An international food company headquartered in England asked me in the autumn of l998 to talk to their managers about emerging attitudes toward nutrition and diet. I had earlier written in a book about what I called “the extermination model of food.” I had described the way in which once upon a time food had always been celebrated because it kept us alive and was always a challenge to acquire with reliability. What was once only a signal of well-being and conviviality appears to have turned into a menacing threat to our health, self-control and even moral purity. The executives thought I might have something to tell them about an acrid trend, which they had hazily but (it turns out) presciently contemplated.
They were right about the situation. These last weeks have erupted with fierce public fears about dioxin in Belgian produce and farm animals, multicountry recalls of smelly Coca-Cola, mass marches over genetically modified foods. The Belgian government has been toppled over the matter. The most famous brand in the world is under drastic and seemingly enthusiastic attack. Accomplished food chemists such as Sir Paul McCartney have protested about the slippery slope leading from seeds resistant to parasites to monster fetuses. And notwithstanding the relatively reassuring serious science of the matter, a wave of near-hysterical food fear has swept segments of Northern Europe. It’s clear that the unparalleled food-prosperity of industrial societies has turned food into a charged component of symbolic as well as practical life. Dinner and nightmare merge.
At the end of my talk to the 75 or so executives and a variety of questions, the CEO said he had just one more: If I had to give one piece of advice to an international producer of food, what would it be? I answered, Produce aggressive taste.
While food has become, on one hand, a bubbling source of deadly hazards—cholesterol, calories, saturated fat, additives, and now science-fiction genes—it has also become a focus of intense interest and expenditure for its taste, exoticism and texture. Consumers are avid for new, vivid tastes and menu schemes, and a glance around many cities illustrates that whatever people may think of foreigners and their strange costumes, odd gods, weird rules about courtship and music, they will flock to the hot restaurant of the moment for the celebrated New Cuisine of the season. We owe a considerable debt to whoever it is at the Immigration and Naturalization Service who has issued visas to so many chefs from so many countries. It is possible to eat better food from more cuisines at fairer prices in New York City than anyone two decades ago would have dared dream about.
Here we are. On one hand, since providing food has become such a huge industry, it has of course attracted the attention of the range of planners and marketers who supervise the flow of money from consumers to producers. One result has been the increased relevance of obvious if tedious commercial factors, like focus groups, in creating menus and planning pricing and presentation. The consequence is a hugely successful fast-food industry providing highly acceptable foods to masses on a consistent basis. It may generate questions about dietary health and gourmet esthetics, but people choose it. Like it or not, it’s our lunch.
On the other hand, food is also a passion and an exploration. People don’t remember their 125th Big Mac, but their one-time association with a wonderful cassoulet or pepper steak or risotto at a special restaurant. What works with diners, or rather what sings, is not focus group food, but aggressive food.
This was driven home to me when I ordered one of the few dishes I have ever found too hot to eat, at the Grand Sichuan International restaurant at 24th St. and 9th Ave. This enterprise split off because of partner disputes from the original Grand Sichuan on Canal St. (which remains in business). An innovation of the first carried on in the spin-off is a detailed off-the-menu explanation of the cuisine, which candidly describes a variety of dishes such as General Tso’s Chicken and Beef with Tomato as “American Chinese Food.” There are, of course, many samples from Sichuan, as well as from Shanghai and Canton, and an eccentric section of the favorites of Mao Tse Tung.
It’s from this last list of 10 items I chose Spicy Whole Green Pepper, the heat, integrity and brilliant assertiveness of which are so astonishing. Exactly as advertised, spicy green peppers are sauteed rapidly with still more hot pepper and ample fresh garlic to deliver, for $6.95, a sparkling specimen of that regional cuisine as good as or better than the food I encountered in Sichuan while writing the text for a book on the food of China. There, in the 80s anyway, there was considerable reluctance throughout China to offer foreigners The Right Stuff, presumably because it would be embarrassing if they failed to admire it. But here on 9th Avenue is an expression of the edge food that defines a great cuisine. It is the signature not of a focus group but of an aggressive chef prepared to be intrepid with ingredients and confident that guests will admire perfection uncompromised by theorists of mass-marketing and the acceptability of blandness.
The same glad affirmation is reflected in a $7.55 dish of sauteed spicy Chinese broccoli, which is elevated to swift magic by the simple but all-too-rare use of lots of fresh garlic. You can’t be too rich, too thin or cook with too much garlic. Few chefs use enough, and too many use the bottled variety, which cannot possibly replicate the flash provided to a dish by the real thing just cut.
The same altogether unusual perfection can be found in the garlic-yogurt-and cucumber salad at Elias’s Corner in Queens where, Elias tells an inquirer, whenever the kitchen staff have a spare moment, they chop garlic. What more can one possibly want in a restaurant that also serves superb fresh fish simply done? At The Bay Leaf restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan, the lamb vindaloo also achieves sultry apotheosis in the merger of heat and culinary craftsmanship.
I have a haunting memory of another taste that goes too far to become just right—the lobster sauce at Coco Beach, a renovated fisherman’s shack restaurant on the coast road on the way east out of Nice, toward Italy. Obviously, fisherman Coco souped up dozens of lobster shells to create a basic sauce served with various other forms of maritime protein; the result had the intensity and insistence of the well-played final chords of a grand symphony. And could it be difficult to make such a sauce? No, just make sure to use too many shells and cook them too long with too much brandy, and you have nothing a focus group would certify. But extremism in the service of taste is a primary virtue. So demand food on the edge, cherish it, and patronize chefs who understand and make it. And lick your fingers.