Food for Thought

Babbling about beauty and food

Can food be beautiful?

Can the preparation of food be seen as similar to the activity of an artist?

To the first question: Yes, food can be beautiful.

I say this based on an assertion I realize few of you, dear readers, will support. And I will offer little or no argument to justify my assertion. I can do this: After all, I have a bachelor’s degree.

The argument I will offer is this: That, given you accept we can use the concept of beauty in a meaningful way (another argument), I submit something can be beautiful only if an artifact of human organization. And thus, a goodly number of artifacts of human organization can be entertained as more or less beautiful. Including food.

Correct: Nature cannot be beautiful. A display of nature can be striking, aesthetically pleasing in a broad way, capable of inspiring awe. But, it is not an artifact resulting from human effort (unless you are a solipsist, in which case no one can argue with you about anything). Only something man-made has the potential to be labeled “beautiful.” Like it or not, this is the dock from which this ship departs. If you want to get off, now is the time; we’re about to sail.

An artifact of human organization.

An artifact that is what, that does what, in order to be considered beautiful?

The simple answer: One in which materials are organized in such a way as to inspire a sense of beauty (to borrow heavily here from Santayana — someone 99.9 percent of you have never heard of, and will never read. I have: After all, I have a bachelor’s degree.)

A sense of beauty arising from what?

From a sensual engagement with the artifact, then from a reckoning of the formal aspects of the evidence of the senses.

The beauty, therefore, is not in the artifact, but results from the senses being informed by it. The essential materials of beauty, therefore, are the senses themselves. The task of the artist is to create an artifact that serves to orchestrate a particular pattern of sensual, then intellectual responses in the viewer, the reader, the hearer … the diner? The engagement with the basic elements obtained in a sense interaction with the artifact leads to a more formal apprehension of that sense information, and can lead to the experience, or rather the judgment of, “beauty.” For beauty is nothing other than a judgment; a recognized fit of experience and concept. And one not fixed, or absolute.

An artifact produced as food has the potential to engage all the senses. As much as most “art forms,” and more than some. Food is, after all, capable of being so much more than mere fuel, just as a painting can be so much more than pigment on a surface, so much more than a shallow illustration or a reproduction of a photographic image. To perceive food as mere sustenance, outside the most dire of circumstances, is to rob the medium of most of its merit.

One sees food. One smells food. One tastes food. One can hear food, in some cases.
Compare eating to viewing a painting. In the painting are colors, textures, shapes in relation to one another, invitations to the senses, avenues to formal apprehension in the viewer.

In food: colors, textures, foundation tastes (sweet, sour, salty, etc.), temperature, “feel,” aroma, formal arrangements on the plate.

What’s the big diff? Must one argue that the artifact be enduring in order to be beautiful? That argument has failed on more than one occasion in the arts (what about a symphony is enduring … the score and its tokens, to some degree, but the live performances? Surely not.) What about a literary experience? True, the manuscripts and their tokens, books, can persist in physical form for some time, but is that where the experience occurs? Does the reading of a book persist beyond a very limited time?

Food bears other resemblances to the objects we normally associate with beauty. Many of the aesthetic questions we ask of art can be asked of food.

We can ponder the role of experimentation and adventure in the creation of food, just as we do in the arts. Parallels exist between masterpieces of painting, for example, and masterpiece creations on the plate. Just as there are schlock drawings of doggies, as over and against a Rembrandt etching, so too are there microwave dinners as over and against a Spanish chef’s creation and use of essences and foams.

As with music, the relationship between originals and their offspring enters into any consideration of food as a beautiful artifact.

Like music and poetry, many a dish proceeds from a recipe (the score or the original manuscript). Each performance of that score, each reading of that text differs, from time to time, person to person — differs for the same person encountering the artifact at a different time and in a different place — just as a favorite dish differs according to a variety of circumstances. What is the object that inspires the sense of beauty, the score or the particular performance, the meal or the recipe? What is the nature of the relationship between them? Is the recording of a performance of the same nature as the event recorded — the event, like the meal produced from the recipe, transient in nature, consumed, then gone?

