I haven't written about cooking much. I wrote about making tomato basil garlic sauce last August, but aside from that, there hasn't been anything from me about food. I wish I could say that the reason for this is because food isn't a thing to be written about with sentimentality, as much as it is something to be savored in a moment and then forgotten. But I can't in good conscience say that.
Food is more than food. It is more than the momentary delight of your tastebuds. In Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarine's 1825 book The Physiology Of Taste: Meditations On Transcendental Gastronomy (a book every lover of food and cooking should read), Brillat-Savarine writes:
"Of all the senses though with which we have been endowed by nature, the taste is the one, which all things considered, procures us the most enjoyments: First, because the pleasure of eating is the only one, when moderately enjoyed, not followed by fatigue. Second, it belongs to all aeras, ages, and ranks. Third, because it necessarily returns once a day, and may without inconvenience be twice or thrice repeated in the same day. Fourth, it mingles with all other pleasures, and even consoles us for their absence. Fifth, because the impressions it receives are durable and dependent upon our will. Sixth, because when we eat we receive a certain indefinable and peculiar impression of happiness originating in instinctive conscience. When we eat too, we repair our losses and prolong our lives."
I want to expand on what Brillat-Savarine says, by adding that food has not only a deep, but unique, connection to the personal. We've done a spectacular job in America of detaching food from the personal. In a society where food is mass-processed and fast food has become a regular part of the average American's daily diet (including mine), we've not only become disconnected from how our food is made, but we've also become disconnected from the concept of taste; and having been disconnected from the concept of taste, we've lost the connection between our food and our "souls".
Let me explain.
When you ask someone "How does your ___ taste?" Normally you either get "Good" or "Bad" in return. I did a little experiment and asked my friends over the past week how their food tasted, but I told them that they weren't allowed to use "Good", "Bad" or any variation of those words. They had to be descriptive about what it was about that taste that they liked and why. It shocked me how large of a challenge that was! And I'm saying that not with any superiority, I had a hell of a time trying it too. But what was interesting was that afterward, my friends— and myself— voiced frustration, because even though we couldn't find the words to describe how a taste made us feel, inwardly we knew. We felt like babies with clear wants and needs but unable to give language to them.
Somewhere in the hustle-and-bustle of modern society, we seem to have lost the realization that just as a song can remind a person of their first time riding a bike or a movie can remind someone of their first date, so food can also trigger memory and emotion. We have detached food from meaning. It seems like now the concept of taste as being a lifelong journey and food as a world to be explored is lost. Now we eat only for sustenance. We refer to food as "fuel" to help us get through whatever work lies ahead.
The blame could be cast any number of directions, but one big reason I think we have detached food from the personal, is that we don't like being personal. To be personal in front of others is to be vulnerable. And if we were really in tune with what tastes brought about which memories— over a lifetime resulting in us connecting most tastes with memories— then we very well may be forced to talk about those memories to those eating with us. Our meals, whether with people we know or with strangers, would be much more intimate than what we are used to. And we don't like that. We don't like that because, most likely, somewhere along the line of life, somebody has hurt us. Somebody has betrayed our trust. And so we find it easier to fortify our "souls" from the outside. We build castle walls around the personal and demolish all roads that lead to it... in this instance, food.
But if one dares to tear down those walls, rebuild those roads to the outside, and to not be afraid to reconnect the everyday mundane with the deeply personal, as I have endeavored to do over the past few years, you quickly find that different tastes can unlock all sorts of memories, whether "lost" or always present, and can make you a better person. You'll find that there are certain stories from your life connected to certain foods that you regularly enjoy. And reliving these memories through taste can add a whole new flavor to existence.
I made Fettuccine Alfredo yesterday. It's a very simple, very basic Italian dish. Noodles in a creamy sauce. It dates at least as far back as the 15th century, originally referred to as "Maccheroni Romaneschi" ("Macaroni the Roman way"), but it was renamed Fettuccine Alfredo in 1914 by a wealthy Italian restaurateur named Alfredo Di Lelio. Alfredo sauce, for me, contains a personal story of passion and failure, and on regretting and not regretting at the same time.
Let's call her "Jennifer". She was part-Brazilian and part-Lebanese. Beautiful mocha skin. This was early last year and Jennifer and I had bonded over our love of Richard Dawkins. In fact, in a meeting that was almost too perfect, I first saw her in the library reading The Greatest Show On Earth. The way I scored my first date with Jennifer was by giving her a copy of The Blind Watchmaker a week later with my phone number written on the inside.
Even though we dated, ours was not a romance in the conventional sense. She wasn't into monogamy and I didn't want a relationship because I studied for half of my weekdays and worked the other half. But we both normally had our weekends off and we enjoyed spending them with each other. We had more in common, it turned out, than philosophical outlook. She too liked to cook Italian. I had stayed over on a Saturday night once, and some way or other the topic of making pasta came up. That was when she showed me how to make Alfredo sauce the way I do it now.
Before I continue this story, I want to point out that making Alfredo sauce rather than buying it didn't seem strange to me at all. If one is to devote oneself to cooking— whether as a hobby or as a profession— one must try to make ingredients from scratch and avoid buying pre-made ingredients from the store as much as possible. I had already been making my own sauces long before meeting this woman, including Alfredo sauce, but was simply looking for a better way of doing it. And she showed me.
When I taste Alfredo sauce today, a very vivid and specific memory comes to my mind: It's of Jennifer standing at the stove and asking me, "Do you like watching me cook in your t-shirt?" I, fancying myself a comedian, quickly ran to her room and ran back to her wearing her pink crop top and asked "Do you like me eating in yours?"
I wish I could say we parted ways on good terms. But we didn't. We had a fight. A stupid fight about something small and meaningless. But it was one of those fights over something silly that led to things being said that couldn't be taken back, forgotten, or forgiven. While our time together sparked a passion that was quite strong, it had erupted just as intensely. We have never seen or spoken to each other since.
If you're like me and you work out on a fairly regular basis, then chances are you're afraid of Alfredo sauce. It's heavy and fatty and the amount of calories found in one cup of it (996!) can undo a week's worth of exercise. But the recipe for Alfredo sauce that my lady friend showed me was a low-fat low-calorie recipe that is absolutely divine and that I've been using ever since.
Ingredients: Skim milk, Olivio spreadable butter (a healthier alternative to regular butter), arrowroot flour (78 calories compared to the 455 calories regular flour has), parmesan cheese, garlic (cloves, not minced!), and pepper.
Total fat: 13.4g when portioned how I'm about to tell you.
Calories: 235 when portioned how I'm about to tell you (this doesn't include the 9 calories contained within each gram of fat, which when factored in, would equate to 355.6 calories).
- Melt 1½ tablespoons of butter in a pan at medium heat.
- Whisk in 1½ tablespoons of flour. This will create a thick yellow-ey substance. Don't panic.
- Pour a cup of milk in. But do it gradually. Then whisk for 5 minutes until hot.
- Take 3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese and add to the base— again, gradually— and whisk until fully incorporated.
- You want to cut up your garlic cloves until you get 1 teaspoon of large garlic chunks. Then get ⅛ of a teaspoon of pepper (referred to as "a dash"). Add both the garlic and the pepper to your sauce at the same time. Stir.
- Cook for an additional 2 minutes until your parmesan is melted, and then turn off the heat and let sit.
- Enjoy your Alfredo guilt-free.