Food: My Dinner with Derrida

In the 1960s, when my husband and I first traveled in
England as students, we would have starved without the Chinese. From Brighton to
Durham, from Bath to Norwich, the only inexpensive restaurants open at night were
serving sweet-and-sour pork. Even Indian food was exotic and scarce--and pub food
was inedible. A decade later, living in London on our first sabbatical from
academe, we were alarmed to hear of a bread strike. But when we rushed to the
local bakery with our hungry tots, it turned out that the stricken bread was only
the sliced white loaf, for which desperate customers were queuing. Everything
else--croissants, baguettes, rye, pita--was in plentiful but undesirable supply.
Similarly, our greengrocer had never eaten a courgette or an artichoke, although
he was starting to sell them. As cheap package tours to Spain and France became
available, British food habits were revolutionized.

London has changed a lot. Paul Levy dates the moment of transformation to
1972, when "Philippa Pullar, the author of Consuming Passions, a history
of food and the British, took me to a restaurant in Lower Sloane Street in
London." It was Le Gavroche, one of the restaurants that inaugurated the British
worship of food and chefs. At its peak, Le Gavroche had three Michelin stars.

By the mid-1980s, the "foodie" appeared--satirized in Mike Leigh's movie
Life Is Sweet, with the Regret Rien bistro and its ambitious menu of
dishes such as "liver and lager." The nineties were the decade of the celebrity
chef, with chirpy-Cockney lad Jamie Oliver selling more than one million
cookbooks and gorgeous Nigella Lawson as the food goddess. Now, just across the
road from our London flat in Exmouth Market are French, Italian, Cypriot,
Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Spanish-Moroccan, traditional English, Peruvian, and
Thai restaurants, plus a Starbucks. Even on a country weekend, guests are served
cheese soufflé along with the Sunday roast.

The academic world also has changed a lot, and the food evolution has been
semiotic as well as sustaining. Since the sixties, among both U.S. and U.K.
scholars, food has signified sex, power, and art. In 1963, with the celebrated
eating scene in the movie Tom Jones, food began to stand for erotic
desires and possibilities. In her wonderful 1999 memoir My Kitchen Wars,
cookbook writer Betty Fussell described her discovery of sensuality in French
cooking while she was at Princeton University in the 1960s: "Every new food
opened up new sexual analogues. To explore the interstices of escargots with the
aid of fork and clamp, each shell in its place on the hot metal round, each dark
tongue hidden deep within the whorls and only with difficulty teased out and
eased into the pool of garlic-laden butter--what could be sexier than that?"

My husband and I ate escargots on our wedding day in 1963. But the academic
world was still largely priggish and pleasure denying, especially at the Quaker
college where we started out. I remember going to a dinner party where six
tidbits of pickled herring on toothpicks were reverently distributed to the
guests as a first course. My Jewish family in Boston were not gourmets, but we
had waded in pickled herring. I had to get used to the idea that an interest in
food was crass and anti-intellectual. But in 1964, when my husband and I moved to
Davis, California, we were stunned and thrilled by the hedonism of the academic
lifestyle, with professors owning stock in vineyards and hosting long,
many-coursed dinner parties of elaborate dishes.

Alas, this golden age of plenty quickly degenerated into competitive cooking
that made social life a burden for faculty wives. Fussell recalls how "dinner
parties were important ammunition in the fierce competition among our
husbands--and ourselves." In our concrete faculty housing at Princeton, we slaved
over tians, confits, bombes glacées, and foods pureed, marinated,
caramelized, glazed, steeped, tossed, and poached. Our insignia, as Fussell
notes, "was the copper bowl and wire whisk." Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher were
our idols.

But when we gained access to professions and careers, our competitive cooking
had to stop and the whisks were left to rust. Cooking became the artwork of great
chefs like Alice Waters, who launched Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in
1971. Meanwhile, the academic men and women who were whisking in the sixties
began traveling and tasting in the eighties and nineties. Today, Julia Child's
biographer Noel Riley Fitch and Bert Sonnenfeld, her husband (a bon vivant and
professor of French at the University of Southern California), send happy e-mails
describing great restaurant meals--like Thanksgiving dinner at Lespinasse in
Manhattan: "medley of tiny vegetables with truffle oil, lobster tail tarragon,
wild turkey with sweet potato puree, pecan tart with cinnamon ice cream."
Cookbook writer Betty Rosbottom, married to a professor at Amherst College, leads
summer tours to the great restaurants and cooking schools of France and Italy.

I suppose it was inevitable that the next phase would be to make
food, cooking, and eating an academic discourse--a breakthrough that may have
come when Susan Leonardi, a professor of English at the University of Maryland,
published an article on recipes in PMLA (Publications of the Modern
Language Association of America
). "Historically," says Darra Goldstein, the
Williams College professor and cookbook writer who edits Gastronomica: The
Journal of Food and Culture,
a new quarterly published by the University of
California Press, "there's been a rift between academic inquiry and what the
popular press was writing about food." (Indeed, says Ruth Reichl, the editor of
Gourmet magazine and author of the best-selling memoir Comfort Me with
it used to be that "smart people didn't care about food.") But now,
Goldstein thinks, food studies has become as chic and timely as women's studies
or film studies: "Food is one of the best ways to understand a culture and the
rituals around it; you can see a panorama of culture through the prism of food."

