In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Typewriters and Confusing Designs | Main | Elsewhere »

June 29, 2005

Eatin' and Cookin'

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I often look at the American food-and-eating world with immense envy. What a happenin' scene. There's amazing food -- both high and low -- to be found, and in surprising places. Trader Joe's, Wegman's, and Whole Foods are flourishing. What's not to like?

There's also a lot of enjoyable fizz and buzz around the cooking-and-eating topic. The books and magazines are as scrumptious as the food itself. (IMHO, cookbooks are one of the few kinds of book that the often-clueless book publishing business does really well.) And the journalistic/critical coverage is often first-rate. While I fight annoyance when I look at the NYTimes's arts coverage, what I do when I flip through their food section is tear out suggestions.

When I look at the food world, what I see is what I'd like to see when I look at the other artsworlds: enthusiasm, knowledge, and curiosity -- a congenial and mutually invigorating mixture of the high-toned and the down-to-earth that almost never loses touch with the senses and the imagination. Can foodmatters get out-of-hand pretentious and absurd? Sure. But when the rewards are yummy and the scene itself is poppin', who has any trouble forgiving small sins?

Most people who take part in the foodfest do so not because they feel they should but because they're lovin' it. People want to join in, and then they want to go back for more. Television's Food Network reflects this spirit of informal eagerness and friendly avidity. It's an amazingly confident, likable, and helpful phenomenon. When I watch The Food Network, I find myself wistfully thinking: Sheesh, wouldn't it be great if the same outfit produced a Painting Network, a Poetry Network, and an Urbanism Network?

My musings are heading in these directions because I stumbled across a few good online food resources in recent days. Incidentally, where food's concerned, I make few claims for myself. I'm nothing but an ill-informed (but admiring and enthusiastic) hanger-on. The Wife, on the other hand, is a longtime, tuned-in foodie with an acute palate; she's what I believe is known as a Supertaster. She's also an excellent and generous cook -- lucky me. So I've got firstclass food guidance built into the homelife.

  • Along with Calvin Trillin, Jane and Michael Stern helped many Americans recognize the glories of everyday American cookin': potato salad, lobster shacks, hot dogs, barbecue joints. Their book "Roadfood" is a classic guide to some of the best popular cooking in the country. I sometimes find the Sterns' prose faintly annoying; I'm not sure why. But whenever The Wife and I have tracked down and sampled the Sterns' recommendations, we've thought they were firstclass.

    I noticed that Epicurious online runs a "Best Eats" section written by the Sterns. Check out their pancake, pie, and ice cream tips. Here's another list of Stern highlights. Here's the Sterns' own website.

  • The Wife brought home a magazine-format collection of recipes called Cooking Fresh. We've tried and loved three dishes from it, and The Wife is enthusiastic about many of the other recipes that she's spotted in the publication. On inspection, Cooking Fresh turns out to be a collection of the best recipes from Taunton Press's beautiful Fine Cooking magazine. Small world: I blogged here about what a terrific creative operation the Taunton Press is.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering why the cooking-and-eating scene is in such good shape while so many of the other American arts lag. Left to my own devices, I come up with two possible explanations.

One is that the cooking-and-eating world is -- for many, anyway -- a participatory artform. When The Wife and I dine out, we aren't merely enjoying the food. We're meeting friends; we're comparing notes; we're planning further adventures. And we're browsing for ideas and experiences that we can adapt at home. Well, that she can adapt at home, while I pretend that I'm making a creative contribution by washing up afterwards and taking out the garbage.

The other explanation I come up with is that cooking-and-eating are organism-level basic. Critics, academics, and intellectuals may be able to lecture us about how installations or deconstructivist architecture are the Only True Art-Things. But you simply can't make people eat what they can't stomach. (At least not more than once.) This kind of down-to-earth connection helps keeps an artform healthy. Even the most experimental, far-out chefs have to work with and not against people's innate preferences, because there's simply no way to override them. Funny how that seems to trigger the creativity, and not suppress it ...

But I'm sure there are lots of other reasons I'm overlooking.



posted by Michael at June 29, 2005


It's much easier to participate in "cooking as art" than in such arts as painting or sculpture. Most everyone has access to reasonably functional kitchen facilities and a stock of staple ingredients. Whatever special ingredients may be needed for a particular item usually can be obtained with little difficulty and at reasonable cost. A decision to take up painting or sculpture, in contrast, in most cases will oblige one to purchase special materials and/or tools that may be expensive, relatively difficult to obtain, and not useful for other purposes.

