Food(ie) for Thought
When was the last time you geeked out over something?
For me, it was finding this smoked paprika salt on the ferry to Buenos Aires when I first arrived.
The moment my Maldon-worshipping self saw that tiny jar of huge, flaky pyramidical crystals flecked with pimentón in the duty free shop, I knew I had to fork over the $7US and buy it and try it and play with it, champagne taste on a beer budget be damned.
And despite the fact that I grew up around food and have been cooking for over a decade, this sort of effusive emotional response to a food item still happens with me, several times a month, if not every single week.
It happened last October when I was road tripping back from California to Texas, and was given the most perfect bowl of yogurt for breakfast, made with milk from the cows at the farmhouse I was staying at in Utah, and honey from their hives, and fruit picked from their friend’s orchard.
And again when I was on a random adventure in Costa Rica last November, and found out what “mandarína” and “maracuyá de amarilla” could really be, even though the travel partner I was with was completely uninterested in my hunt for weird produce.
And again in December when I discovered edible oyster mushrooms in the woods surrounding my dad’s cabin in Oklahoma, and spent hours hiking through the forests to harvest them by the armloads, cooking them in every way I could possibly imagine.
And again in January at an asado in Uruguay, when I was wandering the surrounding property of the host’s house, picked a fallen yellow plum up off the ground, and experienced the best piece of stone fruit I had ever had in my life so far.
You get the idea.
For me, geeking out over food is like breathing.
It was at that same asado that I got obnoxiously excited over the sugar served with coffee after lunch.
(Granted, I may have been a few glasses of wine deep, but…)
In front of me sat this tiny porcelain bowl of deep brown, almost black, slightly sticky sugar with the largest crystals I had ever seen.
It wasn’t demerara or muscovado. It was something else entirely, like a perfectly crystalized molasses without the bitter acridness of the liquid version, or the cloyingly sweet comfort blanket of a standard brown.
And I vocally geeked out.
“Is nobody else at this table as obsessed with this sugar as I am?”
The few people sitting around me quietly looked at me as though I had lost it. (Not that that deterred my enthusiasm in the slightest.)
“No seriously- look at it! Isn’t it the most beautiful sugar you’ve ever seen?That you’ve ever smelled? Taste it!”
When permission is given to play, curiosity takes hold of even the least inclined to do so.
It’s not that most adults don’t remember how.
It’s just that they don’t think about ingredients or look at them through the same lens as a person who is obsessed with food might.
Suddenly, several other people decided that they needed a cup of coffee.
And I secretly knew that it was because they wanted to share this experience.
It was an “I’ll have what she’s having!” moment.
(And I’m not talking about the coffee.)
The word “foodie” has gotten such a negative connotation in recent years, and to me, that just seems wrong.
It’s like the grown-up equivalent of the “cool” kids calling the smart kid on the playground a “nerd” because that kid is sitting in the corner, obsessively reading and learning everything they can about a particular subject instead of playing tag: studying it relentlessly, thinking about it constantly, excitedly regurgitating facts in order to try and connect and make meaningful conversation with other humans about the things that fascinate them the most.
And really, what in the hell is so wrong with that?
What is so wrong with being a foodie?
What is so very wrong about getting excited about food, about learning as much as you can about what you are eating, about geeking out over something that you have to encounter multiple times a day?
At some point in our lives, we are given the message that if we want to be taken seriously, we need to behave as such.
But I don’t think this works in our favor.
Yes, take your work seriously and do a good job of it, but don’t confuse pensiveness for passion.
I think you can be light and joyful and inquisitive, maintain a sense of awe and wonder, allow yourself to get excited, and still not be seen as an impostor.
If anything, it makes you less of one.
I’ve had a lot of interests and hobbies over the years, and there are few things in life that will help you go deep with yourself and with the people around you more quickly than food.
Yet all too often, I feel like so many people in developed nations are really missing out on the opportunity to stake their very own emotional claim in this space.
One of the most important tasks in each of our days, in our unending quest for what we actually need to stay alive, is treated as an afterthought or saved for a special occasion, and not looked at as the daily source of knowledge and pleasure that it so easily can be.
And maybe that’s why I get frustrated with the industrialization and commoditization of our current system.
Because it allows everyone to disconnect from their own survival.
To simply show up and check out.
Yes, I too value consistency in terms of dining experiences, but there’s something to be said for utilizing an organic ingredient whose flavor is unknown or unpredictable.
It requires a different level of trust and demands your complete attention. It takes focus, thought, and reflection. You can’t go on autopilot every single meal. You have to ask yourself how each and every thing makes you feel as you’re working with it, and attempt to somehow connect the dots.
It’s not always an easy task.
But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Last week I found myself wandering the streets of Buenos Aires in search of the food item I was craving the most: peanut butter.
While peanuts are pretty readily available at many corner stores here, apparently no one in South America eats peanut butter like we do in the states, and so, it can be rather difficult to find.
I had met a friend in Palermo for lunch, and we somehow ended up in Chinatown in the neighboring Belgrano during this adventure, as he was searching for art supplies that his girlfriend had requested.
Of course, I remember reading somewhere on an expat forum that peanut butter could be found in Chinatown, but that wasn’t the only thing I ended up finding.
Purple corn! Pine mushrooms! Bolivian peanuts!
And yep. That black sugar from the asado that I geeked out over.
We all have our routines.
I get up in the morning. I fill the coffee pot and turn the stove on. I make my bed while the coffee percolates. And then, I sit down and create a to-do list for the day as I drink my coffee. Between that moment and bedtime, I will spend most of my hours writing, a few hours keeping in touch with the people I love, and many hours aimlessly wandering the streets, searching for moments of brilliance in what is perceived as mundane.
Perhaps I ask for too much from this world, for it to constantly be my source of culinary entertainment and inspiration at all times.
But I don’t think so.
And there are others who clearly feel the same way.
The world is big, and we have a tendency to exist in safe, small bubbles.
We eat at a place because we like it, or because other people say they like it.
But you know what? I had the weirdest “pizza” of my life a few evenings ago, based on the fact that other people said they liked it.
And honestly? I didn’t.
It was weird.
That’s part of the experience though.
Not everything will be great.
But you will learn.
You will grow.
And in the end, that’s what life is all about.
So don’t be afraid to make a mess.
Make strange food.
Excitedly share your experiences.
And above all, play.