Up until the past century, most people considered food as just another of life’s basic necessities and were not inclined to look upon it from any other perspective. The primary consideration was whether it satisfied one’s hunger pangs and was reasonably palatable or tasty. The possibility that food preparation could be undertaken as a hobby, an esteemed profession or even a form of art, would have been considered either ludicrous or bizarre.
To be sure, the privileged elite throughout history have always indulged in culinary extravagances that even we in modern times would find curious or amazing. The Roman upper class would dine on flamingo tongues or giraffe steaks, while European nobility would sometimes feast on roasted swans or peacocks. However, such indulgences were restricted to a privileged few, and the vast majority of the population would have had to content themselves with a daily diet of gruel, root vegetables, dairy products and the occasional scrap of meat, typically chicken or pork.
My immigrant Ukrainian parents had a fairly basic diet that would have been little changed from that enjoyed by their ancestors many centuries back. It was fairly standard peasant fare, heavy on bread and grain products, vegetables, baked goods, hearty soups, preserves and some basic meat dishes. The only real difference would have been the fact that they were able to afford to make meat a more regular part of their diet as opposed to the rare treat it had been for their forefathers. They rarely strayed from their limited variety of dishes, and were not inclined to experiment with foreign cuisine, much less eat out at restaurants. The most daring of my mother’s forays into “foreign” food was that she learned how to make a small number of Italian pasta dishes. The most extravagant item in her culinary repertoire was making a lemon meringue pie from scratch on special occasions. I must clarify that she was an extraordinarily good cook, but one whose range was rather limited by her upbringing and traditions.
That changed dramatically with my generation, born in Canada, and exposed from an early age to the influences of a multicultural environment with a plethora of food choices. I have always been a curious and adventurous sort, and that extended to my willingness to try anything different or exotic when it came to food. I have also been blessed with the good fortune to have travelled widely during the course of my life, and I have always made a point of trying out the native cuisines of wherever I found myself.
I have eaten frog’s legs and escargots in France, haggis in Scotland, alligator steak in Florida and rattlesnake burgers in Nevada. I have devoured mountains of crayfish in Louisiana, and grits and chitlins in a number of the American southern states. In Japan, I have indulged in countless types of raw fish sushi, sea urchin roe and seaweed salads. I have delighted in barbecued pig tails in Amish country, and conch fritters in the Caribbean. I have eaten chicken feet soup in Hong Kong, as well as Asian dishes containing almost every imaginable part of a variety of animals both large and small that is edible. I have partaken of blood sausage, fiddleheads, moose-meat kobassa, beaver, barbecued eel, calves brains scrambled with eggs, and tripe.
I have no doubt that my parents would have found many of the things that I have eaten to be strange if not revolting. I can recall on one occasion that my mother almost gagged when she saw me eating snails. To her, it was simply incomprehensible why I would be eating something that to her was so revolting. It goes to show how much things can change in one generation.
Aside from the general expansion of tastes and culinary appreciation in our modern society, the other prominent development has been the evolution of cooking from being just a necessary though low status activity, to it being a “profession”, an art form and by corollary, a vehicle towards fame and fortune. Not only are there a wide variety of cooking shows on television, but here are specialty channels dedicated to nothing but the joys of food and cooking. A whole slew of celebrity chefs have emerged whose names are as well known to the public as movie stars or sports heroes – Emeril Lagasse, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and David Chang amongst others.
For the most part, I enjoy watching these experts create dishes that stir one’s appetites and make the mouth water. I even try from time to time to re-create their signature dishes, though I must admit I have met with mixed success in that endeavour. What I am less thrilled with is that some of the trends in the “nouvelle cuisine” have gone to extremes, creating dishes that are more about presentation than any real attempt at hunger quenching. They may be beautiful to look at, and can be considered works of art, but have so little actual substance to them, that having devoured one of them, one would still be left hungry.
When push comes to shove, give me a large plate of varenyky with sour cream and “shkvarky”, or a thick juicy steak done medium rare, or a hearty bowl of home-made chili with garlic toast, and I am happy. For me, food is still more about taste and nourishment, than esthetics.