On Nourishment

and a different understanding of the chef role.

I’ve been known to toy with a romanticized ideal of asceticism, born of my obsession with St. Francis of Assisi (and I certainly toy with it more than I ever really embody it—let’s be clear). While the current moment of isolation does drive home the meditative potential of not having everything, all the time, that’s something one can only enjoy from a truly comfortable position. Here in San Juan, with outdoor space, access to fresh food, and consistent good weather, I’m as comfortable as can be. That’s why abstaining from restaurants by force has been an interesting exercise, and an ultimately fruitful one, because I’m thinking about them—or chefs, at least—so much differently now. 

When the weekly farm order included a vegetable neither I nor my boyfriend recognized (that we had thought would be celery), the first person I asked was a chef: Natalia Vallejo, of Cocina al Fondo. She told me it was apio, a vegetable not unlike celery root. When I posted a curry on Instagram in which I’d thrown some of it in, it was another chef, Paxx Caraballo, who told me that they’ve used it to make gnocchi and eagerly gave me instructions to do so myself. That’s when I began to think about chefs a bit differently, again. Not with reverence, as I once had, nor with some disdain at their role in society, as I more recently did, but as keepers of knowledge and creators of occasion.

I’ve also been encouraged, by Ruby Tandoh’s wonderful piece in Vittles, to think of the chef as a literal caregiver and to remember that their role isn’t confined to restaurant kitchens. In the piece, she talks about care homes, hospitals, and prisons: institutions that require no less expertise than restaurants (indeed, they require more consideration), but about which we don’t discuss the food or those making it in the media. Probably because we don’t value enough the people doing the eating. I’ve been thinking about God’s Love We Deliver in New York City’s dedication to making everyone a birthday cake, knowing it might be their last, even during this pandemic—the weight of that. By this academic article, “Chefs as change-makers from the kitchen: indigenous knowledge and traditional food as sustainability innovations” published last year by Cambridge University Press, I’ve been reminded of that apio and the important role Natalia and Paxx are filling as the minders of its use.

“By making innovative use of the diversity of tastes, sights and colours around them, some chefs are trying to bring back a sense of place and heritage to the food they prepare in their kitchens,” the many authors of the paper write. “Faced with underutilized species, chefs become ‘gastronomic explorers’ and ‘virgin’ tasters, as the new flavours and textures that biodiversity brings to the palate can enable hitherto unthought-of creations.” 

These writers, these chefs, these organizations all remind me of how I thought about food before I got sucked into a different understanding (a wholly capitalist understanding) of the chef role: as giver of nourishment, as font of knowledge, as promoter of biodiversity when they have a real connection to their land. 

Not everyone has the luxury to think of restriction as an exercise, to see the resulting thoughts it inspires as epiphanies. I know that there are meat shortages, with places like Sam’s Club, Costco, and Kroger putting limits on how much people can buy. Those with the ability to do so have found local purveyors or are buying pricier products at stores like Whole Foods; others are simply making do with what they can get. While we’re all experiencing restriction on some level or another, luckily we’ve passed the moment of time when it was fashionable to call the pandemic and its required isolation a universal experience.

In fact, now some are frantically looking for differentiating factors, for ways to ensure that they won’t be one of the ones to die—for salvation, really. And while I’d known, of course, that Americans are obsessed with thinness, with a kind of restriction that doesn’t fall in the same category as my fanciful, monkish ideas about asceticism, I hadn’t realized how deeply that’s connected to a religious idea.

In Gastronomica in 2001, R. Marie Griffith published “‘Don’t Eat That’: The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity” about the diet culture and language of “sin” and “guilt” that have long been prevalent in Protestantism in the U.S.:

“American culture’s treasured doctrine of the perfectible body is deeply indebted to Christian currents that have perceived the body as central for pushing the soul along the path to progress,” she writes, before moving onto an examination of various influential names in the Christian diet world. “Did you know,” she quotes Marie Chapian and Neva Coyle as writing in their book Free to Be Thin, “that you stifle God’s working in your life when you habitually overeat?” 

That kind of thinking doesn’t strike me as much different from a recent Boston Globe headline: “The Link Between Coronavirus and Those French Fries,” admonishes the paper, implicating the pommes frites of every reader. “Doctors and scientists are discovering two common characteristics among many of those who are losing their battle with COVID-19 — they are overweight or obese and suffer from a chronic disease,” write the two doctors who’ve authored the piece. “Ninety four percent of deaths from COVID-19 are in those with an underlying age-related chronic disease, mostly caused by excess body fat.” They blame food choices, people’s inability to self-restrict, couched in the language of “us” and “our” and “we.”

