On the Food-gasm, or, Why We Feel So Passionately about “Regional” Dishes

December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments


Mad Feast mech.inddA guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:

After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled.  People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region.  I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank

Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people.  These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world.  That’s why home is where the heart is.  That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood.  If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us.  What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many.  As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts.  And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein.  Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality.  Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.

On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.”  Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state.  The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we.  No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.

Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms).  Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability.  There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door.  It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim.  To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix.  Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over.  The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other.  A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth.  It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair.  We kiss with the same mouths we eat with.  We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.  The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.

Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism).  These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors.  This is our private territory.  Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts.  In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others.  Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential.  It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself.  In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
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Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books.  In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.

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