An internationalfood company headquartered in England asked me in the autumn of l998 to talkto their managers about emerging attitudes toward nutrition and diet. I hadearlier written in a book about what I called "the extermination modelof food." I had described the way in which once upon a time food had alwaysbeen celebrated because it kept us alive and was always a challenge to acquirewith reliability. What was once only a signal of well-being and convivialityappears to have turned into a menacing threat to our health, self-control andeven moral purity. The executives thought I might have something to tell themabout an acrid trend, which they had hazily but (it turns out) presciently contemplated. They wereright about the situation. These last weeks have erupted with fierce publicfears about dioxin in Belgian produce and farm animals, multicountry recallsof smelly Coca-Cola, mass marches over genetically modified foods. The Belgiangovernment has been toppled over the matter. The most famous brand in the worldis under drastic and seemingly enthusiastic attack. Accomplished food chemistssuch as Sir Paul McCartney have protested about the slippery slope leading fromseeds resistant to parasites to monster fetuses. And notwithstanding the relativelyreassuring serious science of the matter, a wave of near-hysterical food fearhas swept segments of Northern Europe. It's clear that the unparalleled food-prosperityof industrial societies has turned food into a charged component of symbolicas well as practical life. Dinner and nightmare merge.
At the endof my talk to the 75 or so executives and a variety of questions, the CEO saidhe had just one more: If I had to give one piece of advice to an internationalproducer of food, what would it be? I answered, Produce aggressive taste.
While foodhas become, on one hand, a bubbling source of deadly hazards-cholesterol, calories,saturated fat, additives, and now science-fiction genes-it has also become afocus of intense interest and expenditure for its taste, exoticism and texture.Consumers are avid for new, vivid tastes and menu schemes, and a glance aroundmany cities illustrates that whatever people may think of foreigners and theirstrange costumes, odd gods, weird rules about courtship and music, they willflock to the hot restaurant of the moment for the celebrated New Cuisine ofthe season. We owe a considerable debt to whoever it is at the Immigration andNaturalization Service who has issued visas to so many chefs from so many countries.It is possible to eat better food from more cuisines at fairer prices in NewYork City than anyone two decades ago would have dared dream about.
Here weare. On one hand, since providing food has become such a huge industry, it hasof course attracted the attention of the range of planners and marketers whosupervise the flow of money from consumers to producers. One result has beenthe increased relevance of obvious if tedious commercial factors, like focusgroups, in creating menus and planning pricing and presentation. The consequenceis a hugely successful fast-food industry providing highly acceptable foodsto masses on a consistent basis. It may generate questions about dietary healthand gourmet esthetics, but people choose it. Like it or not, it's our lunch.
On the otherhand, food is also a passion and an exploration. People don't remember their125th Big Mac, but their one-time association with a wonderful cassoulet orpepper steak or risotto at a special restaurant. What works with diners, orrather what sings, is not focus group food, but aggressive food.
This wasdriven home to me when I ordered one of the few dishes I have ever found toohot to eat, at the Grand Sichuan International restaurant at 24th St. and 9thAve. This enterprise split off because of partner disputes from the originalGrand Sichuan on Canal St. (which remains in business). An innovation of thefirst carried on in the spin-off is a detailed off-the-menu explanation of thecuisine, which candidly describes a variety of dishes such as General Tso'sChicken and Beef with Tomato as "American Chinese Food." There are,of course, many samples from Sichuan, as well as from Shanghai and Canton, andan eccentric section of the favorites of Mao Tse Tung.
It's fromthis last list of 10 items I chose Spicy Whole Green Pepper, the heat, integrityand brilliant assertiveness of which are so astonishing. Exactly as advertised,spicy green peppers are sauteed rapidly with still more hot pepper and amplefresh garlic to deliver, for $6.95, a sparkling specimen of that regional cuisineas good as or better than the food I encountered in Sichuan while writing thetext for a book on the food of China. There, in the 80s anyway, there was considerablereluctance throughout China to offer foreigners The Right Stuff, presumablybecause it would be embarrassing if they failed to admire it. But here on 9thAvenue is an expression of the edge food that defines a great cuisine. It isthe signature not of a focus group but of an aggressive chef prepared to beintrepid with ingredients and confident that guests will admire perfection uncompromisedby theorists of mass-marketing and the acceptability of blandness.
The sameglad affirmation is reflected in a $7.55 dish of sauteed spicy Chinese broccoli,which is elevated to swift magic by the simple but all-too-rare use of lotsof fresh garlic. You can't be too rich, too thin or cook with too much garlic.Few chefs use enough, and too many use the bottled variety, which cannot possiblyreplicate the flash provided to a dish by the real thing just cut.
The samealtogether unusual perfection can be found in the garlic-yogurt-and cucumbersalad at Elias's Corner in Queens where, Elias tells an inquirer, whenever thekitchen staff have a spare moment, they chop garlic. What more can one possiblywant in a restaurant that also serves superb fresh fish simply done? At TheBay Leaf restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan, the lamb vindaloo also achievessultry apotheosis in the merger of heat and culinary craftsmanship.
I have ahaunting memory of another taste that goes too far to become just right-thelobster sauce at Coco Beach, a renovated fisherman's shack restaurant on thecoast road on the way east out of Nice, toward Italy. Obviously, fisherman Cocosouped up dozens of lobster shells to create a basic sauce served with variousother forms of maritime protein; the result had the intensity and insistenceof the well-played final chords of a grand symphony. And could it be difficultto make such a sauce? No, just make sure to use too many shells and cook themtoo long with too much brandy, and you have nothing a focus group would certify.But extremism in the service of taste is a primary virtue. So demand food onthe edge, cherish it, and patronize chefs who understand and make it. And lickyour fingers.