For many folks, a good many folks, too many folks, eating has become a strange collusion of commerce and entertainment, everyone enslaved on a galleon called “convenience,” where meals are pre-cooked, frozen, made from desiccated bases and/or packaged in a bag you can conveniently boil or “zap” in the microwave. Most folks in the “modern” “first world” are raised on simple and over-simplified flavors, the daily diet having been geared—engineered, really—towards appreciating, glorifying and sanctifying simpleton flavors such as those embodied in the hallowed burger, as if in partaking of this now “international dish” (one that distinguishes itself by its singular lack of resemblance to any cuisine) somehow were synonymous with waving a flag. Don’t get me wrong; a great burger now and then can be a thing of beauty. (Especially when washed down with a good bottle of Richebourg. But I digress).
Consequently, most folks take their meals at a hamburger joint/franchise rather seriously; yet somehow manage to pay little attention to what they are really consuming: the obvious salts, the high sweets, the industrial, cheap bread, the paucity of flavor in the dubious “cheese product.” It’s all very simple and very obvious, precisely so that you don’t have to pay too much attention, so that you don’t think too much. Critical faculties are thus suspended the way disbelief is suspended at a fantasy film. But hey, it was fast. Time rolls onward and for many, eating has been relegated to something that takes place between or during other activities, a parenthetical endeavor between destinations in this busy, busy world. Enter the need for more convenience.
This idea of convenience isn’t really all that new. We can go back to the teens and twenties of the past century, when the nascent food processing industry began publishing little tomes in the form of ersatz cookbooks, peddling the modern ease and alleged benefits of its products, “The Magic of Crisco,” “Magic in the Kitchen!” and other unforgettable titles (i.e., “20 Pies that Men Like”). Now consider that little over one hundred years ago some 90% of the flour sold in the United States was destined for the home baker and you’ll realize just how far the pendulum has swung.
Grow up having enough of those ‘instant’ meals (you know the ones: the easily recognisable spray-canned, slap-you-silly flavours of processed “food products”) and our cravings and expectations for instant, yet shallow gratification will always run high. After all, we are not just what we eat, but how we eat.
As a chef, I saw it all the time: taste buds dulled by years of being hammered with coarse, faux-flavours and additives, taste buds that easily reject the purity of dishes and ingredients they don’t readily recognise. The visual equivalent of such a lifestyle—if it could be called that—would be one restricted to seeing primary colours only. Imagine absolutely everything painted exclusively in bright yellows, reds and blues, which curiously enough, are the colours fast-food outlets seem to favor. Visualize a life oblivious to shading, nuance, all manner of delicate colourings and the auric subtleties of a rainbow, blind to the part of the spectrum where real beauty resides. Frightening? Millions live that dietary equivalent on a daily basis—out of convenience and habit. If we lose the desire to take the time, to take the trouble to prepare something, not only will our perception and ability to appreciate constrict, meals lose their meaning and we lose the connection to each other. Our humanity slips away while we entertain ourselves dipping the fries in the ketchup.
It wouldn’t be so pernicious if it weren’t so insidiously habit-forming. We eventually grow up but we don’t necessarily grow out of our upbringing, identity being also forged by what and how we eat. As young adults we leave our parents’ homes and move into the world knowing what we like and, here’s the kicker: as a general rule, liking only what we know.
Hence, more often than not, we know very little.
But all is not lost. Life can be an acquired taste. Similarly, taste can be an acquired life. The palate is a muscle, albeit a muscle of perception. It responds to stimuli the way it’s been trained to. You can train the palate the way you train other parts of your body, with patience and diligence, regularly pushing the envelope and monitoring your progress. Inexorably, we wake up to that which brings our taste buds to life, namely, good food (not just “gourmet” but simple, pure, fresh, home-cooked food) and yes, maybe skip the soda pop and opt for a glass of good wine. Do it enough times and it just could be that a home cooked meal with all the trimmings—which to some might seem like a luxury, a thing of the past or an inconvenience—could slowly become a daily necessity, a new-found cause, a standard to live by; the one love you perhaps could—but really shouldn’t—live without.
(From ‘Sand in Your Shoes’ by Rafael Antonio Nazario © 2001. All Rights Reserved. )