Wages are never mentioned as a factor in the kinds of food choices people might have to make, never mind how lack of money and time encourages the consumption of the fast and processed food they blame; the economy is only mentioned as something being “ravaged” by Covid-19. There’s no mention of how the stress of internalized weight stigma is related to poor health outcomes. The disproportionate way in which the disease is killing Black people is mentioned without noting that, as a population, they have always been failed by the medical community because of racism. There’s just bias, alarm, and fatphobia, along with a vague note on how policy changes are necessary to change the country’s food system. Oh, really? You don’t say! Perhaps we can start by not publishing work that shames people into believing their susceptibility to a wildly contagious and deadly disease was a personal failing?

I think more about this perversely American tie between ideas of salvation and thinness, how it encourages a very individualized rather than communal understanding of food, when I read Jerry Saltz explaining his odd coffee and food habits as the result of childhood trauma and representative of his dedication to his craft in his gorgeous essay “My Appetites.” (I still think he could think a little more about why his beloved cheap coffee has gone out of fashion; I still think everyone could think a little more.) Not all of us can care about food, though, I must finally admit. That’s why it’s important that those of us who can and do try really hard to make the whole thing—meaning, food system—function better for everybody. 

Because we’re all looking for salvation from something: our traumas, our daily duties, our corporeal forms, our isolation (state-mandated or otherwise). We want our choices of nourishment to be understood as valid, whether in the eyes of God or neighbor. The answers are always complicated, are never one size fits all, but that doesn’t mean throwing up our hands to the corporate gods and taking whatever they offer. Understanding the role of the chef differently helps, because with this different understanding—this push to think about nourishment and protection rather than glory and ego—it can be embodied by anybody who cooks, whether making apio gnocchi or French fries.

This Friday, in the paid-subscriber interview, I’ll be speaking to James Hansen of Eater London and the In Digestion newsletter about differences in food writing between the U.S. and U.K., the art of anthologizing, and our shared suspicion of tech food. Subscribe here.

Heated republished last Monday’s newsletter under the headline, “Who Wins When Food Media Debates ‘Selling Out’?” That was very validating. I was on Good Morning America, briefly. I did the “Thanks in Advance!” podcast, too, which was a lot of fun.

This weekend, I started and finished New Yorker writer Lauren Collins’s excellent memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language, which isn’t just a memoir but an exploration of how language works in the world—in our minds, in our cultures, how it maps our identities. There were so many lines I underlined in deep recognition: the moments when you try to communicate in a second language and, after one tiny false move or accent drop, the person switches to English; the endless acquiring of vocabulary; the embarrassment; the fear that you will never be yourself in any language other than your native tongue, which is, it seems, so much of a deeper fear for writers. (I also realized that Collins’s father went to my Catholic high school’s all-boys rival, a funny point of recognition.) It reminded me of one of my favorite essays from last year, Alejandro Zambra’s “Translating a Person” in The Believer.

I also did a lot of flipping through The Gastronomica Reader, clearly. Right now, I’m rereading 2666 for the first time in 12 freaking years. This will be a project! I already find it a lot funnier than I did at 22, when, in order to finish it, I started taking the train to and from work (a terrible job that I don’t want to talk about), even though it was just a 30-minute ride that I’d usually drive. It would be an excuse to get an elaborate breakfast from the bagel shop, as public transit got me there so much earlier than my car.

I’d anticipated writing something a lot more broadly religious in scope about simplicity and food, but it seems I need to spend even more time digging into the cookbooks of monks (of various religions and sects) in order for those ideas to fully form. If you have monk or nun cookbooks to recommend, please let me know.

The best meal we cooked last week was a falafel feast, with homemade pita, hummus, baba ghanoush, and a simple salad of local lettuce and white onion. The whole event required an entire jar of Soom Foods tahini, which is not easily obtained. These days, I barely dress salad: I just generously salt the non-lettuce components, let them sit, then add the leaves and drizzle them with a nice amount of olive oil, then toss. A tiny bit of vinegar, maybe. We did homemade tortillas with black beans that I let cook in the remnants of my ketchup, which is more like barbecue sauce. I made patatas bravas for breakfast on Saturday after boiling a bunch of potatoes, some of which I snack on cold with a drizzle of hot sauce.

We are trying to keep ourselves to only one or two intensely elaborate meals per week. I desperately want to make a vegan bánh mì with salt-brined tofu and a mushroom-lentil-nut pâté, per the instructions kindly sent me by André Gallant—however, the baguette requires more time than we were able to give it. I’m going to pickle some kohlrabi and radish today, though. I’m going to be ready when the baguettes are.

What will I make for this Wednesday’s Instagram Live vegan baking show, which I’ll start at 11 a.m.? I don’t know! I’m open to requests.

I’m going to make a major cop-out and just recommend checking out my Bookshop.org affiliate store, in which I list every nonfiction book and cookbook I’ve discussed or alluded to in these newsletters thus far. I’ll be updating it every week! Next week, I might talk about knives or I might talk about spices. I really can’t say with certainty: The weeks always, even in isolation, take unpredictable turns.