It all started when Josh Homme showed up on No Reservations.
A few weeks ago, No Reservations aired what may well be the best four minutes of cinema I’ve seen in ages (seriously, watch that clip at least until minute four). The show opened with Anthony Bourdain, chef, food writer and rock star worshipper, driving through the desert Southwest to “Regular John.” As a big Queens of the Stone Age and No Reservations fan, I knew I’d love this episode from the moment I heard that Homme soundtracked it and made an appearance. But as the episode spread out over the course of the next hour, it unleashed a train of thoughts that led straight into this Monday’s Cajun Country episode.
Bourdain’s long been known to write about the connections between food and music. Ever since the debauchery of Kitchen Confidential, he’s drawn parallels that make a lot of sense between the world of the chef and that of the musician. But in these last few episodes, I’ve seen a deeper trend emerge, one that adds food and music together to interrogate culture, one that necessarily points towards the third element of place. Of course, place is the focus of No Reservations, and food is its lens. But the addition of music makes this a complex triangle that unlocks different possibilities in each point.
We begin to see how food can be deeply emotional, like music or any good art. We see music as regional, even in the modern United States, rather than generic, a reality that we know exists for food. And the thing that transofrms food into culture and music into history is its situation in a place and time, and the meaning that setting endows.
In this week’s No Reservations, set in Louisiana’s Cajun Country, Bourdain speaks with Lolis Eric Elie, a writer for the show Treme, and New Orleans native, and asks why people in the rest of the country should care about New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Elie responds by saying that New Orleans is one of the few places in the country with a clear regional culture, and can serve as an example for the rest of the country to rediscover those cultural markers for themselves. We celebrate them here, he said, but you should celebrate them wherever your from.
I don’t believe people in Ohio, he said, didn’t have anything to eat before McDonald’s.
I’ve long since known the value of food as a way of understanding a cultural history. I grew up in an Italian household, and the single strongest marker of that (some may say the only marker, now that the immigrants and the speakers of the language are gone) is what we eat and how we prepare it.
Bourdain says in the episode that a common point between chefs and musicians is that both know to respect their elders. Anybody who cares about cooking or eating, he says, respects those who came before. Without the family-sized, weekend-long cooking and eating extravaganzas of my childhood, I might have missed out on learning who my Nona and Papa were, what it took for them to come to the United States. I might not have learned that there’s a Piazza Corsini, our family’s name, in Florence, or that when my Papa had saved enough money to buy their first house in Massachusetts, he had to pay an Irish friend to make the purchase for him, because the bank still discriminated against Italian immigrants.
How many children, whose great-grandfathers die when they are seven years old, have those kinds of stories? I have them because of the history that food gave us.
And food, like art, allows us the opportunity to make something beautiful of that history, even when the stories themselves are marred with the messy realities of suffering and loss. One of the most powerful moments of the Cajun episode of No Reservations comes at a crawfish boil, when the locals explain to Bourdain the origins of the gathering. Crawfish were trash food, the food of poverty, the kind of thing a person would only take the trouble to eat if she had nothing else. And so poor groups of immgrants, displaced and searching for community and survival, held giant gatherings to lessen the burden of preparing and eating this difficult meal. A tradition born of necessity, transformed into one of the region’s most celebrated cultural icons.
Making a story out of place, art out of reality, is the way a culture is born.
Image courtesy of the Travel Channel
At another point in the episode, Elie talks about how, in the midst of an economic recession, it’s easy to imagine that the arts don’t matter, that music is a frivolous pursuit. But, he says, chefs and musicians – who could be more vital to our national interest? It’s what we are.
This notion of art as identity, as a means for understanding culture, is more important now than ever before. In one of the best editorials I’ve ever read, my former professor (and friend) Dean Bakopoulos, wrote about the important of reading dark, complex fiction for college students, even those who never plan to study English. He writes that art carries “truthful, chilling voices that often are the catalysts urging use to do better as a people and as a nation.”
The blues were slave narratives. And just as the crawfish boil was born of an ugly past, art takes that past, the stories of suffering, and makes something beautiful enough for us to stand to look at while we learn from it.
But this culture need not be historic. Local food does the same thing, and it’s no coincidence that in the midst of a new economic turmoil, a new era of struggle and suffering, that we are seeing a rebirth of the regional, a return to our own soil. Right now, it is necessity in many cases. But we can transform that need for purer food, closer to home, into a deeper cultural understanding of a place, and of ourselves. When we shop at the farmer’s market, we learn our neighbors stories, and we begin to work our way into those stories. As someone who has just moved to a new place, the search for food in this place has shown me who lives here, and what they want their lives to mean.
As Elie says, this is not just a lesson in who is around us. It is a lesson in ourselves.
We’ve wasted so much time thinking that creating food, whether growing it or preparing it, is something we are unable to do. We’ve sold our shares in food culture to corporations who have marginalized regional differences, smoothed over irregularities, whose ultimate goal is to create one, uniform, national food culture which must be as bland as possible. But we recognize the Golden Arches as easily in Alaska as in Iowa.
And look where this has gotten us. When did we stop thinking food was not for us, could not mean something? Very few of us can play the guitar like Josh Homme or the harpsichord like Beethoven. We may not have lived the suffering that created the blues or modern hip-hop, but that doesn’t stop us from appreciating all of those genres of music, both those to which we belong and those to which we do not. Why do we think that because we are not master chefs, we cannot celebrate the culture of food, hold to it, learn emotional lessons from it, just as we do from music?
Food, like music, can be both beautiful and fun, both regional and universally appreciated, can be both significant and accessible. When we willingly look at food as representative of something bigger than itself, and bigger than us, we learn the lessons of ourselves, of our land, of our home.
In that spirit, I’m working on a mix of songs about what food means – and I need your suggestions! Not just for songs about food (necessarily) but songs about the meaning of food, music in which food represents something. Here’s what I’ve got so far. Leave a comment and add your favorite food songs to the list!
The Food — Common f. Mos Def
Eggs & Sausage — Tom Waits
American Pie — Don McLean
Peaches — Presidents of the United States of America (laugh all you want, but he’s moving to the country for the peaches! It’s all about food and the pastoral ideal!)