While all else has been ‘deconstructed’ in the ‘post-modernist era’, food is one of the two things that have survived modernist deconstruction, the other being sex. Consequently, one would think that food escaped the ‘Artist in the Art’ trajectory. But this is not so. Food suffered from the same introduction of the artist and the destruction of food culture.
The Dharma of Food
The goal of a cook in a traditional culture, where cooking has not been commercialized and optimized to the restaurant experience yet, is to approximate to the norm. Such a cook wants to cook the dish as close to the traditional way as possible. This cook is not necessarily a professional cook. Though there are obviously professional cooks available, most of the eating and cooking are done at home and thus half of the population will have done regular cooking at some period of time in their lives. Whether the fancy French word ‘chef’ applies to them is a different question altogether.
At home, it was mostly women who cooked. Though a lot of men knew how to cook, it was the women who cooked on a regular basis at home. My grandmother cooked a wide variety of dishes, but neither did she claim to ‘invent’ any new dish, nor did she gloat in how her food was ‘different’. Instead, she always held her own grandmother to be the norm. All her life, she tried cooking food as her ‘grandmother’ would, as it would be cooked in a traditional Kayastha family.
The goal, to reiterate once again, was to approximate to the norm, and not deviate from it. The best cooking was that in which the cook almost disappeared from the dish, and the dish became exactly as everyone expected it to be.
And this norm to which everyone aspired to, was neither completely artificial like it is in modern times, where ‘chefs’ invent entire cuisines and dishes, nor completely spontaneous. For Ayurvedic instructions guided the local cuisines all over India. People cooked with whatever was available locally, including spices and other ingredients, but the general ‘dos’ and ‘donts’ of Ayurveda always applied.
This meant that people were free to choose ingredients and the processes to cook them but they did it according to some universal rules which were dictated by the Ayurveda. The ingredients were of course dictated by whatever was available locally and seasonally. The exotic rarely entered the cuisine except in some fruits and some rare items like asafetida.
This was a mirroring of how Dharma also governed in India. Local deities, local practices were encouraged rather than suppressed. But they were infused with an underlying meaning of the high civilization of the Vedas, keeping them tied in an invisible but ever-present thread of Sanatana culture and civilization. The food was the same. Ayurveda was the Dharma of Food.
Introduction of the Individual Cook
Until about the end of the last millennium, this was the case with most of the Indian cities, except some parts of the metros. Food had not been commercialized in India to a large extent. There were dhabas at the roadside which made standard fare for the travelers and for the drivers. Eating at these places was considered not a delicacy but a necessary risk that had to be taken to have the required nourishment.
Then there were dharmashalas with all the temples and Gurudwaras across the country. The cooks at these dharmashalas came from a very strict Ayurvedic culture who cooked Sattvik food with all the purity and sanctity demanded of the person who was cooking.
The dharmic sense of responsibility that the cooks at these temples cooked made sure the food at these places was as hygienic and healthy as it is at home. History is not aware of any pandemics breaking out of Hindu temples or Gurudwaras.
Then there were commercial cooks who cooked for big gatherings like marriages and bhandaras etc. Even there, the menu, in any given region, was almost fixed. There were no new dishes! No ‘signature dish’ of the cook. The best cook in any society was just good at cooking the regional and the ethnic food better than his rivals.
This does not mean that there were no regional differences or all the cooks cooked basically the same food. Not at all. Cooks were famous, both commercial and domestic, for having a ‘distinct flavor in their hand’. My grandmother was an especially good cook, who cooked in small batches in shapes and concepts which were all miniature. One could identify her food from the look, the smell, and the flavor. But this flavor was praised more and more for being as true to the ‘original’ as possible. True, there were differences, but what was awarded was gravitation towards the mean, and not the other way round.
And then, somewhere around 2000, fine dine restaurants started spreading in India. For the first time, people ate outside, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. This was a strange concept, a new idea, hitherto unknown to a traditional civilization. Why would someone ‘want’ to eat outside if they didn’t ‘have to’?