Posted by: Peter on June 29, 2005 4:52 PM

Another reason is the radically free-market nature of the restaurant biz.

Even a highly commercial art like the movies still has huge stodgy film schools with useless professors theorizing about Marxism, government grant money being doled out for the artsy stuff by committees of the damned, and six humongous corporations controlling 99.999% of all distribution.

In comparison, each restaurant is its own little laboratory, customers have total freedom to buy or refrain from buying, and the training is done either on-the-job or in private job-training schools like the CIA with no time spared for useless guff.

Lotsa competition, lotsa decentralization, lotsa regionalism, no barriers to entry, no bureaucracy, and no politics. Sign me up!

I think Tyler Cowen went into some detail about this in his book In Praise Of Commercial Culture.

Posted by: Brian on June 29, 2005 8:22 PM

I might still have my gall bladder if I hadn't made so many road trips with Roadfood, Goodfood and Roadfood and Goodfood. The number of BBQ places was a particular problem: a visit to one of them preceded my first gall bladder attack.

My favorites may be the boarding house restaurants in Pensacola and Savannah (the famous Mrs. Wilkes). But skip the always overcrowded lunch at the latter and go to breakfast there: the best breakfast I've ever had.

Mrs. Wilkes died a year or two ago, but I presume the standards continue.

In Charleston, I lived within eyesight of Jestine's, and used to eat there 5 or 6 times a week, even though I also lived half a block from the best grocery store in town. It was open 24 hours a day, so I used to use it like a refrigator and pantry.

Posted by: john massengale on June 29, 2005 11:17 PM

I'd say a big part of the difference between cooking as art and the other arts is that people cannot raise the barriers to entry for cooking they can, and have, for the other arts.

People have to eat. A ready supply of well prepared nourishing food has to be available. We have a millennia old tradition of cooking for ourselves. Put all that together and you get the one true popular art. While only a few can become chefs most anybody can become a cook, and many cooks are encouraged to do their best by those who come to sample their wares. So they do.

Cooking also has a vastly larger audience than any other art. People enjoy going out to eat. They enjoy good food prepared well. Food that is merely good enough disappoints us because we are, for the most part, capable of doing good enough all by ourselves. We don't want good enough when we dine out, we want the best the cook can do. So those eateries where the food is merely good enough fail to be replaced by another.

Leading to another reason why cooking as an art is popular, we can have an impact, we can have a say on what is produced and on its quality. We have no say in what is produced in the other arts.

We need to rely on what others produce and on what others say about what is produced. With cooking we can both produce ourselves, and our opinions on what others produce is heard and heeded. Due to the nature of the art and its audience the barriers of necessity must be low.

Can we do the same thing with the other arts, with painting, sculpture, writing, poetry, game design, graphic design, music, and dance? Can we make the fussbudget arts popular? Probably not to the same extent as cooking, but we could lower the artificially high barriers to entry. But that means making the effort on our part. Baiting the Grand Pooftahs of Art in their lairs and driving them from the temple. (Writers can mix genres, I can mix metaphors.) Are we ready to bring democracy to the arts?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 30, 2005 12:19 AM

I know, I know...Martha Stewart is a "joke" in some circles, and may in truth be a difficult woman in private. BUT...Stewart belies some of this---everybody can access cooking as an art but not others. If one ignores the publicity and personality, and JUST looks at the actual suggestions her TV show made---she really did teach how to plant flowers in big planters for your patio, and how to set a table, and how to arrange pear trees, in a very comprehensible fashion with an outcome it was hard to argue with. Her homes are beautiful, her tables are beautifully and warmly set. One man who knew her back in the late seventies when she was actually running her own catering business and doing her own cooking, and using her own recipes, said "Martha really did have the best recipe for apple pie. She really did make the best chicken salad sandwich you have ever tasted." See--there is substance there, not just hype. And I would argue she could make a TV show about painting or architecture that is more accessible. Not perfectly accessible---nobody ever argued that to live like Martha you don't have to be well-financed. But everybody can take some suggestions from her, and you don't have to a sultan. Her K-Mart housewares line has some of the very best (and prettiest) copper cookware I've ever seen, and at reasonable prices. And part of that is she actually knows---how long does the handle on a frying pan really need to be, how heavy can it be before it doesn't work for you? What is the best size and heat conducting material for a saucepan?

