8.31.2011

On Eating "Gourmet"

I love food. From the time my mom let me into the kitchen to make my own grilled cheese sandwiches as a kid, I've been obsessed with all things culinary. I've become a self-taught student of the vocabulary, the gadgets, the technique. Before the Food Network and the age of the celebrity chef, there was the crazy Cajun guy, the Frugal Gourmet, and of course Julia Child. But my favorite was the show Great Chefs, which took the cameras right into the kitchens of some of the world's greatest restaurants, and the chefs there would prepare the most amazing or frightening but almost always beautiful concoctions I'd ever seen. I was most obsessed with the pastry chefs, not only because I have a major affinity for eating baked goods, but because I love the process that goes into making breads and desserts. Part of me, a very large and thriving part of me, still wants to be a chef. Still believes that this is very much an unanswered calling.

I still have a dream one day of owning a bakery, with a bookstore attached to it. I can so clearly see this dream in my head that I have no doubt that someday, it will be a reality. It will be in a quaint little town. There will be a bell on the door that jingles every time a customer comes in. I will hold book release and signing events for local authors. And they will stay for my fabulous artisan breads and cookies, bars and cakes. There will be Belgian waffles every Sunday morning. I'll have a spate of regulars whom I will all know by name. People will come from all around to try the food and browse my eclectic literary collection while sipping their coffee. All the fillings and fruits in my pastries will be homemade from locally grown, seasonal ingredients. I'll even buy locally milled flour, and maybe even offer some confections for the gluten-free crowd. Everything will have that rustic, handmade look. My coffee will be incredible and freshly ground from fair trade beans. Someday, my kids will one day inherit this business and make it their own. The business, and the philosophies on which it was built, will be our legacy to them and future generations.

I used to think eating gourmet would mean having to bypass a lot of ingredients I typically don't like. Olives, stinky cheeses, weird meats and fishes, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables. I also used to think it would mean that I would go hungry. That if I spent extra money on great food, it would be in tiny portions and I'd be craving a cheeseburger two hours later. I have since discovered that none of these things are true. That when a food is prepared properly, there is almost nothing I won't at least try, if not love. At a wonderful little French bistro a couple weeks ago, my husband and I sampled a wide variety of foods, most of it locally grown and prepared with the utmost care. The pissaladi√®re (or French-style pizza) we ate for our first course had goat cheese and nicoise olives on it. I traditionally dislike both of these foods. The pizza was nonetheless delicious, and I didn't pick a single thing off it. 

The portions were on the smaller side, but neither of us left hungry. In fact, we were nearly too full for dessert, but we ate it anyway -- a tiny flourless hazelnut cake that was so rich, three or four bites was more than enough. And three hours later, we weren't hungry for more food. We'd been perfectly sated. Not too much, not too little. All great ingredients, carefully prepared and delicious. My body and appetite were equally at peace with one another, which is something that is too rare. 

How often does this happen for anybody anymore? How much better off would we be if we all ate in such a way? Enjoying rich and delicious high-quality ingredients, not thinking of diets or calories or fat grams, but quality through and through? I have found that when I'm consistently giving myself the very best, I simply don't need as much. When the food is perfectly nourishing and appealing, a little bit of it goes a long way. 

This is why the French are so healthy while eating their butter and froie gras. This is why you can go to Italy and nosh on pasta for days, and probably not gain a pound. Why in Japan, you can eat little pieces of sushi, with generous portions of white rice, and drink delicious teas and soups, and not feel like you're nine months pregnant with a gigantic food baby. 

We have it backwards here. We're eating cheap and nutrient-hollow food, in enormous enough quantities so that we don't notice how very malnourished we are. Modern convenience cuisine was thought up in a corporate boardroom by guys who have no care in the world where a food comes from or whether it tastes great, so long as people can get a whole bunch of it for a few bucks. 

This is why I want to take more culinary risks in my own kitchen now. And why I won't shudder at the prices of better food if I know I won't need as much of it to feel happy. It's nourishing in its own way to know my money is going to sustain the local farmer who is growing beautiful food for the love of it, and that the money I give him is going right back into his crops, crops that probably feed his family too.

It's the kind of eating that feeds more than hungry stomachs. It sates the conscience and the need to be creative. It opens us up to new experiences and cultures. It makes us more delicate and mindful even about the way we cut the food and put it in our mouths, how we taste it and use our tongues to find and appreciate every ingredient, the way we use our eyes to study the brushstrokes in a beautiful painting.

When the food is truly good, it fuels our souls and our dreams. 

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