?

When I cook for my family, I love to make something that celebrates the goodness of food. Roasted and caramelized vegetables. Pan-toasted oatmeal with cranberries. It's busywork, sure, but it's always a pleasure to feed my people food I love.

The converse makes life tricky; it's getting harder for me to eat what I think of as bad food. It's a difficult line to walk with family and friends who don't share the same standards. I asked my mother-in-law once why she doesn't ever cook with organic produce or other products and she said, "I don't usually want to take the extra time." And she meant in the ingredient preparation: I think she thinks everything organic must be washed and trimmed and cut up. But the other factor she didn't say out loud was cost: It's more expensive. She both prizes frugality as a primary virtue and she has more faith in big business i this country. They buy their food at Wal-Mart.

But our bodies are our temples, and I do believe we have an opportunity to either drain resources or contribute to a sustainable culture with each food choice we make. And so I support and celebrate and set money aside to enjoy what can be done with great ingredients, especially when the chefs are working closely with local organic farmers and ranchers. It's not just what you put into your body that counts, but also what you put back into the community. That's why I try to buy things at Whole Foods that I can't find elsewhere. While Whole Foods does pretty well, they are still competing with major grocery chains and like them, shipping produce from all over the world; I'd rather invest more of our dollars in the local produce industry.

Enough for now. I've made myself hungry.

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