Category Archives: Fire

The other carnal pleasure:

Culinary Promiscuity: The act of sharing food with strangers  – the  ultimate taboo of the prehistoric nuclear family.

A couple of million years ago any cave wife caught passing a mastodon morsel out of wedlock ran a good chance of being beat to a fare-thee-well with the business end of an aurochs hock. A roll in the pile of moss at the back of the cave? Fine. Just no strangers near the meat locker. So says Richard Wrangham in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.

That’s hard to fathom is an age when an entire political structure up to the Supreme Court is fixated on who does what with whom on their respective moss piles, while the second, once taboo carnal pursuit – eating and dining with or without companions or strangers  – has become an American obsession with media empires of food porn and culinary competition that spawn seventeen  year old chef phenoms. Bright young things battle for the best tables at $400 a meal celebrity restaurants and who we are is no longer what we eat but where we ate last night. Food and eating have become social accessories and identities. The roles have changed, values have flipped. Og would be agog.

Come to think of it, porn version 1.0 has it’s own media empires, too, but nobody delights in their children running home after school to tune in to the Playboy Channel..

On the culinary field you can legally and acceptably be as adulterous as you like.  One man, One..oh, wait – nobody cares or regulates with whom you share how many bacon dogs, or at least there’s no law restricting the number. Yet. This makes eating a lot easier than it would have been back when cave women were charged with keeping an eye on the larder, while their mates went out slaying mastodons with slingshots and clubs.  Of course so do 1,8000 BTU burners, Cuisinarts and espresso machines.

As focused as organized religion is on how many of which gender of us can morally form a family, it is thoroughly oblivious to our eating habits, although there are certainly enough nutritional gurus trying to infuse your choices with guilt and put order into the remaining totally legal carnal pleasure.

If you were to confess your latest five course tasting meal,  “Father, I have sinned, I had three lobsters in a delicate bisque and half a dozen Kumamoto Oysters, a savory flan of fresh chanterelles with tumeric foam followed by a Meyer Lemon Tart,”  Your confessor would more likely ask what wine you paired with the lobster than order three Hail Mary’s and a day of fasting. Tell him that you were conventionally promiscuous, however, and be prepared for some serious rosary time.

Culinary  promiscuity, the practice, is not only not prohibited, it has in relatively short time progressed from acceptable to norm to social necessity in millennial America. We are, in fact, engaged in a nationwide culinary orgy. What fun.

“Culinary Promiscuity”,  the blog, is about the nexus of food, cuisine, society, religion, people and just about everything. It is not a “dish” site, although we may wander in that direction, and it is not a recipe collection. Nor is it YELP! It’s about our tumultuously entertaining relationship with what we eat and where we eat it, about our political sense of nutritional righteousness, our food neurosis and the politics of cuisine, food and nutrition – not necessarily the same thing.

It covers,  food fads, trends, gurus, food writers, social trends and the law. It will doubtlessly encounter sex at some point –Food and Sex are carnal twins separated by mores.  Culinary promiscuity is about our constant fumbling at coming to grips with the things- mostly culinary – that make us happy, while the ghosts or our puritan history stubbornly seek the dark side of those indulgences. It’s about the conflict of  purity with hedonism, elitism with hunger, the sublime, the ridiculous and the reality of food.

So for now, here, have a bite of my croquet monsieur. May I please have a taste of your pasta?  Hey, Sailor. Let’s get promiscuous. Praise the lord and pass the Foie Gras.

<!–[if gte mso 10]> < ! /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:”Calibri”,”sans-serif”; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} > < ! [endif] >The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by  Richard Wrangham,  primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“.  Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our  species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.

Cooked  foods, he reasons with ample scientific support, provided more available calories, freeing our ancestors from the necessity of chewing leaves all day to get enough nourishment for another day of chewing, and to climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. The rest of the development came as consequences – smaller mouths, less physiology devoted to huge digestive areas necessary for getting nutrition from raw leaves allowing, leading to upright posture, which in turn made permitted the development of a voice box,  language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to use fire and the Cuisinart the right way. Wrangham is fascinating and engaging. He rocked my world view.

According to Wrangham, he faced considerable obstacles from the scientific community, but once published his theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd and replaced at least the popular concept of our culinary beings almost immediately. Slow Food advocate and Journalism professor Michael Pollan cited Wrangham repeatedly. That endorsement alone lends it ample credibility in the far foodist culture.  Most if not all of the food followers took it as immediate fact, which if probably is, even without having heard of its source.

