August 2009 Archives

On Food and Art
By Lydia on August 14, 2009 10:13 PM| | Comments (10)
I remember a conversation with my then-therapist about 4 years ago. The topic was art and my tragic (I thought) fate as One Who Cannot Make Art. I have always been a fairly artistic person. I am creative to a point, and I have some skills in a number of disciplines. I told my therapist that I could make my own dresses, I could act, I could sing, I could cook, I could craft any number of sundries, but as long as I had no Original View of the World I would never make Art. She argued that even just living, as long as it was done "artistically," could be called art. I think that was the point when I stopped listening to her.

My older sister, during her existential crisis/art historian phase, told my mother that art was anything that made people angry. In this case the art was my sister's outfit of a hot pink turtleneck under a bedazzled, airbrushed lion cub sweatshirt. (Why it made my mother angry I do not know. It made me a little angry too, for reasons I am not entirely comfortable exploring, even at this remove.) While sort of absurd, I know what my sister meant. Art shouldn't be pretty, necessarily, but it should invoke a response.

Can food be art? The question is a little tricky given the contextual role of food in modern human life. Clearly, food is mostly about sustenance, but even examining the subset of food as entertainment begs the same questions.

A. Is the food art?
B. Is the person who made the food an artist?
C. Is the person who created the dish an artist?

Even typing this I pause, because I used the word "dish" in the third question. Perhaps that betrays my prejudices. There is a great difference between art and craft, and I think there is such a difference between making something new and wonderful, and flawlessly recreating someone else's "new and wonderful." This certainly can be applied to the line cook who makes the chef's creations perfectly night after night, but can it also be applied to the mezzo-soprano who sings "Carmen?" Is her's a craft, and not an art? I confess I do not know.

When the term "art" is given to food, I must wonder if the term refers to audacity, or fine flavor, or chemical ingenuity. I wonder if we should apply my sister's test to it, and assess merit based on an emotional response by the eater. This concept necessitates a thorough shift on the part of the consumer. Before judging a particularly confusing plate of pork with durian, must we consider not just the interplay of flavors or textures, but how it makes us feel? Does that make it art? Humanity has a great tradition of art which invokes the futility of human existence, the frailty of being, and the sadness and anger of people. Somewhat unfortunately I know that no one will compare a conflicted entree to Dostoyevsky, and a fast-food nugget may never convey what Sinclair made us feel in our guts, but I rather wish it would. 

For that reason alone I despair of food ever attaining the status of art. As long as we expect everything we eat to be something we consider delicious, it is nothing more than a consumer product. For those of us who sigh discontentedly at that notion, I suggest confronting our most hated culinary prejudices. Search them out, try them in so many forms that you know exactly how they make you feel and why. If we can get past what our mouths are telling us, maybe we can figure out what art really means.
Los Angeles Part 1: Simpang Asia
By Lydia on August 7, 2009 2:02 PM| | Comments (1)
Sometimes it takes a trip away to make me happy to be home. On returning from Los Angeles, city of strip malls, Grand Rapids feels cozy and welcoming, with malls a safe distance away. I will say, however, that most trips leave me rather jealous of the dining and grocery options of other cities. I don't want Grand Rapids too much bigger, but I want it more diverse. LA felt, in that respect, very refreshing and exciting. Do I need to say I had never visited before?

Two restaurants in particular have stayed in my mind, a hip, new place called Street which purports to serve street food from the global culinary ether, and a cafe/grocery called Simpang Asia which serves straightforward Indonesian food.  Thumbnail image for Simpang Nasi.JPG
Nasi Bungkus, seen above, is coconut rice with chicken liver curry, beef rendang and a deep fried, hard boiled egg, all wrapped up in a banana leaf. This is akin to my preferred method of eating average (buffet style, anyone?) curry: mash it up together, but comparisons to adequate food to no justice to this nasi. The rice was creamy in flavor and texture and the rendang was almost like brisket. Now I accept that many people don't like liver, but I love the option of ordering it, especially in a fabulous yellow curry with "long beans," and Courtney can attest to the fact that I never once asked if she wanted to try it.

We really only managed half our dishes each, which seemed to make the dudes working there very upset. But I swear to you, bleached, braided rat-tail guy, it was delicious.

The grocery attached to Simpang Asia was fabulous, three cramped aisles of Japanese, Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese packaged foods. Courtney, with a whole kitchen to stock, got to pick from one million rices, dals and noodles, vinegars, oils, candies and snacks, but I had to content myself with a stinky packet of shrimp paste and a jar of mysterious green sambal: presents for the nice boy feeding my cats.