Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Basics: Food

Food is a legitimate fandom.

People all over the world are passionate about food. Just like comics fans, food aficionados spend obscene amounts of money every week on this thing they love. They watch back-to-back television shows about food. "Foodies" (yes, we have a name for food fans) might learn all sorts of obscure facts about food that nobody will ever ask for--a fanboy trait if ever there was one.

Bookstores devote large amounts of shelf space to books about food. There are food conventions. You can even become a fan of food on Facebook, which means it has to be official.

Like with any other fandom, you can buy merchandise that recreates the magic of food in your own home: hamburger keychains, for example, or Philly cheesesteak... hats.

Man wearing a cheesesteak hatYes, food is a key ingredient in human survival, but that can't be the sole reason it has developed such a strong following; otherwise, I would have sold all these breathing-inspired lunchboxes long ago. No, food is a subject that is interesting and appealing on a variety of levels, a hobby that can be appreciated by amateurs and professionals alike.

Do what tastes right:

Food, when prepared properly, tastes good. Except cabbage; you can't do anything good with that stuff. Don't hate me, cabbage fanboys.

Seriously, flavor is easily the main reason why anybody makes a big deal about food. Think about it this way: Humans enjoy experiencing pleasure through the senses--listening to beautiful music, looking at gorgeous art, petting fuzzy kittens; that sort of thing.

People have a lot of options if they want to experience something pleasing through the senses of touch, smell, sight, or hearing, but a delightful taste experience is accomplished almost exclusively through food and drink (unless you prefer licking sewer pipes and munching on gravel, Roger Wilco).

Basically, if you want to enjoy life through all of the senses, you can't help but be a fan of food.

Food isn't just about the taste, though; the smell of freshly baked cookies can be intoxicating, and the texture of a melt-in-your-mouth steak can make you weak at the knees (or weak at the stomach, if you're a vegetarian, but let's pretend we're talking about me here, because we are). Even the aftereffects of food, such as a sugar rush from lots of candy or the amazing sensation of being awake at 5 AM after a cup of coffee, are reasons why people like to eat and drink.

Have it your way:

Whether it's cooking, baking, brewing, or just mixing up a batch of Kool-Aid, there's something gratifying about transforming a collection of different items into a unified whole; sometimes it's relaxing to leave the rest of the world behind and spend an afternoon or evening in the kitchen, especially when it means you get to eat or drink what you want, prepared the way you like it (unless you're a lousy chef).

On the flip side, there's a certain enjoyment to having someone else prepare your food, to enjoy the atmosphere and presentation of a fine restaurant, or to emerge from your Dungeons & Dragons session to find that someone has already gone to the trouble of whipping up enough pizzas for you and your six ravenous players. Thanks again, Mom!

Think outside the bun:

Though making food and eating food are perhaps the two most obvious ways to be a food enthusiast, one can also be a food scholar of sorts: regional recipes, international cooking techniques, religious and cultural customs concerning food, wine and cheese pairings, which foods do not taste good after brushing your teeth... there's so much to learn.

There's also a lot that goes on behind the scenes--food isn't just a hobby; it's also an industry, and the production methods and business plans and whatnot provide even more for food fans to learn about and participate in. Not that I'm itching to be the guy who puts lids on blenders for a living, but hey, that very well could be somebody's dream job.

In conclusion...

Food is a legitimate fandom. You can geek out about food the way you geek out about Superman or H.P. Lovecraft; go ahead, you have my permission. Share your passion for cooking with somebody who can't pour a bowl of cereal without somehow burning it. Go on a food tour of Europe; only visit those big landmarks like the Eiffel Tower if they're close to a decent restaurant.

But please... don't let me catch you wearing one of those ridiculous cheesesteak hats.


Scott said...

I'm a food fan. A gastronomical geek.

Cabbage is terrible (or so I thought), but the Japanese seem to use it in a lot of really good dishes. It shows up in yakisoba, okonomiyaki, Japanese-style kimchi, and some other stuff I can't think of offhand.

I would argue that food for the die-hard fan is half taste and half texture. I understand your argument about touch, but texture is very important.

Even if a cheesecake tastes like a great cheesecake, would you still love it if it had the texture of a week-old brownie?

