Saturday, January 12, 2008

Refined Cuisine or Just Plain Cooking?

It's really been far too long since my last post. It's not that I haven't been writing... to the contrary, that's all I've been doing since the last post... I am in the absolute final stages of finishing my master's dissertation (a long 13 months). I've promised myself to get back to writing for pleasure as soon as possible (including "eat and tell" on www.eatsomethingsexy.com). The following is a little something I wrote for a newsletter.

Refined Cuisine or Just Plain Cooking?

The Culinary Historians of New York (CHNY) are a diverse group of food lovers, academics, historians, writers, and lovers of New York City. They have monthly get-togethers with recent themes ranging from The History of Junk Food (complete with hors d’oeuvres made from White Castle hamburgers and petits fours made from Twinkies) to The Story of Absinthe (including a tasting). I joined about 18 months ago and have enjoyed a number of fun and interesting events in that time. It has been especially interesting for me this past year since my research has been focused on the food history of New York City.

This past Wednesday evening, a friend and I attended a CHNY event at the new Astor Wine Center (a beautiful facility). The speaker was Rachel Laudan, a PhD in History and Philosophy who specializes in food history of particular cultures. In the lecture on Wednesday evening, Dr. Laudan discussed the differences between “refined cookery” and “plain fare.” This difference has played a role in civilized culture since the time of the ancient Greeks and continues at present in the form of “molecular gastronomy” versus “local, seasonal, organic” simple cuisine, or at the extreme, the “raw food” movement.

The extent to which food is handled, manipulated, or altered from its original state can be seen as the advancement of culture and civilization or as the corruption of nature. For centuries, popular food preparation methods have swayed back and forth between the two extremes – cooked versus raw, refined versus coarse, manipulated versus natural. Throughout history, highly manipulated, refined foods were the luxury of the aristocracy whereas coarse foods such as whole grains and undercooked vegetables belonged to peasants – how times have changed! Now, whole grains and organic foods are priced out of the reach of many whereas refined starches and sugars are the key ingredients in the foods of the modern-day poor. This change has its basis in the history of the twentieth century with the discovery of nutritional science, and more recently with the popularity of chefs such as Alice Waters who made fresh-from-the-farm a mantra for chefs around the world – who else in the prime of haute cuisine in the United States would have served a desert of a plain peach with only a fork and knife to up-scale diners and charge $10 for it? Today we have the luxury of choosing between the two extremes as frequently as we please. Simply look to two of NYC's most famous young chefs – the intricate, innovative genius of Wylie Dufresne (www.wd-50.com) and the simple brilliance of David Chang’s growing pork-infused empire (www.momofuku.com). Which side do you stand on?

Note: for more information on the Culinary Historians of New York, please visit www.culinaryhistoriansny.org

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