Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Cooking Has Become New National Pastime

(From March 15, 2007 Grand Haven Tribune)

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, the song goes. It is supposed to capture all that is America.

Unfortunately, NASCAR is the fastest growing sport in this country, and soccer still tops the sporting heap in most of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Chevrolet has taken a back seat—or, to really use a bad automotive metaphor—been run over by Toyota and other imports.

That leaves hot dogs and apple pie. Two out of the four ingredients of that old song, a full half of our national identity, is related to food. And unlike baseball and Chevrolet, food seems to be a passion that is really taking off.

In fact, by my observation, food has become a sport in its own right. It is our new national pastime.

I’m not necessarily talking about food as actual sport, as in food fights. Nor do I refer to those odd eating contests, where rather rotund contestants inhale obscene numbers of hot dogs, chicken wings, pies, or whatever else the contest is about.

I’m talking about the fact that so many mainstream Americans are so into food, and in particular, cooking. Much of this was caused by, and is evidenced by, the cable television channel called Food Network.

For a short time, I was worried that my wife was dating some guy named Emeril. We’d be in our kitchen and she’d say: “Emeril says gahhhhlik makes this better,” or “I learned from Emeril that essence is the special ingredient in this chicken dish.” Finally I learned this guy was some chef who had his own shows on the Food Network.

Bam! I thought. That’s what this is about. So I was prepared when she mentioned the names of other male food superstars—Alton Brown, Bobbie Flay, Tyler Florence, even someone known as the “Naked Chef!”

The real struggle came whenever I was ready to check scores on ESPN, I found the TV had been tuned to Food Network. At first this frustrated me, but then I started watching. If I had been worried about my wife’s relationship with Emeril, she now has to wonder about my infatuation with women named Rachel, Giada, and even a southern grandmotherly type named Paula Deen. Talk about spicy dishes! And these women are attractive, too.

Now, our kitchen is home to all of these names, as well as an increasingly sophisticated and diverse culinary vocabulary. We don’t just have sauces and dressings. We have remoulade, bisque, the ‘trinity’, herbs de provence, rubs. We don’t just cook, broil, or grill. We now brine, baste, sear, and braise. When I said food has become like a sport, this is what I mean. There are sports fans who basically want to know the score. And there are sports fans who can discuss at length the merits of specific rules, the strategies behind each specific play in the playbook, and the relative talents of each player.

That leads to another phenomenon. Sports nuts have lots of equipment. A guy can basically play baseball with a glove, a bat and a ball. Or he can have several mitts, several bats for different situations, batting gloves, baseball pants and shoes, and so on. My wife now has gone beyond the basic cookware to a plethora of pots and pans and assorted accessories, the purposes of which are often a mystery to me. Now she has more kitchen tools than I have power tools. In fact some of her kitchen tools are power tools. When she uses them she has this bizarre look on her face that usual means I should go away, but that I will eat very well before the night is through.

Just as sports enthusiasts acquire all manner of books and specialty magazines, the same is happening with food. There are numerous magazines all about food and cooking. Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray have their own food themed magazines. Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Eating Well are a few others. My wife has countless recipes from these and other magazines, as well as downloaded from the Food Network Web site and other sources. And whereas sports teams have their playbooks, those into the sport of food have their cookbooks. Boy, does my wife have her cookbooks. If I live to be 100 and eat three meals a day, we will perhaps sample half of the recipes therein. Wherever we travel we usually visit a bookstore. I pick up something from the history section, a good novel, or the classics of literature. If I lose myself browsing, she is always easy to find—in the cookbook section.

While this food obsession seems to me at times to be out of hand, we may need to continue watching the food shows and reading the food magazines. That’s because there are still some things I don’t understand. For example, if cheese is essentially mold, what makes cheese get moldy? What makes Teflon stick to the pan?

But these are things to ponder over dinner. Let’s eat!