Why the language we use when talking about food is important

By FRANK GUERRIERO | October 25, 2018

a8-chicken

THECULINARYGREEK/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Cooking any dish, including the perfect roasted chicken, is an art. 

The last few years have been a time of admirable improvement in the world of cultural awareness around food. More writers of repute, as well as chefs, diners and others, are thinking about how the words they choose can evoke certain sentiments that degrade the foods they’re discussing. However, there’s still plenty of room for growth.

We know by now that the most egregious offenses of nomenclature — like calling Korean food repulsively stinky — are unacceptable. But it’s time now to think about how seemingly harmless terms can still represent problematic assumptions about certain cuisines and, by not-so-distant extension, the people that create them.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking about the term “simple,” as well as its close relatives, “rustic,” “homey” and “comforting.”

What’s wrong with simplicity? Roast chicken is simple, and it’s delicious. Pasta al pomodoro is simple, and I could eat it seven days a week. But describing food in such terms unfortunately obscures the care that goes into a certain recipe or cuisine and therefore denies it the culinary clout that more “complex,” “elevated” or “sophisticated” plates may enjoy.

Let’s think back to that roast chicken. Did you notice how moist the breasts were even though the skin was as dry and crisp as glass? Whoever prepared it may have carefully selected a perfectly sized lemon to stuff inside the cavity so that the bird would steam from the inside without resulting in a soggy skin. 

That pasta al pomodoro may have seemed rudimentary, but two types of tomatoes, one roasted for richness and the other traditionally preserved and passed by hand through a food mill, resulted in complexity that you would have missed had someone just dumped store brand sauce into a pot.

When we don’t appreciate the care that goes into every element of these dishes that are in reality only deceptively simple, we fail to pay the respect the preparers deserve. 

This was unfortunately the case in Eater New York’s recent review of Don Angie, the West Village restaurant lauded as a pinnacle of the so-called “Red Sauce Revival.” Don Angie supposedly “elevates” Italian-American classics, transforming them from purely functional bowls of nutrients meant to be slung out in massive proportions to the kind of refined, contemporary cuisine that deserves the praise of a critic like Ryan Sutton.

The problem is, Sutton is dead wrong about Italian-American food. He describes “places where the marinara is cooked until it’s as crimson as a fire engine,” even though marinara often maintains the freshness of nearly raw tomatoes.

He and others seem to forget (or simply remain ignorant of) Italian-American dishes like braised artichokes and oxtail stew that may take days to make and years to master.

Sutton thinks that fans of Italian-American food reject innovation and embrace only nostalgia, citing the untimely closure of Torrisi while its sister restaurant, Carbone, continued to thrive. 

He, however, elects not to use the restaurant’s full name, Torrisi Italian Specialties (What could recall more hometown family deli warmth than that?) and neglects to mention that the chefs of the restaurant have themselves admitted that their dishes were borne out of nostalgia for their New York childhoods.

A second and more problematic example of assuming simplicity came last year in The New York Times’ review of King by Pete Wells, arguably the most influential food critic in the world. 

“What Ms. de Boer and Ms. Shadbolt offer is not a wild vision of new ways to cook but a solid vision of how to eat,” he wrote. “They put pleasure at the table above gymnastics on the plate. For reasons I don’t want to understand, I associate this trait with other female chefs around town, including Rita Sodi, Missy Robbins, Gabrielle Hamilton, Sara Jenkins, Angie Mar and April Bloomfield.” 

First things first, the plates at King and the other restaurants he mentions are anything but simple. King offers a unique menu every day. 

When I enjoyed a spectacular meal at King, there was a perfectly executed porkchop that was brined in carefully selected aromatics, draped in luxuriously stewed beans and accompanied by tender braised greens. 

At Lilia, Missy Robbins makes about a half dozen kinds of fresh pasta every day, drawing from extensive experience in Italy. Gabrielle Hamilton’s food is fairly traditional, sure, but her restaurant still demands the most from some of the most capable cooks in the city. 

These women deserve all the respect in the world, and a term like “simple” doesn’t offer that.

Overall, filing food away as “simple,” whether it be the cuisine of a certain immigrant culture or a large swath of talented chefs, is derogatory toward the preparers, as it devalues the care, passion and experience that go into every plate. 

The next time you eat, whether it’s a meal prepared by a friend, something you snagged from a dining hall or a special occasion meal you dropped half a paycheck for, think about the work that’s gone into every flavor you taste and every texture you savor, and try to understand just how little of what you eat really is “simple.”

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