Writing about food is hard. Even food critics ultimately fail at the task, but nonetheless keep trying. Presumably because a paycheque is involved, because practice makes perfect and because, well, we need someone to describe the food we eat (its effable tastes, its associations). Food critics, as it happens, fail less miserably than the rest of us. Great meals may provide the setting for our most important personal legends, but the food often leaves us at a loss for words. Here’s another photo of us having a fantastic time—oh, and yes, the Mahi-mahi was out of this world.
Our nights and days are bound together by meals. As the saying goes, “Hey, you gotta eat”—and we do, with happiness and, recently, increasing guilt. Ancient Greeks ate two meals a day: a lighter ariston of bread, olive oil, fruit and red wine late in the morning; and a fuller deipnon (dinner) in the evening. The Athenian leader Pericles considered more than two meals a day to be highly decadent. No doubt he’d also be affronted by today’s enormous portions. Just like our grandparents.
It’s Thanksgiving, and once again you’ve overeaten massively. Why do we say, “I’ll never eat again,” and on some level actually believe this to be true? Why, asks psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his highly enjoyable book Stumbling on Happiness, do we have trouble imagining hunger when we’re full? Gilbert says it’s because we’re locked in the present, and we use it to predict (often quite inaccurately) our feelings about the future.
This helps explain why we react so emotionally to the idea of eating bugs. We “pre-feel” the activity using the experiences we have with bugs—none of which, for most North Americans, are gustatory positives or include a three-star restaurant review. This is where Jared Young’s piece “Bugs: A Culinary Guide” (page 28) comes in: correcting mistaken predictions of future disgust, Young’s fine descriptions tell us what beetles, scorpions, caterpillars and locusts really taste like.
So when it comes to food, why don’t we believe other people’s opinions more often? Perhaps because we also know our friends’ feelings about the décor, their boyfriend’s cheapness or the overly friendly waiter. And we know how these all have an effect on how they felt about the food. Of course, we’re fairly objective when we have to assess other people’s reports—Just the facts, ma’am—but not when it comes to assessing our own meals. Despite all this, we’re very simple creatures. According to Gilbert, we overestimate our need for variety and underestimate the role that time plays in our dietary choices. If you like something, wait a few days and make it again: it’ll taste just as good. As my six-year-old daughter likes to say, “Yaay! Macaroni and cheese… again! Daddy, how come you always know the food I like?”
But food is more than sustenance, it’s an art—one reason the “last suppers” of top-notch professional chefs (page 38) are so engrossing. Deep culinary knowledge allows them to imagine the most exquisite, unheard-of meals, which often turn out to be meals of the purest simplicity, pastiches of positive memories. The next time you go to a fine restaurant, consider how your chef and restaurateur may have had such quasi-spiritual moments in mind when they sat down to create the menu. Achieving the ultimate Beef Wellington is a beast! Beastlier even than General Tao chicken.
The pieces in this food-themed issue come in all shapes and sizes. Food and chemistry mix in Rina Palta’s “Kitchen Scientists” (page 30), a look at the people and origins of molecular gastronomy. Besides “My Last Supper” (page 38), religion appears in Mona Awad’s fresh, intimate reporting on Mormon cuisine (page 20) and in Mark Mann’s visit to church potlucks, “Methodists vs. Quakers” (page 13). Food also mixes with politics, especially in Tadzio Richards’ “Spirit Food” (page 44), where a feast plays a central role in the competing land claims of First Nation groups. Family, of course, is at the heart of food, as shown by Maria Francesca LoDico’s reflections on her foremothers’ cooking habits (page 11), in an excerpt from Gil Courtmanche’s incredible A Good Death(page 54) and in Carol Windley’s subtle and poignant short story “Feast Days” (page 58).