Similarly, with a print taken from a plate: each strike from that plate is slightly different than its brethren. Is it the print (and in that case, which one?) or is it the plate that leads us to beauty?

Is it the meal, or is it the template — the recipe? If it is the meal, and we indulge the “same” dish several times, which instance is it that we deem beautiful? Or could it be all of them, perhaps, though all are different?

Nonsensical considerations, eh?

Or is it a matter of neglect to not ask such questions of the aesthetic objects we engage, of the food we prepare and consume?

What about the role of the cook and role of the artist?

First, there is a similarity in the broad and well- practiced range of techniques and intentions.

Let’s again consider paintings, and painters.
The painter, at least the traditional painter, generally produces two-dimensional objects, often colored, more or less, colors (or values, if no color) arranged in formal relationships designed to guide, to some degree, the engaged viewer’s apprehension of the object. There are painters who restrict themselves technically, sticking to accepted means; there are those who stretch the scope of techniques, in terms of tools, methods, products, etc.

There are painters content with reproducing the kinds of objects and images created before him or her by countless others. There are those who reproduce photographic images, who slavishly imitate the work and techniques of others.

Then, there are those who learn their lessons then, in effect, unlearn them, reconfigure their skills in an attempt to produce objects unlike those they have experienced —to seek new relationships, “unique” images.

For hack or adventurer, the materials of beauty are same (the senses); the elements used to manipulate those materials are very much the same (light, color, etc.) Technique differs somewhat, directed by differing intent but, in the end, there is a finite number of techniques available to all.

The same with cooks, eh?

There is the cook for whom time in the kitchen is a chore, for whom the recipe rules, for whom the palette, and palate, remains constant. The artifacts produced over a period of time show a stultifying sameness (all small differences accepted, as in when this week’s tuna noodle casserole is dry, next week’s is soupy, and the next week’s is burnt) each object constructed of the same elements, as per the recipe.

At the other end of the spectrum is the adventurer, the cook who seeks out different ingredients, looking for what is fresh and different each trip to the market; who, armed with a grounding in the compatibility, or lack of same, of tastes and textures, uses techniques — braising, broiling, baking, sauteing, steaming, etc. — to shape those ingredients (the palette) into discernibly different objects with each effort.

You have your hack Southwestern artist on one hand, your Soutine on the other.
You have the Betty Crocker Cookbook slave (or the microwave cook) on one hand, you have a radical foodie seeking to create new recipes on the other.

“Ah, but food is meant, by its very nature, to be consumed,” might go the objection. “In that, it is unlike a painting or a sculpture or a print. They are relatively stable objects, capable of revisitation, available throughout a significant duration.”

Note again, please, the similarity between food and music in performance. Note the similarity between food and performance art or the experience of a temporary installation piece. The dish, proceeding from its score (its recipe or guiding idea) is devoured. It is transient, yet the template remains. The symphony, performed by the orchestra is different in what way? Its performance, too, is utterly transient, its score securing the potential for a slightly different version to occur in the future.

What of dance? There is the performance, devoured in a short space of time. There is the choreographic template that endures.

A difference between these and one of Escoffier’s recipes and the dishes created with them as guides?

Perhaps the most significant difference is in the number of persons a single food artifact is able to engage. Is the difference significant? Is not literature consumed in much the same way — a solitary experience?

So, cutting the crap for a moment, since this can go on and on and on: What causes me to put this kind of vapid rambling on the page of a newspaper in Siberia With a View and to foist it on you, dear reader? Or rather, on the three or four of you who have managed to read this far?

Easy: I’m hungry.

I have just stopped painting in my studio, and I am convinced of the similarity between what I just ceased doing and what I will do in a moment, in the kitchen. The perceived compatibility of efforts provides me comfort, however illusory that comfort might ultimately be.

