Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In Defense of Excellence

Sometimes, when the universe presents me with a confluence of concepts, I am unable to resist responding.  Hopefully this post won't suck too much time out of my life- or yours.

This morning, La Crunch posted a guide to a greener Valentine's Day- which included a suggestion that rather than go out to a fancy restaurant and CONSUME, you might stay home and celebrate there.

My response basically pointed out that restaurants have to make a living, too- and they're in some trouble at the moment, as lots of folks cut back.  (And, full disclosure- I make part of my living selling fancy food to fancy restaurants...)

Then, cosmic synchronicity-wise, Frank Bruni, the NYT food writer, has an article entitled "In Defense of Decadence" - and opens, bless him, with Michael Pollan's brilliant distillation "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."  Then goes on to describe an eating experience on the other end of the spectrum.

I doubt that Pollan intended for us to abandon fine cuisine, and genius chefs and restaurateurs.  Besides the value of occasionally cutting loose in celebration, there is another side to this problem, one we need to remember.

I did not discover that food could be ASTONISHING until I was 19, I think.  My epiphany came in Munich, Germany- in the form of Ochsenschwanz Suppe.  Ox-tail soup.

I ordered it because I'd heard of ox-tail soup for years, it sounded weird and exotic to me, and I was in the exploratory mode that summer- try whatever shows up, if it doesn't look dangerous.

One spoonful did it.

I was astonished.  I'd never, in my life, realized  or imagined  that soup- or food- could be such an intense, gripping, focused, DELICIOUS, amazing-  experience.  

Soup, for crying out loud.  It's soup- and I'm sitting here paralyzed.

My mother was a good cook; very good, and very conscientious.  Every meal she cooked, she thought about, worked on; it was part of her work, her contribution.

Inevitably, though; cooking day in, day out, for the same audience, her efforts usually ended up reaching for - "good", and "ok".   And those of us on the receiving end of her generosity surely did not pay enough attention to it.

The effort required to strive for astonishing excellence was usually just beyond her reach.  One place she did spend the effort was on birthday cakes- she could have gone pro.

So.  Why are so many of us willing to just constantly stuff our faces with MacDonald's burgers and fries?  And put up with all the consequences?

I think a big part of the answer is WE JUST DON'T KNOW ANY BETTER.

I didn't- until that spoonful of ox-tail soup.  I just plain didn't know what was possible.

Teaching children, at a young age, to pay attention to the quality of their food- just might be one of the most important things we could do to move the world in a sustainable direction.

And it takes excellence to break through the vast mountains of salty-crunchy-sweet-cheesy-chocolate-grease they are used to.  Mom is either tired most days- or feeds them packaged stuff to save time.  Sad, but very common.

I've had fantasies for several years of 4th Grade field trips.  The school bus takes a load of kids to the Farmers Market- they get to taste a fresh apple; fantastic cheese- then they go to the nearby 4 Star restaurant, where the top chef does his absolute best for them, for lunch; and their lives are changed.  Now- they KNOW- what food is; and can be.

And cooks and chefs capable of excellence need somewhere to live, and grow.  Their habitat is fine restaurants.  And WE are the only ones who can prevent their extinction.

Somewhere- we need places where we can learn, and be reminded, of what is possible.


Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  And splurge, occasionally.

My own opinion.


Anonymous said...

I just discovered these pictures today of what families around the world eat in a week. You can tell that in places where there are high rates of obesity and diabetes people are eating A LOT of processed food. The more traditional diets are mainly grains and produce.

What the World Eats, Part I
What's on family dinner tables in fifteen different different homes around the globe? Photographs by Peter Menzel from the book "Hungry Planet",29307,1626519,00.html

And I like your idea of field trips. I remember on a fifth grade field trip I got to eat a tree ripened apple. I still remember that apple.

Greenpa said...

Leila - wow! I love the photo collection; could spend hours looking. These folks are almost all "upper-middle class", I think. Which makes it more comparable - but doesn't tell the whole story, just so we remember.

etbnc said...