This is what brought the fundamental change in cooking. It brought the cook in the food, and the cook became ‘chef’. The individual agency had been introduced in food too.
Commercializing Food and Cooking
But let us rewind here and take a look at Europe and the West. In the West the commercialization of food started happening in the 1920s when feminism picked ground, women stopped cooking in droves, and started eating outside to ‘save time’ or ‘effort’ started becoming acceptable. This was the watershed moment when the commercialization of food started happening. Restaurants started appearing which catered to entire families and a ‘food culture’, meaning eating out in public for pleasure started.
And once this happened, the chef entered the food. Until then, the ‘competition’ in food was the mild friendly jealousy between neighboring women. The criteria were subjective and no matter how bad a home cook made a dish, she or he was not going to lose his ‘customers’ (family members) to the neighbor next door.
But now, the competition was serious and commercial. Restaurants and chefs competed with each other for attracting customers. Yes, food had become an industry and those eating food in the restaurant were ‘customers’. In this competition, the chefs wanted to ‘stand out’ rather than approximate to the norm. What would differentiate them from other restaurants and chefs if the dishes were all the same and up to the ‘norm’?
Search for the New and the Strange in Food Starts
Like in all fields of art, the search for novelty had begun in food too and the entire food culture started unraveling from there. Before this invention of ‘eating out’ in America in the 1920s, the West too had a stable food culture, even if it was not as good as Ayurveda recommends. After the commercialization of food, the ‘chefs’ started looking for the novel and the strange in food.
In order to stand out, they had to do something new. Chefs started whipping out ‘new dishes’ every other day. Throwing all traditional common sense of food out the window, they just started mixing different ingredients and different tastes together to create new ‘flavors’, new ‘textures’ and new ‘experiences’. Food, which had been a matter of bhakti and crafts until yesterday, had become a matter of Art for Art’s sake.
For why would someone go outside to eat the same food which everyone in her home could cook? Why would you eat the dish that your grandmother had been feeding you all your childhood? Even if you did once, why would you come back?
The restaurants then went on a spiral inventing ever new dishes which threw all traditional wisdom in food to the wind. Same dishes were tweaked a bit here and a bit there and new exotic and unpronounceable names were given to them to give them an aura of novel majesty. To ‘try’ all the dishes in a given restaurant became a quest for ordinary Americans. And the quest, just like in a video game, would never be completed. For in the ever-escalating mutual evolution of the chef and the customers, the chefs whipped out new dishes much faster than the individual customers could try them.
Revisiting the Ancient Dilemma: What to Eat?
For millennia, ever since the onset of culture, man has had no problem in thinking of what to eat for dinner. The menu was pretty fixed given the things available in a certain season and region. It was considered a mark of culture not having to think about what to eat for dinner. It signaled prosperity. For only, the very poor or the very deficient had to think about what to eat. The prosperous always had the familiar fare on their plates.
Moreover, it was considered that thinking about what to eat and what not to eat is also the mark of the uncivilized man. For a cultural society has already tried most of the permutations and combinations in a given region and time and thus the question of what to eat has already been settled. A cultural man who has the experience and benefit of a great culture behind him does not have to think about what to eat. The influential tradition that guides him also informs him about food. Michael Pollan describes this very well in The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
“The human omnivore has, in addition to his sense and memory, the incalculable advantage of a culture, which stores the experience and accumulated wisdom of countless human tasters before us. I don’t need to experiment with the mushroom now called, rather helpfully, the “death cap”… Our culture codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions that keep us from having to reenact the omnivore’s dilemma at every meal.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma 4)
Pollan calls the predicament of a modern diner with the ‘omnivore’s dilemma’ because biologically man is one of the few creatures who can digest a wide variety of foods. Most of mammals cannot eat just anything even if everything was available for they won’t be able to digest it. Man, unlike most mammals can digest a wide variety of foods and with the agency of cooking, just about anything.
