How to Eat Well

And no, it doesn’t involve Instagram

Matt Brennan
Human Parts

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The Author and his roommate in The Kitchen

The first apartment I leased with my current roommate was a sleek, small two-bedroom on the twelfth floor of a brand-new high rise in New Orleans’ Central Business District, and along with the discount that management offered the first wave of tenants, we chose the place because I fell in love with the kitchen. We painted the wall above the sink “Clay Pot,” a shade which in effect more closely resembled the color of pumpkins or traffic cones, and hanged a black-and-white canvas printed with a photograph I snapped at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, but these were only embellishments. The kitchen’s best feature was in its bones: the surgical-white countertop with matching oven and range, on which I rolled gnocchi for an old friend on his first night in town and basted celebratory roasts for crowds of five or forty, all with a clear view of the lights on the bridge over the Mississippi River, twinkling in the Southern sky.

It was in this kitchen, at my roommate’s urging, that I made my sole attempt at recording what I ate — a blog whose depressing entries (like “Chicken Fricassee, Carrots, and Mustard Greens with Garlic Mashed Potatoes”) document the dangers of trying too hard with far more precision than, say, how to make a risotto.

I hold to the old maxim that pasta water should have roughly the salt content of the Mediterranean.

[R]oasted mushrooms and leeks with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano, or English peas and ramps with fresh herbs, are two combinations I like.

Fricassee is, fittingly, a French word popularized in Southern cooking. It means ‘to cook chopped food in its own juices’ (swoon!), and probably comes from the words frire (‘to fry’) and casser (‘to break’).

I can offer no defense except to say that the monster who wrote those sentences bears little relation to the person who ate the meals they purport to describe. I hold to few old maxims, culinary or otherwise. I have never cooked with ramps, and would struggle to select them from a greenmarket line-up. I “probably” deciphered the etymology of fricassee from an online dictionary, or otherwise bullshitted it entirely. This gulf between the self-fashioned epicure and the boy whose childhood nickname was The Biscuit King (because he always filled up on bread before dinner) might explain why the blog survived but five days, as though its creator had suddenly vanished. In truth, he never existed at all.

We live in an era as much defined by how we collate our calories as by the act of consuming them. Throw a stone in any direction and you are likely to hit someone checking in on Foursquare, snapping their lobster mac on Instagram, blogging about the challenges of the paleo diet, messaging a celebrity chef on Twitter, setting the DVR for Chopped, or saving a chili recipe on Pinterest. In one respect, this is simply the logical, digital extension of food writing’s long and storied history, millions of Calvin Trillins reflecting on the particular mole they encountered today. I recognize the impulse. Cuisine is an area in which we all claim a kind of sensuous expertise — it is no coincidence that the subjective assessments we make of other cultural artifacts, from obscure EPs to Hollywood blockbusters, fall under the rubric of “taste.”

It is easy to dismiss a certain acquaintance's 423rd “vintage” cheeseburger (#yum #bacon #yolo) with a snide comment about narcissism (#millennials #humblebrag), but why we’re so drawn to filtering what goes in our mouth through social media, and why this tendency prompts such acerbic reactions, is trickier to grasp. I cannot help but wonder, reconsidering my own ill-fated brush with chicken fricassee, if the mechanisms we use to tell the world about our good eating prevent us from eating well, from embracing and at times confronting the rocky personal terrain on which our relationships with food are forged.

In point of fact the gnocchi were slightly gummy, at least one of the roasts was overcooked, and my roommate enjoyed the mustard greens enough that I kept the recipe, but I suspect you will understand me when I say that these are not the details of those particular moles that I wanted to document in the first place.

Shrimp and tasso with pickled okra. Baked oysters, Bienville style. Duck breast, fennel, savory bread pudding; French fries, croque madame, Pinot noir; sweetbreads, rabbit, sherry-mustard vinaigrette. These are some of the items I tasted during a recent visit from my parents, a weekend that left me craving raw kale salad and a wheatgrass shot for the first time in my life. But other than the implication that I come from a long line of gluttons, this singsong litany rings flat. It is the literary equivalent of an Instagram snapshot, framed in such a loving close-up that the texture of the experience disappears entirely once you reach the edges of the plate. It is food under the cloche, as it were, hidden from the world that made it.

No photograph, recipe, or hashtag will tell you, for instance, that the shrimp and tasso tasted in the best way possible of Buffalo sauce, or that the bald-pated patriarch at the next table wore a cardboard crown and had a shine of tears in his eyes as the many generations seated around him harmonized “Happy Birthday” to perfection. Neither pin nor post will convey the cocoa notes that dusted the duck, or that the two friends who accompanied us to dinner that evening, formerly a couple, scarcely exchanged a word unmediated by me or my parents. But it is, of course, this very sort of detail that differentiates one duck from another, that transforms “taste” from the chemical reaction of sugars, salts, amino acids, and peptides on the tongue's receptors into one of the defining elements of who we are, or hope to be.