I am also sure that food, when more than fuel, its production and appreciation, is heightened by contemplation and practice. And, when this occurs, I am convinced that life is then better. When we consider food in the same light as art, we open the door on great meaning and pleasure.

It doesn’t require anything extreme. Tonight, I am making chicken tacos, with cumin and chile-spiced kidney beans, guacamole and greens.

The taco filling: I wash and dry two boneless chicken breasts and cut them into half-inch pieces, seasoning the pieces with salt and pepper. I thinly slice a medium white onion and set some aside, mincing it for use in my guacamole. I chop half a bunch of cilantro, reserving a bit for the guacamole. I pulverize eight or nine cloves of garlic. I open a can of crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes, reserving three or four tablespoons of the tomato for my beans. I have on hand: ground cumin, oregano, Kosher salt, ground black pepper, chicken stock, a lemon (halved), a lime (halved), and a hefty amount of my fave Espanola ground red chile.

I saute the chicken in olive oil in a heavy fry pan, over medium high heat. I toss in the sliced onion and cook until soft. I sprinkle with a hefty dose of cumin and sprinkle on some oregano, crushing the leaves between my fingers as I do so. I cook for a moment longer then add a half cup of tomato and the garlic. I cook until the tomato starts to turn color, getting sweet and nutty.

While this is happening, I put the kidney beans, with liquids, into a heavy saucepan. I add the tomato, a half teaspoon of the red chile, a splash of chicken broth and ground cumin and oregano. I will amp up the seasoning later. I set the beans to cooking over medium heat. I want most of the liquid to evaporate.

Back to the chicken. In goes a substantial amount of the red chile (no doubt, way more than my wife will appreciate — always my guide when it comes to chile) and a cup or so of chicken stock. I toss in half the chopped cilantro and turn the heat to medium, cooking the mix and reducing the liquids — eventually to a thick syrup.

The guacamole is simple: the mashed, but still somewhat chunky flesh of two ripe avocados mixed with a bit of minced white onion, some cilantro, salt, pepper, lime juice.

I heat corn tortillas on a hot griddle or, lacking time for that, wrap them in a slightly damp tea towel, put them in a bowl, and pop the bowl in the microwave for a minute or so, allowing the steam to do its work.

When the chicken mix is syrupy and the beans are nearly dry, I taste both and adjust the seasonings.

Assembly is child’s play.

It’s going to be beautiful.

Isn’t it?


What’s Cookin?

Cowboy Cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease baking sheets. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, white sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Gradually stir in the sifted ingredients. Stir in the rolled oats and chocolate chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing.

Note: The recipe says it makes 5 dozen cookies, I made 2 dozen regular size cookies.

Yields 5 dozen cookies – per serving: 95 Calories, 4.3g Fat, 15mg Cholesterol, 84mg Sodium, 13.7g Carbohydrates, 1.2g Protein and 0.6g Fiber.

Obituaries

Donald Mortensen

Donald Mortensen, a resident of Pagosa Springs, passed away Sunday, May 27, 2007.
He is survived by his wife, Cindi; two daughters, Deanna Campbell of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Chris Hewitt of West Palm Beach, Fla; and a brother, Mike James, of Hermiston, Oregon. Mr. Mortensen moved to Pagosa in 1996 after becoming disabled and retiring from bakery sales.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.


Announcements

BIRTHS

Logan Tyler Frady

Look who has arrived and brought so much joy to our lives … Logan Tyler Frady was born on March 21, 2007, at 2:17 a.m. Proud parents are Amber and Loren Frady. Logan weighed 7 pounds, 4 ounces and measured in at 19 inches. His Grandpa Bruce and Grandmothers Liz and Carla are just thrilled in California, while he is the second great-grandchild to his loving Nonnie-Diana here in Pagosa. We are so blessed to have someone as special as our little Logan.

LOCAL

Jenna Finney
Jenna Finney, of Pagosa Springs, is listed on the 2007 spring semester dean’s list at the University of Portland.
Finney is a senior and majoring in Spanish.
Students need at least a 3.5 grade point average to make the dean’s list.



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