I’ve recently been reading several articles about the changing nature of the restaurant world – you know, all that molecular food stuff, and all – and I sense that every year that passes finds me falling further and further away from the mainstream of the world of food. On one hand, this is incredibly interesting to me, as I do think that perhaps now food in America is receiving the attention it hasn’t had in the last 300 years (we here in the U.S. do not really have a “food culture” as do other countries – we simply have not had the time yet to develop it!) – but on the other hand, I think the direction of that developing interest is not one that excites me. For the most part, food in America has become entertainment, and frankly, I think that skews what America’s food culture ought to be, ultimately.
What direction should America’s food culture take? Well, to answer that, I have to ask another question: Do you think T.V. reflects popular opinion, or creates it? I think it creates it – and I think that’s too bad. I believe this because I believe America has become a nation of “sheep” – our citizenry is so easily influenced and brainwashed. If you do not believe this, I fear you have not been observant of late. It is both rampant and subtle within our political systems – but you won’t get a direct admission from either party that every day they have aggressive efforts at work to “spin” info, and to bend public opinion – but these efforts leak out anyway, because it’s always the other party that tells us what the opposing party is doing. And we should be smart enough to realize that if one party does it, they both do it.
And it is also a fact of life within our media – you think not? I’ll pray for you.
Oh, I’m not suggesting that this is anything illegal or unethical – well sometimes it may drift into unethical – but you follow me, I’m sure. Here’s a prime example of what I’m getting at – a while ago, I read a report on the sale of several cable T.V. channels -including The Food Network- to some conglomerate (this is never good!), and within the article there were a few quotes from FTN execs who said things like, “We need to re-direct our programming to a younger audience” – translation: We need to increase the amount of “reality” programs we air – we need more entertainment, and less instructional stuff. (Of course, we all know that young folks already are proficient cooks, and simply don’t need any additional instruction – kind of like how our schools are graduating students who can’t write or communicate – but they can be entertained – and that seems to be all that matters.)
I used to love The Food Network, back when it was about “instruction” – in fact, I dropped Charter Cable only because they refused to add The Food Network to their offerings (Idiots!) – so I moved to Dish Network, only to watch The Food Network go to hell over the last 3-4 years. TFN has turned into a “competition” network – what garbage – and what in hell do they do with all those past winners of The Next Food Network Star? This is entertainment?
My absolute favorite program on TFN has always been Good Eats, with Alton Brown – it is a superb format, great information, just simply all around excellence – and yet, from Season 9 on, in 2006, this wildly popular and truly excellent program has appeared less and less each new season – does this suggest that FTN execs are preparing to pitch it, or that Alton is just running out of subjects? Actually, I would not be the least bit surprised to see Brown shifted to a new role as host of any number of “reality” programs, which in fact he is already doing – Shame.
OK, that’s my example of how media has influenced public food opinion – and how “food” programming has less and less to do with food as time moves on. Let me get back on track – what about the celebrity chef? Has that phenomenon hurt or helped America develop a true food culture? That depends a lot on the chef, doesn’t it. Someone like Alice Waters, there is little doubt what she’s selling, and what her agenda is – and I think with Alice, it’s the food that comes first. And then there’s someone like Gordon Ramsey – what the hell is he selling? Certainly not the food! Yeah, Gordon is a great example of “food entertainment”, although I have a hard time seeing the entertainment part, frankly.
So, what is our likely trend here? What will our American food culture be in ten years? Honestly, I hate to think about that. We are raising a citizenry who believe that the best in seafood is to be had at Red Lobster, the finest Continental fare at Olive Garden, and if it’s old fashioned American you desire, you can do no better than at Cracker Barrel. Is there room for hope?
The restaurant business -especially in America- has always been an especially difficult one. It’s excessively expensive to get into, inordinately time consuming to work in, and almost impossible to find competent, responsible, non-addicts, as potential employees. This is a prime reason why we see more and more corporate restaurants, and fewer and fewer private, mom and pop’s. Add to that our American obsession with making sure no form of food is ever sold on “the street” – I think we’re perhaps the only nation on earth with such restrictions, and certainly those restrictions are a prime deterrent to small, high quality food operations that won’t bankrupt a potential food artist.
In regard to this last point, I think we may be witnessing a shift in thinking – in our last trip up to Portland, we noticed a city blessed program, Food Carts, Portland – if this is an indicator of a trend, it’s a very promising one, as the quality of this street food often surpasses that available in local sit-down restaurants. And I don’t think Portland is unique – I’ve seen evidence that similar programs exist in San Fran and L.A. too. Perhaps if this promising trend continues, we may see inroads made into food mediocrity, as the public’s awareness of new tastes and quality food expands.
Regardless of the nature of the restaurant, the best food in America has always been the product of an artist who loved the food they made, and loved sharing it with others. I truly believe that the hope for raising the quality of American food in the future is making it possible for such artists to practice their art – I’m not convinced that “celebrity” status is necessary to achieve this – in fact, it may be counter-productive. Whatever.
Entertainment? Whatever happened to taste?