That is why while evolving on the plains of Africa, he faced the question of ‘what to eat’. The onset of culture settled this question for him by fixing what to eat and what not to eat in a given time and place. Modern America in the 1920s once again set the clock to the prehistoric hunter-gatherer times as far as ‘what to eat’ question is considered.
When the women were encouraged to stop cooking in the 1920s in America and restaurants opened for the common public and for pleasure eating and not just for necessary eating. Michael Pollan attests to the fact that feminists were employed to campaign for abandoning cooking at home, as it encouraged the food and restaurant industry. (Cooked 131) For the first time after the onset of culture, the man had once again put his mind to the dilemma of what to eat for dinner: Mexican or Chinese? Organic or Regular? Vegan or Lacto-Vegetarian? Pollan again:
“One way to think about America’s national eating disorder is as the return, with an almost atavistic vengeance, of the omnivore’s dilemma. The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. (Perhaps not as quickly as a poisonous mushroom, but just as surely.)” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma 4-5)
The ‘Chef’ in the Food
Just like all Art in the West, the Food also went the way of the strange and the individual, as the rest of the Art forms did. Food started deteriorating as soon as the Chef entered the Food.
The chefs were ever encouraged to do something ‘new’ in order to stand out, in order to create ‘signature dishes’ which no one else could and which they could patent and prevent others from making. Very soon, this search for the ‘new’ turned into a search for something ‘strange’.
As a result, most of the dishes that the Masterchefs and the Michelin Star Chefs create are so strange they are only as useful in a home kitchen as the fashion show clothes are useful in a daily wardrobe. Most of these chefs pride themselves on creating dishes which are ‘pieces of art’. And this has come to mean how difficult the dish is to prepare. It was not that earlier all dishes were easy to make. But difficulty existed in a dish because it was necessary because the said ingredient had to process to a degree to be edible or palatable.
In the new world of experimental food, the difficulty is introduced for difficulty’s sake, so that the chefs are admired for their troubles, and other chefs can’t easily copy the dish by looking at it. Ingredients are processed so much so that they are no longer recognizable. Finished products are used as ingredients. Technical and commercial machinery is used to give food a certain ‘look’.
Blowtorches, gelatin, and nitrogen capsules are now regular ingredients and processes of cooking. Nitrogen cooking is a thing now. People make ice cream in one minute with nitrogen. Instant mousse is available. A new word is introduced, ‘plating’. Food has become what it looks rather than what it means for the body. As one contestant at a Masterchef competition says: “You eat with your eyes!”
The chefs, in order to stand out, create ever new and ever strange dishes, in order to create ‘signature dishes’ named on them and patented in their name.
As a consequence, food has become more of an intellectual idea. And like every intellectual idea, it is given to deterioration. People, who go to the restaurant and pay exorbitant prices for some dishes, are actually eating an ‘idea’, and not a dish.
They pay money for how it ‘looks’. Taste is important too, but after a while, all the important taste buds of the modern man has already been excited, he just does not feel excited about taste and taste only. He has to be excited about how the food ‘looks’ too. The modern man is coming nearer and nearer to ‘eating an idea’ and idea alone.
In a traditional society, healthy food was very easy to make because the goal was to approximate the norm and not to deviate from it. It is entirely possible to settle on healthy and tasty food if you don’t have to worry about throwing up ‘new dishes’ all the time.
In modern society, healthy food is increasingly hard to make as the goal is to deviate from the norm and not to approximate to it. In traditional cooking, even one foreign ingredient can throw the entire health balance of a dish completely awry. That is why, in modern cooking where the premium is on the ‘new’ and the ‘novel’, it is increasingly hard to whip out dishes which are both ‘novel’ and ‘healthy’.
This further pushes the food into becoming an ‘art’. It means that innovation is more in ‘how it looks’ than ‘how it tastes’. And we know that healthy had long gone down the drain.
The Chef has arrived in the Food. And the Food is consequently dead as the ‘food and medicine’ whole. It is now an ‘idea’, an ‘art form’, and like all other modern art forms, it is strange and strange only and that is its defining virtue and quality.
- Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.
- Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. The Penguin Press, 2013.
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