Lessons In Food And Love
I didn’t always have a food category on this blog. My goal was never to write about food, but it was probably inevitable that I would. I love cooking and eating. But, there’s more to it than that (as can be evidenced from the diversity of topics the food category has intersected with. For me, […]
I didn’t always have a food category on this blog. My goal was never to write about food, but it was probably inevitable that I would. I love cooking and eating. But, there’s more to it than that (as can be evidenced from the diversity of topics the food category has intersected with.
For me, Love of food and love of travel traverse each other. There is so much joy to had experiencing new smells and tastes in distant places. After all, it is one thing to eat Indian food, quite another thing to eat in India!
Moreover, I don’t believe you can really understand a country, or its people until you eat amongst them. Food is just so basic, not only to our survival, but also to our socialisation. What we eat and the the way we eat it reveals so much about us.
And, food is central to my own sense of identity. There is something about me that is essentially “American” in the broadest, continental sense; a product of the New World, a child of modern patterns of immigration, almost genetically cosmopolitan and progressive (South America was fusing cultures long before it was fashionable).
So I was excited to participate in a Mexican cooking school at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel here in Hong Kong. Our teacher for the day was Ignacio Granda from the Mandarin Oriental Riveria Maya hotel in Mexico (here for a two week showcase of Mexican food). I was a more than willing student as we watched and discussed the preparation of Ceviche, Guacamole, Tortilla Soup and Garoupa with Zucchini, Blossoms and Mint Essence.
As with the Chilean tasting meal I wrote about in 2007 (A Taste of Chile) my main interest was in the way traditional dishes have been developed, not so much for the palates of those in other countries, but rather for the contemporary sensibilities of local, emerging consumers.
Hence, I enjoyed talking with Chef Granda about the evolution and modernisation of Mexican cuisine. Sadly, Mexican food is often misunderstood, with many people confusing it with Tex-Mex. Real Mexican food has the potential to be the next “big thing” in food fashion (hip and contemporary Tacquerias, or Taco stores have been a big trend in New York for a couple of years now).
The lunch following the cooking class was easily the best Mexican meal I’ve had in Hong Kong. Perhaps that doesn’t say much, given the options that exist here. But, it was simultaneously reassuring and disappointing that when I tried to book for dinner after the cooking class, the final three nights of the showcase were booked solid. Clearly there is an appetite for Mexican food in this city.
At this stage I should point out that I was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental for the cooking school, along with some other bloggers and food journalists. This was my first such “freebie” and to be honest, I would have been happy to pay for the privilege (as I did for the Jordi Rocca dinner recently and will soon for a cooking class with Antonio Carluccio). It was revealing to me to meet some local food journalists and watch their responses to real Mexican cuisine.
I mention that because there is something of a storm in a teacup here in Hong Kong over the “place” of food bloggers. Suffice it to say that the main agitators seem to food journalists, PR agencies and a small number of restauranteurs. It’s a controversy I’ve already touched on with two quite lengthy pieces (here and here).
This present uproar in print journalism and publishing is not unlike the tempest that consumed the music industry. The internet will disrupt any business model that does not treat end users or consumers as customers. The publishing world, for example, doesn’t see readers as customers. Their customers are newsagents, bookstores and advertisers.
The internet, via blogging and social media doesn’t work that way. Consumers start talking to each other and soon carefully crafted personas, sales pitches and the so called expert opinion of those who are not really all that expert all gets broken down. Naturally this is threatening to anyone who is used to controlling opinion or unaccustomed to being spoken back to. The shrill defensiveness of some journalists and blog-critics right now resembles the clamour of church leaders to the early waves of ecclesiologically-critical blogging nearly a decade ago.
But, there is something else these critics of blogging don’t understand – love.
To put it more clearly, they don’t seem to understand that someone could write and maintain a blog for the love of it (in the old sense of being an amateur).
This is an amateur blog. I’ve never accepted payment for anything written here and never will. I’ve accepted a handful of free books and this two hour cooking class for free – all with no guarantee that I would write anything (or nothing) and with a clear agreement that what I write might be critical and negative (if you have the stomach for some proof, check out my four-part review of a theological text, here).
But, this blog is not amateur in the sense of being haphazard. Every post goes a series of drafts. I’ll admit there are the occasional spelling errors, but most print newspapers and magazines are guilty of the same (and worse!). I’m not a trained journalist, but I am a trained (and published) writer. The main subjects that I blog about, music, photography, religion, popular culture are ones I have formally studied.
My journey to writing about food is a little more meandering. I grew up in the kitchen, learning to cook from watching my mother and grandmother. After school I worked for a couple of years in a luxury hotel, which opened my eyes to the world of professional kitchens and catering. I then worked for nearly a year in a pizzeria. These days I still cook regularly and take in cooking classes when I can (recently in Chiang Mai and HaNoi). I also love to read about food, not just cookbooks (I have shelves of them), but also more studious fodder like In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, Building a Meal by Herve This and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
Having said that, I don’t want to buy into the bogus idea that your qualifications, or who writes your cheques should determine your worth as a writer or thinker. There is a lot of wisdom to be found in domestic kitchens around the world from people who have no greater qualification than a lifetime of cooking for their families – far more than that which flows from the pens of some fashion-following food writers.
That is because food is never just about commerce (selling advertising, shipping produce, appeasing landlords) and shouldn’t be reduced to that. Food is fundamental to civilisation. I never make a final decision if someone really is trustworthy, or a friend, till I share a meal with them. I do my best to treat every meal as significant and important, even when I’m alone. Looked at across the breath of human history this is not an unusual stance to take. If it seems odd to place such importance on a meal, then it is only because our expectations of food and the place it plays in our life have been so diminished. That’s a problem that really does deserve our attention.