This is another fine installment in what appears to be Greenpa's philosophy of moderation. Thanks!

Fancyish cooking at home and dining at excellent local restaurants are both hobbies of mine. Independently operated local restaurants generally contribute far more to our quality of life than fast-food chains. I do think that's an important distinction.

A note of caution about Valentine's Day as a dining event: Unfortunately in some of the middle class (sub)urban areas where I've lived, Valentine's can be the worst night of the year to try to dine out. I've seen Valentine's draw crowds of once-a-year diners who all hope to have the perfect romantic experience-of-a-lifetime, on the same night, at the same few restaurants, between 7 and 8 p.m. Many chefs and staff just can't maintain excellence in the face of that onslaught of expectation.

I've read way too many amateur restaurant reviews that take the form: "My spouse and I went to Fancy Restaurant for Valentine's Day and it was horrible!!!" (The number of exclamation marks seems inversely proportional to the diners' satisfaction.)

In less crowded areas that might not occur. In areas prone to crowding, diners who seek culinary excellence might want to support their local restaurants (and local food suppliers) some other evening.

Cheers, and happy Valentine's Day, wherever readers choose to enjoy it.

Ailsa Ek said...

Why can't "Food; not too much; mostly plants" be excellent food? I don't see an inherent contradiction here.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Ahhh, Greenpappy, you seemed to not have noticed the second paragraph regarding Valentine's dinner in that post - the part about eating out.

The same argument could be said regarding supporting the winter farmers markets as much as for supporting fine dining establishments.

As for haute cuisine cooking at home - well, you should come over for dinner some time.

I should note that, growing up, I certainly didn't know any better. Fortunately, one of my older brothers is quite the gourmand and his influence has rubbed off on my husband and I over the years. So, while I love eating out, I also spend a great deal of time "gourmet" cooking at home (my husband is the resident pastry chef).

My kids may not always appreciate what I make for them, but at least they are getting exposure to different flavor profiles. And, I hope that one day, when they are older, they'll enjoy it as much as I do.

Greenpa said...

Ailsa- you're right, there's no inherent contradiction- but Pollan's extreme brevity, which is so lovely, does kind of leave people (like Bruni) with a feeling he may be pushing simplicity and austerity, too- also not really there.

I'll bet you people will be "amplifying" Pollan's elegantly few words for decades to come. Robert Frost hated it when people "explained" his poetry - in other, longer, more complex words. Somehow, people keep doing it though; and people keep reading the explanations. :-)

Greenpa said...

Chewy! Mea gulpa. You have to admit though; the first words, and the ones with the most impact are: "Why not try dinner IN, instead?"

As for the dinner invite- I'll be right there! :-)

DC said...

I agree that eating at local restaurants, particularly those that purchase food from small organic farms, is a good thing to do once in a while. It's okay to indulge ourselves occasionally, and it's important to support people and businesses that have made a genuine commitment to a green future. The path to sustainability shouldn't be a funeral. We need to strike a balance between excess and deprivation.

Jrad said...

raw meat is some of the most exquisite food i've ever encountered...and in eating raw meat, you are forced to revere and appreciate and support the vassals from which it has arrived.

Anonymous said...

Posted over at Crunchy's first (restaurants, eating at home, etc.). Just wanted to add that one of the reasons we do eat at one of the local restaurants (pizza place in town) is because we want to try to make sure they stay in business. We should probably eat at one of the other places once in a while as well -- good food, homemade, local produce, etc. -- but the eating out budget is pretty limited these days. They're popular with the traveling crowd though, so I think they get enough support from other folks. I have some of my artwork there actually, so I guess that helps keep them in business...

Lisa Zahn said...

I love your field trip idea! My kids are already used to good food, but perhaps I will focus even more on bringing their friends out to the apple orchard, a nice restaurant, etc.

