brainfood: A creature of habit

The purpose of the new American cuisine is aggressive distinction, separateness. Each thing in each dish must be pungently accessible and memorable, each is supposed to have its brief moment of celebrity in my mouth
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The Independent Culture
I have a problem with holidays. That is, besides the guilt which is natural to anyone who considers work a natural condition; not to speak of replying to those who are convinced that I lead a cushy life with a convincing argument about hardship, responsibility and general winter- induced weariness. I therefore sit here in Florida on a balmy morning and know I should be paying heed to more serious matters, while actually being a creature of desperate habit when it comes to holidays.

That is, on the rare occasions when I take a week away from my attic, I tend to go where I have always gone. And strange as it may seem, one of the reasons I go year after year to the same place, is that I feel at home: with the landscape, the architecture, the weather, the food. On the face of it, this craving for familiarity is absurd, especially when it comes to the food, where the heart of the matter is a degree of invention. There is no place now to which I would travel for food: not Paris, not Turin, not Reggio Emilia, not Benares. But without good food I am ill at ease. This, I realise, makes food far too central to my life. My wife, who likes to gnaw on celery and radishes (while being an excellent cook), considers this accusingly as a bad eccentricity: "The first thing you think about is food," she says.

This is not quite true. Food is, however, among the first things. The table is where I emerge from myself to be, however briefly, a member of society. The circumstances of this are thus important, and I carry this sense of centrality on holiday. On my little north Florida island, having read, golfed, written, basked in the sun and bathed, I feel no unease. After five years, Amelia holds no surprises for me. There are half-a-dozen restaurants where I am greeted like an old friend, seated in the sin-bin (the smoking section), my eccentricities tolerated. I observe the comings and goings of chefs (in keeping with American mobility in general, American chefs migrate constantly), and owners; the ups and downs of fortune; the failures and successes of new enterprises; and the movable amours of the "wait staff" as they're picturesquely called, for in a small town like Fernandina your waiters and waitresses are all washed up from some higher calling, and work only in expectation of the Call.

What I particularly like down here is a duality: on the one hand the familiarity and continuity that make this place where I go every March, and, on the other, the constant change and development that I note. As I sat last night in my favourite restaurant, the Beech Street Grill, eating an excellent tuna steak with a lacquer-like black sauce of soya and mushrooms, and ate my pepper and basil salad with sharp feta, drinking a delicious pinot noir from Wilamette in Oregon (I infinitely prefer the wines of the North Pacific to those of California), I had time to think about what it is that makes the new American cuisine really distinctive.

I realised, as someone brought up on "classical" French cooking whose basic tastes were Mediterranean, that the burden of European haute cuisine lay in the law of blending. A sauce was meant to take the many flavours of its ingredients and turn them into one thing; in the same way, a meal was a procession of dishes which were supposed to blend in a mystical way as a single experience. The purpose of such blending and sauces was either to conceal a relatively cheap cut of meat (frugality), or to enhance an expensive one (luxury).

Well, it is all the contrary here and now. The purpose of the new American cuisine is aggressive distinction, separateness. Each thing in each dish must be pungently accessible and memorable: pepper, basil, feta, lettuces and underlying vinaigrette - each is supposed to have its brief moment of celebrity in my mouth.

The familiarity which I enjoy lies in knowing that I'm going to be interested in what I eat, that I'm going to enjoy my meal and that the whole enterprise between us is a little bit of an adventure: an adventure, however, firmly based on the same basic rules that obtain in classic cuisine: first-class ingredients and careful attention to their cooking. These are two radically different ways of looking at food, but like holidays and home they are the same in the value they assign to food and pleasure.

I think that is why I toyed with but ultimately rejected that 18-day cruise through northern Russia and will probably never spend seven leisurely days steaming towards Luxor. I know what I like, and I need to eat well, even on holiday. So goodbye Russia and Egypt

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