Or how about my favorite food fetish -- french fries? The perfect french fry is one that's been blanched before frying to encourage that crispy outside texture while preserving the moist, soft, potato-y interior. People who say they hate french fries have probably only had limp, hours-old, grease-soaked fries from McDonald's. But after coming to Japan, I learned that even McDonald's fries can taste amazing -- the Japanese attendants make them fresh and cook them for just the right amount of time.

A good plate of steak fries will be fluffy and light; a bad plate will be heavy and somewhat raw, or even hard. They're still the same fries, but the texture is completely different.

Sometimes after eating something like a nice chowder -- perhaps Pennsylvania Dutch-style chicken corn chowder with rivvels, you feel a little bit unsatisfied. Sure, you love the taste, but there's still something missing... so you eat a cracker, or some potato chips. The hard, dry texture of the snack complements the wet, sloppy texture of the chowder! You can get both if you put crackers, chips, or pretzels in the chowder, but you have to eat fast.

Last night, I made a lasagna from scratch with a date; I'd made the sauce the day before since it took me three hours. It was a combination of spices, tomatoes, tomato paste, meat, water, and sugar -- I had to stew it and let it boil down into a delicious, properly-textured concoction. If it had been too watery, the lasagna would have been ruined. As it was, it was just right for lasagna... and a spoonful was delicious on spaghetti.

The lasagna itself is important -- I may not like ricotta, but I love the texture of ricotta in lasagna. I love the texture of the rippled edges of lasagna noodles, too! Just as importantly, I love those hard edges from the sides of the pan. It all comes together to make a dish called "lasagna" -- otherwise I'd be happy with freeze-dried space food.

Speaking of pasta, they're all basically the same, right? Why all the different lengths, thicknesses, and shapes? Because the texture is important. Not only does it change the way that the pasta catches (or adheres to) sauce and other additions, but it also changes the way it feels in your mouth. If you've got alfredo, it has to be fettucini or another similarly thick noodle, like fusilli, right? You can't have a thick, heavy sauce on a thin pasta like capellini -- it'll overwhelm the pasta completely and you'll feel like you're eating sauce.

So, for me, it's definitely not just about the flavors, but also about textures, and how they mix.

Then again, I'm the guy who spent around 60 dollars on lasagna ingredients to make the perfect lasagna.

Flashman85 said...

Well, then.

You bring up several excellent points. I certainly agree that both taste and texture are important to the diehard fan, hence why I (briefly) mentioned texture, and also smell, as part of the bigger picture of why food can be so wonderful.

Cheesecake would certainly be less appealing if it had the texture of a week-old brownie, but it would also be less appealing if it smelled like a dead goat or looked like a severed leg.

However, given the option between a boring cheesecake with exceptional flavor and a boring cheesecake with an exceptional texture, I suspect the majority of people will choose the cheesecake that tastes better. That's why I singled out taste as most important.

Pasta adds an extra layer of complexity to this argument, but I imagine that many non-diehard food fans don't care as much about texture unless the texture is particularly fantastic or disgusting, but that's just a guess. Still, texture can be just as much the deciding factor in how good a meal is as the taste is.

The ultimate example of the equal importance of both flavor and texture (for me, anyhow) is with my favorite dessert, a hot chocolate lava cake with a cold scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. When done correctly, there's an explosion of tastes, textures, and even temperatures that, as far as I have experienced, cannot be surpassed in the realm of food. Unfortunately, all it takes is ice cream that's frozen too hard or a cake that's not warm enough to derail the whole experience.

For my part, taste and texture are of equal importance, but taste matters more when the flavor is good, and texture matters more when the texture is bad--the only exception is when the flavor is downright horrendous, or when the texture is overwhelmingly outstanding. I don't eat tomatoes or cherries, for example, because I can't stand the texture, but I love the taste of tomato sauce and cherry-flavored anything.

As for spending $60 for a chance at making the perfect lasagna, no price is too absurd if you feel the meal is worth what you paid. If you think about it, $60 is about what you'd pay for an exceptional steak at a fancy restaurant.

Very excited to have another food fan in our midst, especially one who's so obviously passionate about food.