Published: Sunday, November 11, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
As I’m casually enjoying a Hillside burger, overcooked to leathery perfection, as usual (for health reasons, due to the alarming number of deaths-by-medium-rare at Boston College), my eardrums are assaulted by what I can only describe as a high-pitched bird call.
“Oh my god, I effing love sushi! I could literally eat it every single day for the rest of my life!”
I pause, burger in mouth, and without even turning my head, I can immediately match this shriek to the nauseating aroma of a young woman who apparently decided to bathe in bubblegum perfume this morning—a fragrance that can likely be traced back to the master chemists over at Victoria’s ever so invasive Secret. Although I was less than pleased by the damage caused to my central nervous system and the fact that this lovely lady’s perfume made my burger taste like a candy store, I found myself deeply pondering her comment.
How many foods could I live with for the rest of my life?
No one can possibly live with just one food. I don’t care if it’s a glistening jewel of blue fin tuna marbled with fat, or if it’s an isosceles triangle of crispy, greasy, cheesy-tomato goodness from Pino’s Pizzeria—either way, it ain’t happening, slick. As I shuffled through my culinary rolodex, wondering whether steak tartare or creme brulee deserved a place in my top five, I came to an important realization: there is an intimate relationship between the foods that we love and the cultures that we identify with.
Why does that matter? Well, whether you’re interested in the art of cooking and eating—i.e. gastronomy, to us foodies—or if you merely see food as a means of subsistence, we all still share the same biological need: we have to eat. While some of us adhere to strict diets, at times partaking in masochistic rituals that entail replacing meals with protein shakes and the like, most of us have a variety of different foods that we indulge in. Within these, there are a select few that we can’t imagine living without—foods that we have a deep and profound love for, foods that, if they ever became extinct, would take a part of our soul along with them.
Now, you may not necessarily have spontaneous visions of pork belly in your sleep, as I occasionally do, but you probably have at least one or two foods that, if you go long enough without tasting, you start to crave. In a serious way. A dangerous way. As the hunger silently grows inside you, it eventually reaches a point when you’re just about ready to murder a small puppy in order to get your hands on that stack of chocolate-chip banana pancakes, or that New York strip steak, or whatever it may be. When you finally do, two things happen. First, there’s a feeling of pure untarnished pleasure that sends a shiver down your spine as the first bite caresses your taste buds. This initial sensory explosion, which borders on the erotic, is enough to make the long journey worth it, but there is a secondary feeling that follows soon thereafter. As you savor one bite after another, there is an irreplaceable feeling of profound happiness and fulfillment that grows inside you, filling a void with the warmth and comfort of a gratified desire. It naturally follows from this that the more foods we crave, the more we can attain this kind of happiness. The question, then, is how does one come to crave more foods?
Obviously, there are certain foods that are popularly known to be decadent, but this can usually be attributed to a scarcity of supply, or some other complication of the sort. Why is lobster so expensive? Well, if you had to go to the bottom of the ocean, rummaging around caves to find a spiky alien creature that tries to attack you with massive claws and swims backwards faster than Usain Bolt, I’m pretty sure you’d want to get your money’s worth. The truth is, cravings are very subjective. More often than not, they have nothing to do with how costly a particular type of food is. The reason that we love certain foods above all others is that we hold an intimate relationship with them—we understand them, and they understand us. This relationship springs directly from the food culture that we are part of.
The reason that you occasionally crave St. Louis-style barbecue ribs is not an accident, it’s because you’ve been brought up knowing that if they’re made in the way that they’re supposed to be made, there’s a certain quality about them—something you can’t quite put your finger on—that can offer you a type of comfort and happiness that no other ribs can offer. Now, say a young German fellow travels to America and comes to try these same ribs for the very first time. As much as he may enjoy them, he won’t be able to relish them with the same level of understanding that you have. But, if he spends some time in the area and gains a sense of the spirit of barbecue culture, then, and only then, will he be able to truly cherish those ribs and appreciate the intricacies that make them so special—just as he does back home with gran mama’s juicy bratwurst.
This amorphous quality that various foods share is what we call finesse—intricate and refined delicacy, that hint of a special something that makes the tiramisu from this restaurant taste better than all the other tiramisus of all the other Italian restaurants in the vicinity. The more we understand a culture, the more intimate our relationship with its food becomes, and the more we are able to recognize the tiniest little differences that, for us, are in fact the biggest differences. As we gain an understanding of this notion of finesse, we come to realize that it is ubiquitous in life. The lightest touch is always the most sensational. The subtlest smell is always the most powerful. It is a quality that exists in every cuisine and in every culture. The more we look for this quality in other cultures, the more we understand our own food culture, and most importantly, the more we are able to achieve the sort of happiness that only comes through profound understanding.
Rene Descartes, a clever Frenchman who lived 400 years ago—“I think therefore I am,” that guy—said it more elegantly than I could ever hope to, so I won’t embarrass myself trying. In his Discourse on Method he said, “It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, [so that] we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational, a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to their own country. On the other hand, when too much time is occupied in traveling, we become strangers to our native country.”
When you’re trying to decide whether you should go abroad—whether it’s your junior year, or after college, or during winter break—let this be another reason. Invest in your potential to have new cravings. Guide your palate towards the happiness that it deserves. Most importantly, always look for that special something, the finesse, the certain je ne sais quoi, the subtle differences that only the trained eye can recognize.
The love that I have for carpaccio is intimate, one that is very different from my love for sushi, or pan con tomate, or xiao long bao, or escargot—yet all of these share a profound and intimate relationship with me. Open your heart to the customs and the foods of other cultures, and with a little luck, you too will fall in love.