Monday, August 20, 2007

How To Proceed?

We've carved out a fairly monumental task for ourselves, to analyze the whole of worldwide cuisine in an attempt to get at some common, underlying ideas. Of necessity we're going to need some sort of a framework, some way to extract order from the vast, glorious chaos that we call "cooking". A daunting task, to be sure, but not insurmountable.

Fortunately for us the art of cookery is a very physical discipline. It dwells not in a world of Platonic ideals but rather in the grubby reality of processes and foodstuffs. This intrinsic physicality is going to be of great help to us as we seek to impose a little bit of order on our glorious chaos.

Cooking, being a physical process, starts with what exists and, through the application of various techniques, produces a new product. This is the lowest common denominator, an immutable rule that all cultures must respect. It also serves as the basis of our organizational framework: if cooking is an art of transformation and composition then it can be best understood by looking at inputs and transformative processes. Or, in plain English, by looking at what ingredients are available and what you do with them once you have them.

To understand how this approach works let's return to the humble sandwich. A sandwich is a composite product, featuring a bread-ish product filled with something. Before one can make a sandwich one must have first made the bread and the filling. This deconstruction can be followed back to the fields and pastures: before one can make the bread one must first have flour, before there can be flour there must first be grain, etc.

So this journey is going to start with the fundaments of cooking, raw ingredients, and proceed from there. Raw ingredients are treated in various ways, combined (or not) with other ingredients and, through routes direct and circuitous, end up as a dish which is consumed. But just as interesting as the dishes themselves are the conditions under which they are consumed: which other dishes are present, who is eating them, and why. In the end we will have examined not only the foods which make up a meal, but the form of the meal itself, hopefully making us better cooks in the process.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I came up with the idea for "Food Forms" while I was eating a sandwich. I don't remember where or when, or even what kind of a sandwich it was, but I remember that it was topped with a red-cabbage slaw.

"Red cabbage slaw, huh? That's kind of cool. And tasty. Wonder where they came up with that idea?"

I went on to speculate about how you could riff on the basic sandwich, take what might be regarded as an ossified food and re-interpret it to make it interesting again. I realized that "sandwich" was an archetype, a template that the creative chef could fill in to interesting effect by varying the breads, the fillings, the garnishes, etc. That was followed by the (not entirely original) understanding that the sandwich is, to a large degree, a universal concept. Many cultures have their own variation of the sandwich, putting various fillings between sundry breads and bread-ish products.

Thus was born the concept of a "food form". There's a finite number of things you can do to/with food; the ingredients may change, but at a deeper level the cook is also following a meta-recipe, an overarching framework for the preparation of the dish. Some of these meta-recipes are familiar and obvious: sandwich, salad, stew. Some are less so: fermented product, emulsion, charcuterie.

The goal here is to examine these forms, see how they express themselves across time and culture. This will allow us to understand not only what is done to food, but also go deeper and find the underlying "why" behind the "what". Ultimately we'd like to be able to look at a dish and understand the role that each ingredient and technique plays, providing us with the ability to riff on the dish in the same way that that cook riffed on my sandwich.

What's Going On Here?

Welcome, all, to Food Forms. Here I, and my co-conspirator L, are going to writing about food in various ways. Our primary purpose here is to explore the universal in food in a systematic fashion; if we're lucky we may get enough material out of this exercise to put together a book. So we're going to proceed in a somewhat bookish faction with a beginning, middle, and end. Along the way I expect there will be lots of random side-trips and interjections as we put in our $0.02 regarding current events in food. Enjoy.