We love our local restaurants serving local, seasonal foods. Unfortunately, our budget is really tight these days too. Usually my DH and I splurge on a $100 fine meal on our anniversary in June. Our favorite place? Probably the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin (albeit a 3 hour drive from our place). Second place goes to Lucia's in Uptown Minneapolis. At both of these places you can have an awesome meal for far less than $100 a couple, but since we go so rarely and we're celebrating when we do, we get the wine, the dessert and coffee, etc. It's fabulous!

Chile said...

One criticism of your reasoning. Being a 4 star restaurant does not, actually, guarantee excellence. I have had a number of disappointing meals in restaurants that have received rave reviews....and some of the best meals of my life in hole-in-the-wall joints that never receive any attention. Amount of money spent does not guarantee quality. Fancy ingredients do not guarantee a great meal. Again, some of the best meals I've had were composed of the simplest of fare.

Greenpa said...

Chile- yes of course. :-) jeepers, have pity! You really want to me include all ifs ands buts and maybes?

I love holes in walls; have had plenty of good meals there. One of the best meals I had in China was up in the mountains- in a mud hut, literally; earth floor, and chickens walking under the table picking up scraps.

But I gotta tell ya- the WORST meal I ever had in a hole in the wall; was WAY worse than the worst I ever had in a "good" restaurant...

if you can follow that... :-)

Unknown said...

hear hear! eat out and support the farmers! one of my most recent astonishing food experiences was at a little place called Treadwell in Port Dalhousie, Ontario:

My mother and I could not for the life of us figure out what kind of oil we were dipping or bread into? not olive...walnut? was so rich, but not heavy, it had a complex sunshiny flavour (it's the only way I can describe it). when our waiter returned, she smiled at our inquiry and informed us that it was......canola oil! cold pressed canola oil....locally grown and processed by the farmers.

it doesn't get any better than that :-)

Chile said...

But, Greenpa, you always all the ifs, buts, and maybes! ;-)

My worst meals out were at two middle of the road places, and one real snooty place that gets excellent reviews. Best meal at a tiny sushi place, back before we went veg. Always had Chef's choice and always got the best dishes....except when he tried to make me eat sea urchin. Ick.

Anonymous said...

High school field trips are still fresh in my memory, being a recent graduate. I'm sorry to say that I never had such a positive field trip experience. In fact, I remember a psychology class trip to an organic farm that was part of a work-therapy program for juvenile delinquents. Besides learning about the therapeutic effects, the farmer talked a bit about the need for organic practices. My apathetic class members didn't listen, complained about being bored the whole time, sent text messages on their cell phones, and were only exited about McDonalds on the way back instead of school lunch! The good news is it seemed like the kids working at the farm (the supposed problem children) were having a good time.

Anonymous said...

I had an equivalent experience while on a trip to Sauvie Island, outside Portland, OR, with a bunch of my college mates. We went in the autumn and were able to pick apples straight off the trees - something this south-Texan had never experienced before. I had one apple, as large as my hand, almost perfectly spherical, and such a lovely dusky color... and the taste was the most equisite combination of tart and sweet and sunshine that I had ever experienced. ::chuckle:: Suddenly even this agnostic knew why Adam & Eve fell.

Unknown said...

We live just outside a small town, about 7,000 in oregon, and a couple of the restaurants in the town area have made a real effort to source their produce and meat goods from local suppliers - so yes, i great way to eat out and support the local region economy.

as for hole-in-the-walls, i was travelling through NC and stopped at a road side shack. the little place was run by a single, 50 something black man who had taken over from his father, all woodfired cooking, cutting and splitting included. best damn BBQ on the planet.

Anonymous said...

The one area of my life where I'm willing to spend extra money is on the food that I eat, and I have no qualms about eating in great local restaurants and paying for the actual worth of my food. None at all.

When family members raise their eyebrows about how I spend money eating out, I remind them that I don't have kids, a car, a big house, expensive clothes (or even new clothes since I buy them all second hand), or any of the other things that eat up resources and cost money. I forego all the other things that people use to define themselves in favor of great experiences, including wonderful local meals.