It seems both funny and obvious that the new field of food studies should
pick up on other trendy academic fields, including deconstruction and
postcolonialism, just as these subfields themselves are going out of fashion.
Marion Nestle, chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food
Studies, explains: "We're trying to establish food studies as a completely
legitimate academic field of study, with very high standards that people will
take seriously." That food studies and women's studies are a natural match has
not always been a popular opinion. "It was a forbidden subject in the earlier
years of women's history," says cookbook historian Barbara Haber. "Anything to do
with cooking and food was seen as retrograde and bad for business." Haber credits
scholars in multicultural studies for showing that food is a fast track to the
heart of a culture.

Gastronomica is a glossy publication with beautiful and clever
illustrations, such as the cover of the first issue, which features a striking
image--a woman eating a man's hand--from Luis Bu"uel's 1930 film L'Age
Editor Goldstein writes: "We speak of intellectual hunger and food for
thought, but we forget that these concepts were once the subject of serious
inquiry--from Erasmus, who advised readers to digest material rather than merely
memorize it, to Montaigne, who described education and digestion as parallel
functions." She adds that Gastronomica "aims to renew this connection
between sensual and intellectual nourishment by bringing together many diverse
voices in the broadest possible discourse on the uses, abuses, and meanings of
food." The first two issues of the journal contain articles on the quest for
cinnamon, the chocolate and lard sculptures of Janine Antoni, the first French
cooking school in New York, early cookbooks by black Americans, Sicilian cheese
in Arab recipes, love of McDonald's, and turtle soup. There is a poem called
"Ripe Peach" by Louise Gluck and a drawing by Mike Glier called "The Romaines of
the Day."

Contributor Fabio Parasecoli applies terms from literary theory to food
history. Nouvelle cuisine, he writes, was like New Criticism. The new, creative
chef must transform and re-invent classic recipes that constitute the canon.
Among the new techniques is deconstruction. Even Nigella Lawson explains how to
"break down pesto into component parts." Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who has been
compared to his fellow Catalan Salvador Dalí, gives Jacques Derrida and
other philosophers and theorists the credit for inspiring him. "A deconstructed
dish," he explains, "protects the 'spirit' of each product it employs and
preserves (even enhances) the intensity of its flavor. Still," he adds, "it
presents a totally transformed combination of textures."

Of course, in the restaurant, deconstruction can be a bit of a shock, as Adria
admits: "When patrons are expecting the Curry Chicken they ordered from the menu
and are served a curry ice-cream with apple jelly, coconut soup, chicken broth,
and raw onion rings, they are usually taken aback." I bet. But perhaps for some
the pleasure of being in the avant-garde of creative cuisine will soothe the
disappointment. Adria's deconstructed soup, with its corn mousse, cauliflower
mousse, tomato puree, peach granita, beet foam, almond ice cream, and basil
jelly, is certainly entertaining to read about, if not to eat. The next phase,
perhaps, will be virtual or conceptual cuisine, where the food is not only
deconstructed but imaginary.

Patrons might also be surprised by Lisa Heldke's postcolonial take on eating
out. "When I went away to graduate school," writes Heldke, who teaches philosophy
and women's studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, "I entered a world of
experimental cooking and eating, a world heavily populated by academics and
people with disposable incomes who like to travel. It's a world where entire
cuisines go in and out of vogue in a calendar year." But gradually, Heldke became
disenchanted: "For one thing, various experiences made me feel uncomfortable
about the easy acquisitiveness with which I approached a new kind of food, the
tenacity with which I collected adventures. Was such collecting really just a
benign recreation, like stamp collecting?"

Or was it not benign at all? "The unflattering name I chose for my activities
was 'cultural food colonialism,' which made me your basic colonizer," she
continues. "When I began to examine my culture-hopping in the kitchen and in
restaurants, I found echoes of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European
painters and explorers, who set out in search of ever 'newer,' ever more 'remote'
cultures which they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use
as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery."

Overall, I have the uneasy feeling that we are coming around full circle, to
another point where the simple pleasures of cooking and eating--or going out and
eating--become sources of moral guilt, political incorrectness, and theoretical
anxiety, in addition to the familiar concerns about carbohydrates, proteins,
sugars, and fats. Sensational exposés of the restaurant business like
Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential may also act as deterrents to
enjoyable dining out; and the anti-genetic-modification, pro-organic-foods
movement seems to be adding another layer of ideology to breakfast, lunch, and
dinner. Meanwhile, though, the guys who run Al's Café-Bar in Exmouth
Market are thinking about expanding from the full English fry-up to German
home-cooking. Deconstruction will have to wait. Apfel strudel comes first.