If this sounds too heady, consider your answer to the following question, one my father has used successfully to make conversation since time immemorial: What would you eat for your last meal?

Chances are it’s not the refined, deconstructed, impeccably sourced dehydrated egg crumble with caviar you ate in New York with a client, but something more prosaic, more personal — your grandmother’s lasagna, your husband’s beef stew, the banana split from the ice cream parlor where you had your first date the summer you turned fourteen. Mine is whole roasted chicken with extra-crispy golden skin, wilted spinach, and creamy, impossibly rich garlic mashed potatoes covered in pan drippings. Not, or not only, because the chicken’s succulence and the dairy tang of the potatoes will test one’s commitment to table manners, but because I discovered the dish in sixth grade, at a bistro in Paris on my first trip to Europe, and have spent the better part of my life since searching for a comparable replica. Or because we still tease my younger brother about his emotional plea during that vacation: “Why can't we be like normal people and go to Florida?! All of my friends are in Orlando! I hate culture!” Or because the five of us were together then and now we're not, and I have no real way of expressing how sad this makes me except to preheat the oven and rub the chicken with butter, hoping to turn back the clock.

To eat is to flip through the pages of your own memoir, to choose your own adventure through the past. When I fly into Boston late at night I still ask my father if we can stop at Moon Villa for fried rice and “cold tea,” the restaurant’s pre-liquor license code for Bud Light, as though it were the Clinton era and we’d just left a game at the Garden. When I’m in the mood for homemade pancakes I dredge up the ancient recipe Dad's parents used, when we’d stand on a stool over the griddle the morning after a sleepover and wait for the batter's bubbles to subside. I can no longer enjoy a Fribble, the Friendly’s restaurant chain’s version of a chocolate milkshake, because it was the only food Mom’s father could keep down in his last few months, before he died of cancer.

In point of fact the Fribble remains just a milkshake, a frigid mixture of ice cream, flavored syrup, and milk, but you see now that what I mean by eating well has little to do with the ingredients.

This is not intended as a screed against the Internet, digital food culture, or users of Instagram and Foursquare. When the hunger we exhibit for documenting our eating habits replaces the actual hunger suffered by countless millions around the world as the foremost problem facing society, this opinion may change, but until then feel free to keep snapping, pinning, posting, blogging. We have, as the saying goes, bigger fish to fry.

And yet my own experience suggests that caution may be in order; that we might, to the collective benefit, temper the instinct to broadcast ephemeral slices of our diet in such vast quantities. In sharing our food with the World Wide Web — in composing the image, selecting the filter, editing the captions, collecting the data — we stand to shut out the real one, the one where people celebrate birthdays and die of cancer, form families and break them, create memories that transcend the gumminess of the gnocchi or the toughness of the roast.

The last entry on my own blog is an exemplar of this anxiety, its promise of the meal to come already beginning to evaporate:

Saturday Supper Club

Got a partner in the kitchen tonight for a little dinner get-together — Mr. Ben Gurley. More later, including photos, but here's the menu for now:

chilled corn and crab salad

roasted lemon-basil chicken

broccoli and wild rice gratin

I cannot say where I procured the crab, or if the chicken was juicy. I cannot tell you how broccoli and wild rice ended up forming a gratin, or if the corn was just then coming into season. I cannot remember who joined Ben and me for our Saturday Supper Club, much less what stories were told or arguments waged.

Did I take the photographs as intended? Did I stick to the menu? Did I for one second consider that documenting what I ate would be an impoverished side dish to eating? Some distant server contains the evidence of what I consumed during the course of one week that September, but does it tell me what lay beyond the edges of my plate?

I must confess that the title of this essay, “How to Eat Well,” is a form of misdirection. I am not writing a prescription. I do not consider your digital diet a burden, and even if it were such things are easily avoided by rolling gnocchi or basting a roast. I am only trying to suggest that the online communities we propose to build with these bytes of food prove bland when divorced from the world in which they were created. I am only asking that you remove the cloche from time to time and tell me what lies beyond the edges of your plate, because in the end it is you who differentiates one duck from all the others. We archive memories on the Internet, but that is not where we make them.

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Matt Brennan
Human Parts

TV critic, Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood! My work has also appeared in Slant Magazine, The Gambit, LA Weekly, Slate, Deadspin, Flavorwire, and more.