Also, I've sometimes wondered if it isn't actually more sustainable to eat in restaurants than at home. Think of all the packaging waste that's saved when restaurants buy in bulk rather than each individual diner buying small quantities themselves. Don't know if there's ever been a study on this, but it makes sense to me.

homebrewlibrarian said...

I'm with Fake Plastic Fish with the same situations - no kids, house, etc. My treat to myself is to visit a locally owned restaurant/cafe on Fridays where they have an awesome beer selection and fabulous food (and Will, the best bartender in Alaska if you follow Northwest Brewing News ;-)). I've talked with the owner's son about using locally available food and they've dabbled in it in the past but are interested in doing more. Which is a project I'm working on...

As for dining out being more sustainable, I bring my own take home tupperware container (well, it's water tight and non breakable and purchased used). Started doing that back in the summer when I was riding my bike everywhere. The portions are really very large (and I've spoken to them about that) and the food so good that I didn't want to waste it. It didn't take long before the staff got used to me bringing it in. If I don't have my sunshine yellow tupperware with me, they ask about it now. And they understand why I do it even when I'm not on my bike.

Much though I enjoy eating out and supporting local eateries, I will most definitely NOT be going out on Valentine's Day. I'll let the rest of the planet support those places for a day.


JessTrev said...

I *love* this post! A foodie mama (who recently went to Hook, a swanky sustainable seafood restaurant in DC, for my birthday dinner)... I so want my kids to go on that fieldtrip! Reminds me of the Berkeley Public Schools -- Alice Waters helps the kids with their Peace Garden at MLK Middle School -- they grow organic produce which is used for their *healthy* school lunches. So jealous...

Billy said...

fake plastic fish seems to be in a similar boat as myself. With only a rent bill to maintain once a month I tend to spend what money I have left over at the local market on Saturday mornings. This is one of the reasons I asked about energy for cooking in an earlier post, as a lot of my time is spent in the kitchen (it is one of the few ways I have found to relax after work) and I have been studying techniques in hopes of one day going to school, chasing my dream of preparing dishes for a living.

as little as I do purchase food prepared by anyone else, it is usually done in local ethnic restaurant where the cooking can usually be seen. I still do not understand how people can justify consuming fast food. there is so much better out there.

the field trip idea sounds wonderful. my mother made sure that both of her children could cook, clean, sew and carry on an adult conversation as young as possible. with immediate gratification being so accessible in today's world it is sad to see so many people not aware of what they can actually do if they just took the time to learn. children should be inspired to produce something amazing and as necessary as food with their own hands, and your idea seems to deliver that opportunity.

I will never forget the day my last room mate asked me how to boil an egg.

Anonymous said...

My fiance and I actually do pizza on Valentine's Day because we like the idea of taking a step back and just hanging out and enjoying each other's company instead of worrying about burning the fancy dinner we may attempt to make :) That said in general we are trying to elevate our culinary adventures. While we do try to eat organic and healthy we also want to explore different tastes, textures, and combinations.

BoysMom said...

I'm very lucky--our little town has one pizza place only, and it just happens to be organic. I'm not quite sure how this came about, it was here before we were, but I'm glad we have it. This time of year, nothing's local, unless you got meat last fall at butchering time. There isn't much in the way of local crops except hay any time, that's the downside of living way up here.
I tend to be one of those moms who is tired and figures if it's nutritious that's probably going to have to do. I got whined at this morning for making oatmeal, and yesterday for the chili, which my husband and I thought was good.
Greenpa, I didn't get around to it earlier, but thank you very much for the link to the woodstove emissions page. Really great information.

Anonymous said...

We have a great restraunt (sp) here that works hard to cook locally and seasonally. Every time we go there we get IDEAS for things we can try at home. Eating out occasionally helps to make eating in more excellent. Indeed, its nice to have foodie people as pioneers trailbreaking for the rest of us.