During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,”  suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?

Obviously some do. Or did. The raw momentum topped the foodie topic chart within a month, as the same population who now had at least a third hand inkling of the new anthropological insights into the nutritional value of fire turned on their heels and ignored its logical extension – that cooked food is an important part of the human diet – with missionary zeal.

The first time I heard about the Raw Movement had been much earlier, when a restaurant owner, probably the author who kicked off whole raw frenzy, called me and asked for a “special chef”,  ignorant of the fact that all chefs are special. I happened to have an interview with a man I did consider uniquely visionary that day, Nick Petti – one of those smart and creative minds who while marching to a different drummer is records the music for a record deal. “Have I got a job for you,”   I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,”  and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”

As a matter of fact, I did know, and I had a clue how unprofessional and probably illegal the rest of the procedures were. I backed off the deal and thought that would be the last time I heard about it, but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s  book appeared, spawning an instant rush of highly vocal followers, then suddenly “raw food” was a trend which gathered “raw foodist” followers like a cartoon snowball rolling down a mountainside. Charlie Trotter picked it up and  published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures.  Roxanne Klein opened a raw restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of  the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.

Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,”  is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta  have fire.”  Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,” said potential candidate.  The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”

The triad of arguments against raw food  –  safety, flavor and nutritional value – are pretty hard to contradict, especially in the light of hard scientific evidence. Raw foodists make “dough” with a mix of sprouted grain kept at a temperature of 110F overnight, the ideal PH and temperature conditions for breeding a host of deadly microbes, for instance.  Raw liver – granted, not vegan – is just  scary, while a torchon of foie gras is only politically incorrect. Hot biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus seem sufficient arguments against a raw diet. Think of the alternative, then make your choice, but a large number of otherwise seemingly intelligent diners were turning to the Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant.

Why the lemming rush backwards?  Titillation certainly counts for some of the restaurants popularity, and the food was reportedly well done, especially considering the limitations. Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in  her press releases also brought attention and praise.  One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the  country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk. Other restaurants, gurus and books arose. Bloggers went all bloggy, and raw web sites were established. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice. Some of us scratched our heads.

The trend is  puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming, the difference in the new raw movement of course being that it restricts food to vegan options  – eliminating not only the crudo but also cheese, eggs and honey – and permits exclusively raw food. No toast for you.

Like other food fads,  the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. We are unhealthy because we eat the wrong things. We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.

One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw, kept the enzymes intact, making them healthier. Along with a vague notion of naturalness, enzymes and vitamins are the hook of the raw belief. The imagery of vital enzymes is persuasive, however not really scientifically correct. As a matter of fact, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available, and plant enzymes, generally destroyed in the stomach,  are of no use to primates, as we actually produce most  of the enzymes they need for successful digestion ourselves.

At about the height of the raw frenzy the tangential raw milk debate erupted, as local departments of health tried to resurrect the specter of milk borne epidemics, while food fanatics launched into a set of arguments blurring “natural”, personal choice, constitutional rights and magical thinking, some proponents arguing that pasteurized milk fostered cancer and that the unprocessed product cures it. The Department of Agriculture at the same time determined that Almonds should be pasteurized, to the horror of raw foodists.

One state health department tried to shut down Amish dairies, moving raw milk converts to political action, all the while making improbable claims that pasteurized milk was responsible for everything from birth defects to cancer and ascribing miraculous reversals to raw milk. It’s good for what ails ya’, leaving us in the onlookers’ stands confused in a “yes it does”, “no it doesn’t” argument between raw milk junkies and government officials regarding the danger of milk born tuberculosis and polio.

Having lived  for a bit among highly contented cows and plenty of the raw stuff, I never managed to acquire a taste for intensely cow flavored milk, even in spring, when silage doesn’t make it gamier. My good friend Jonathan White thinks it’s safe, which would be good enough for me, if I wanted to drink it. I wouldn’t know the absolute truth, but the messianic vigor of some of the proponents, like that of the raw vegan advocates is engaging and puzzling.

The trends have settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing (hint: It involves dandelion leaves), as trends will, bubbling up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous.  It turned out that at least in San Francisco – or better, Marin – there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive raw vegan restaurant. Perhaps those trying it found that the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wranghamsaid, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes. .

Still, give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor anywhere he decides to march us.