The Good Food Fight
I couldn’t say that my roommate was too happy when, upon opening our closet, she found a giant mushroom suspended in hazy liquid. This particular mushroom—also known as a SCOBY, or Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast—was part of my kombucha tea home brew kit, merely one of many culinary tools I had randomly brought back to the apartment. First it was the free espresso maker I found left on a street in New York City—it created a far better drink than the cheapest soy cappuccino at Harvard—and now this. At least the espresso machine fit in with the room’s décor. The same could hardly be said of my gelatinous SCOBY, full of black strings, floating in a yellow liquid as if it were some abandoned laboratory experiment.
A SCOBY is a necessary part of brewing kombucha, an ancient fermented tea product that tastes of acid and vinegar. The SCOBY culture is added to a tea-and-sugar solution. After a week or two, the culture feeds on the sugar and ferments the tea. Kombucha makers claim the drink provides a number of health benefits. The drink itself can be found in glass bottles anywhere from health stores to CVS, packaged in psychedelic wrapping with flavors like “cosmic cranberry.” It sells for upwards of three to four dollars.
The whole is always more than the sum of its parts, but sometimes it’s also altogether different. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when—at chef Dave Arnold’s New York bar Booker and Dax—I ordered a drink with the component parts of a Bloody Maria (a variation on a Bloody Mary made with tequila in lieu of vodka) but received a clear, herbaceous drink more reminiscent of a mouthful of red pepper flakes.
Post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida coined literary deconstruction, and now many chefs employ a culinary equivalent of the technique. To deconstruct a text is to highlight how the meaning of its words is determined by experience, reference, and context, and how those words have no intrinsic meaning. To deconstruct food is to take its component parts and reassemble them in an unexpected or novel way, challenging our assumptions about the proper way to prepare a dish or a drink. To deconstruct food is to play tricks on the taste buds.
At almost any wine tasting, the same precisely obscure terminology is used to describe the taste of the drink: a scent of stone fruit, balanced flavors, excessively young tannins. But to me, a certain unknown German wine evoked more unfamiliar qualities: a scent of gasoline or paint thinner, watery—perhaps not the sort of flavor profile the traditional elitists of the wine world would deem worthy of such analysis. But I found it intriguing. Sitting in Brooklyn Winery, as I sipped my friend’s wine—poured from draft, no less—I believed the taste to signify the end of elitism in the wine world.
I had walked passed the street a million times and it looked just the same, save for a hardly noticeable sign trying to pass itself off as a lamp post: “Saloon.” Walk down two flights of stairs into a dimly lit basement and you will think you have entered the past, complete with handlebar moustaches and hermetic flasks.
Saloon, in Somerville, Mass., is one of many new bars and restaurants embracing the feel of the Prohibition and pre-Prohibition era. It is all part of the experience—today customers are seeking more than just tasty food or creative drinks; they are seeking a full interactive event. The décor, the menu, the restaurant staff, the customer—all contribute to a theatrical reenactment of the food culture of a distinct historical period. And what better way to build community than through this form of art, a staged dining experience based on customer participation?
Foodie. The term evokes many characteristics: elitism, snobbery, obsession, gluttony. But the gourmets of today remain separate from their historical counterparts of a century ago, and the difference now is in the accessibility and democratization of both knowledge about food production and culinary innovation.
Today, the term foodie describes a way of thinking rather than a way of acting. A foodie is someone committed to increasing his or her knowledge about food and—in this era—someone who sees food as art that can be produced by ordinary people rather than by a culinary elite. In the 1550s and onward, the higher classes of England spent their wealth commissioning artists to create large sugar sculptures. Whereas this increasingly cheap commodity only became the primary source of energy for the masses later in the industrial era. It is clear to see how the idea of food as art became tied to notions of elitism and excess. But the foodies of today are of the postmodern era. They, of the internet age, demand information disseminated through a non-hierarchical network. When choosing a food item, they ask: What is its source? What are the ingredients? And who controls the means of production? They reject the authority of large corporations, such as McDonald’s, who reproduce foods based on standardization—a mere focus on the final product rather than the production process. The plated food is only one part of the story—even the high-end French restaurant is suspect for the modern foodie.