Objectivity, Subjectivity and Food (a discussion)

Last night I wrote a big essay about objectivity, subjectivity and food and then–perhaps ironically–Safari ate it. Maybe, though, that’s for the best. It was a bit long-winded. The truth is that I’d rather have a discussion with you, my readers, than rant and rave like a loon. The prompt for the essay was a story out of “The United States of Arugula”–the story of Dean & DeLuca. Young Giorgio DeLuca’s high school A.P. history teacher, Jack Estrin, said that beauty and truth were not subjective but objective. “All us kids went, ‘No, no! Art is not objective, it’s a matter of opinion, a matter of what you like,'” recalls DeLuca (on pg. 199). The teacher said he “didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Later, when DeLuca met Joel Dean–his highly cultured upstairs neighbor–it was Dean who confirmed his teacher’s message. “I told him what Jack Estrin had told me,” DeLuca continues. “Dean was the first person to say to me, ‘That guy knew what he was talking about. Art is objective. Beauty is objective. Otherwise, you couldn’t agree on who all the great artists were through the ages.'”

Together, then, they translated this philosophy into their eponymous food store: “A lot of this was in reaction to the processed food that America was starting to live on: the Swanson’s TV dinners, the Tang, the fucking WisPride cheddar in a crock,” DeLuca concludes. “Americans were losing their ability to taste. I wanted to show that some things are better than others. Americans are taught just the opposite: ‘Whatever makes you happy. You like Coca-Cola and this guy likes fine Burgundies? You can’t say one is better than the other!’ Can you imagine the absurdity of that? But that’s the underlying philosophy that Americans are brainwashed into.”

I find this subject fascinating, especially because I spent two years in graduate writing school being taught that there were objective qualities to good writing that we should all seek out for ourselves: character, conflict, an escalating structure. All of our teachers pointed to Aristotle. And yet some of the worst writing came from those who tried to cobble together what should have been “objectively better” plays–with schematic, diagrammable plots–but plays that were incredibly uninspired. Objectively, all the elements were there: subjectively, though, they were tortuous to sit through.

A good example of this conundrum is Hung on “Top Chef.” He’s got the objective criteria down pat. Did you hear him last week when he paired berries with something creamy, “Because sweet things and creamy things go well together.” He said it like it was a hard and fast rule. And when the judge criticized his dish for not working, Hung was outraged: “So you’re saying that sweet and creamy don’t go well together?” he snapped back.

I’d say more but I have to head out. What do you think, A.G. readers? Can food be measured objectively? Or is most of it subjective? What will you be drinking with lunch: Coca Cola or a fine Burgundy?

Sex Chickens & “The United States of Arugula”

There is a giant chicken in my brain. Every time I try to tell you about David Kamp’s wonderful book “The United States of Arugula” the chicken appears and squawks out “bok bok bok.” I want to tell you about Kamp’s masterful storytelling skills, the way he treats America’s food icons like beloved superheroes, revealing their creation myths with comic book flair; or how he renders even the most obscure food figures with such loving detail. Only there’s that damn chicken. The chicken entered my brain at page 73 in Chapter Three, “The Food Establishment.” The chicken, you see, belonged to Craig Claiborne, whose name you may recognize from your mother’s New York Times cookbook. He was part of what Kamp calls “The Big Three” (the other two were James Beard and Julia Child) and, as Kamp documents, he led a tortured, self-destructive life. When drunk, he talked compulsively about sex and, according to Arthur Gelb–chief cultural correspondent of The New York Times while Claiborne was there, “He told me once, when we were drinking, that he and this little black kid, when they were small boys, would fool around with the farm animals. They would have sex with chickens.”

Craig Claiborne had sex with chickens.

There, I said it, now giant chicken be gone. (Giant chicken flies away.) That was hard to shake off. No matter how far away I got away from that tidbit on pg. 73, it’s the sort of thing that you don’t easily forget. In fact, I must confess, that forevermore when I see The New York Times Cookbook or Craig Claiborne’s name that chicken will return and I’ll have to cast it away again. Such is the power of food literature.

But there’s much more to David Kamp’s book than Craig Claiborne’s sex chicken. I’d say it’s pretty much required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the constellations in the sky of foodiedom all fit together, how they came to be constellations and why many of them still burn so brightly. (How’s that for an extended metaphor?) For example, it’s one thing to know that Wolfgang Puck was sent away by his parents at the tender young age of 14 to work in an Austrian hotel kitchen; it’s another to understand how his decision to open Spago with an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven (a vision carried out by his aggressive wife, Barbara Lazaroff) absolutely transformed not only California cuisine, but restaurants all across America. You know that California Pizza Kitchen in your mall? You can thank Wolfgang Puck for that.

Remember that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep chastises Anne Hathaway for thinking that the color on the belt she’s picking doesn’t matter: “I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back” and then proceeds to explain how “you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” That’s the thrust of “The United States of Arugula”: how visionary taste-makers–from Julia Child and James Beard to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse–have their hands in what’ll be on your plate tonight. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s rife with drama, intrigue, betrayal, and–yes–sex. For anyone interested in the history of food in the United States, this is the book for you.