Monday, July 30, 2012

Food and the Modern Zeitgeist

"Considering the current Zeitgeist, I just don't feel comfortable dining as I used to; there seems to be a very 1% feel to it."

That line was delivered from one of my roommates in my NY sublet.  It sat entrenched in my mind all day Sunday after it came at roughly 11:00AM in the middle of a breakfast conversation over eggs and tortillas.  During which, an enjoyable and lively debate ensued over the relationship between fine dining and its juxtaposition in the current socioeconomic climate of America.

It was a valid, innocuous and sensible argument which unfortunately had all the elements of surreal paranoia and overgeneralized logic that a majority of our country operates on.  The mental constitution of this country right now can be conservatively described as fragile.  My roommate recounted his years of having an affinity for fine dining and restaurants, but also noted that he has become increasingly self-aware of the indulgence of food and its perception in our Zeitgeist.  He honestly admitted that it is this perception which has turned him away from dining - which is becoming an increasing popular sentiment over the last five years.  Despite reassurances that he still went out and dined out, I couldn’t help but think of the idea as unsettling – almost as if I was tuned to the echo of the paranoid schizophrenic.  It seemed to resonate in my head a little louder – especially considering it was coming out of the mouth of someone who happened to work in a notable public forum on culture and the arts.

I think when we entertain this stream of thought, we enter dangerous territory.  There are few facets to this comment that are disarming to me.  The first is the history.  History has told us that when people reach times of religious, social, moral and financial crisis, mob mentality has always been quick to extricate the things that may symbolize indulgence.  And inevitably, art and intellect are always the smoking gun for the indulgent.  Great paintings, sculptures, monuments and city structures have been leveled in the name of the righteous.  Chunks of culture are often lost in the shadows of the "modern" Zeitgeists of other dark periods.   I can list examples, but there is no point to doing so: just blindly turn to any page in the history book listed under human atrocities, significant war or social "revolution."
You can argue the merits of whether you should consider food as art, but if you choose to create food for a higher cause beyond its basic value, then you are speaking of art. Art, in its core simplicity, is partially defined as taking something physical (or not) and elevating it to a metaphysical consciousness or expression. And if you deny this, then you are denying the purpose of many - and that denial, historically, is considered as ignorance.  It is during these dark ages that people stop considering the arguments and lessons of our art, but only see the danger assessed to its value.

The second reason for my issues with this comment are a byproduct of the first.  A big reason that humanity goes through this cycle of destruction is mainly associated with a lack of appreciation - attributed to either poor education or a disdain for culture.  We can continue to spin and speak soft sentences to lessen the grimness of such a statement, but coddling the sensitivity of the stupid is the reason for our issues and not the resolution.  It is increasingly clear to me that we are beginning to fall into a social trap that dictates that the intelligent must repress any display of their intellect, whereas the stupid and plain-spoken must find every opportunity to parade their shortcomings.  See: social media.
Generationally, we are forfeiting the understanding and inherited education with food and cooking at an alarming rate.  Today, fast food, convenient fixes and quick meals are the replacement for the nourishment provided and taught to us by our previous generations.  Food interest may be peaking (Food tv, Top Chef, Yelp), but what is the gauge of our skill beyond the fodder?  (Some of which are funded by the interests of fast and convenient processed products.)

I understand that people liken dining choices to a mine field.  And I agree.  It is almost impossible to distinguish one chef's intention over another. I also understand that placing the idea of "value" onto the dining experience is only relative to the circumstance of the individual (or his wallet).  Manhattan is probably one of the best examples of the current situation; a concentrated area that is saturated with empty dining experiences made fulfilling by its trendiness, reputation, bloated expense accounts, uninformed tourists and streams of professionals with easy smiles and good looks.  Fittingly, these empty dining experiences always seem to be physically full (i.e. seating capacity).  To this, I have almost no solution. It is a endless cycle of money, property, image and derivation in a place that replaces the one pretentious hedge fund foodie for the next.  And, in this specific microcosm of the modern Zeitgeist, I am close to speechless.

It is only through an appreciative, honest and educated approach to food that we can start to see the art behind the wall. How can people begin to argue the merits of restaurant value, the 1% or the "current Zeitgeist" when most people hold no basic understanding of whether good apple pie or chocolate pot de creme is more impressive?  The gap between the level of know-how and appreciation for cooking between the diner and the restaurant is beginning to sound more like the ever expanding tectonic rift in the ocean.  Compounded to that issue, print journalism and professional critics continue to give way to the free enterprising mediocrity and delusions of the "my-voice-matters" generation.  (Yes, I blindly defend the food critics of the world, whether they deserve it or not.)  While I am truly amazed by how wonderfully interwoven the power of cause-and-effect can sometimes be, this is not one of those cases.

A lot of times when people see an expensive and intricate tasting menu, they tend to bring the value system of all their bad experiences from bad restaurants with them.  It is a very natural response, but as difficult to believe as it may seem, there are restaurants who put bet their stars and reputations every night to make sure that their customers [of all different value systems] leave fulfilled with the proper impression of what that experience was worth.  Though great places may be few and far in between, they are the shining examples of dining as a perceived value and not a extension of financial worth.  And, in many cases (especially for those in consideration for best restaurants in the world), these restaurants operate on no profit or a loss despite being full every night.   

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