For all the ego---Martha really is an artist, too. (Nobody ever said Picasso was a modest guy).

Posted by: annette on June 30, 2005 9:28 AM

PS--Maybe I'm not addressing your point, but I wanted to clarify---the thing Martha forgot, is that sometimes laughter makes food taste better, sometimes graciousness includes politeness and non-judgementalness, too. Sometimes, it's great to slather some mustard on a hotdog and just have it be good enough.

Posted by: annette on June 30, 2005 9:44 AM

Lovely appreciation of Martha! I've always felt that anyone who's able to make some useful quality-of-life suggestions deserves a lot of respect, and I'd heard from friends who enjoy the domestic arts that Martha wasn't all hype. Nice to get the details and see the argument made so straightforwardly.

All the other points are great too -- about how cooking-and-eating is informal, largely unregulated, responsive to people's actual pleasures. And -- could this be the most important element -- that it's unavoidable. We gotta eat, and we're gonnna eat. And 99% of the time we're gonna invest some energy and thought in the activity, even if it's only to decide which sandwich shop to grab a bite from. So the quality question emerges naturally: Well, if I'm going to eat, and if I'm going to give it a little thought, why not opt for something a little better. And, voila, at that point you're actively involved in the process. (I guess the only way to be completely passive is just to grab bags of chips or something. Which may relate to our yaks here about obesity and food and figuring our way through life under conditions of excess rather than scarcity ...)

It's the one artform where it's hard not to be a participant, in other words. And, given that that fact is 99% unavoidable, why not choose to be a little better at it (and get a little more out of it) rather than otherwise.

I wonder if some of the other artforms are going to start resembling cooking-and-eating a bit more. What with digital cameras and the web, photography is becoming much more participatory -- places like Flickr are a lot of fun, and full of nifty images too. And they make you want to join in. Blogs and email certainly make writing-and-reading more informal and of-the-people. Will computers have a simliar impact on music? I guess you could say that creating playlists and burning your own CDs and such is a kind of participation. Moviemaking and moviewatching is already growing much more broad and diverse -- not in terms of the traditional movies in theaters but in terms of people being able to put videoclips online.

Yet none of these seem as necessary, unavoidable and senses-based as food, do they? Cool developments anyway...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 30, 2005 10:22 AM

I thought music was already highly participative. Everyone listens and an amazing number of people can create, at all sorts of levels, from composing their own pieces, to playing their own instruments, to cutting tracks on a CD.

Even the most unmusical of people get roped into coming up with and singing new words to an old tune to honour/tease some friend or relative.

It's interesting that both cooking and popular music share a lot of copying and borrowing. E.g. the new words to old tunes event, or how commercial musicians will often do covers of old songs, or remakes of old songs, has parallels in how very few people invent recipes from scratch but instead tweak other recipes in line with their own tastebuds or what's available in their cupboards or their own particular needs (e.g. often recipes get adjusted for use hiking, where food has to be able to be pretty non-crushable and can go several days in all sorts of temperatures).

I think that one of the advantages of cooking is that you can happily copy other people's ideas exactly, or modify them, or use their basic methods on new ingredients. Cooking offers a lot of support for people just learning, and then a long time spent cooking gives you a wide variety of different ideas and methods that you can then apply to novel situations. Music can do somewhat the same.

I also think that arts tend to suffer from experts wanting to show that they are expert, that they have some special knowledge different from the masses. And let's face it, it would be rather embarrassing to spend 20 years full-time studying pop music to come up with preferences that are no different from someone who just turns the radio on out of boredom. In most arts this seems to push critics to supporting art that is popularly rejected - and you can see this in the criticisms of selling-out directed to any music band that has achieved popularity. In cooking critics can instead get very precise about the information that their tastebuds send, and have conversations like "Oh, you used tumeric and nutmeg" or "hmm, uneven heat patterns in the oven". Meanwhile the rest of us can get on eating the same things just with a drastically lower level of artistic appreciation. Critics feed their egos because they're still clearly better than the idiot who just knows what they like, and everyone's tastebuds are happy.

Posted by: Tracy on June 30, 2005 7:11 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?