For Italian columnist Giacomo Papi, the essence of contemporary society has been revealed once and for all in the way we eat.1 It all started, he maintains, in the 1980s, when bow tie pasta with salmon in cream sauce began to appear on Italian menus:
Cooking began to be an aesthetic experience. Thirty years later, the salmon has been replaced by tuna (tartare, seared, with ginger), risotto is triumphant, the cream has disappeared, and every ingredient comes mysteriously supplied with its own geography…. Thirty years later, it is impossible to eat and discuss some other subject. It is impossible to sit at table without analyzing, forkful by forkful, every flavor and ingredient…as if the experience will be incomprehensible and insipid without commentary. It is the triumph of meta-cuisine. Taste no longer affords pleasure on its own. Just as contemporary art exists only if someone talks about and interprets it, so cooking only lives, these days, in the comments of its consumers.
The consequences of meta-cuisine for society are dire, in Papi’s view:
Food has replaced fashion…. The mouth has become our most important organ. It is a transformation in keeping with our era, which seems to be concerned mostly with channeling its own voracity. Cooking is the art of our time. Because eating is the only sensory, and hence aesthetic, experience that is entirely fulfilled in consumption. By destroying the work of art.
On the other side of the Atlantic, matters are no different. The Eighties “nestled on a bed of crisp lettuce” and Miami Vice went the way of all fern bars, yielding to Iron Chef, Starbucks, and IKEA, and these expressions of the global village begat, in their turn, a certain return to the strictly local: Iron Chef America, Sex in the City, and the apotheosis of Alice Waters. Meta-cuisine triumphs stateside, too; incongruous ingredients and exotic tools have surrendered, as in Italy, to an obsession with origins, a far cry from the Idaho potatoes and Iowa corn of my own youth. For example, Waters’s Chez Panisse recently offered (Tuesday, November 23) such pinpoint precision as:
Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi with spinach and nettles
Grilled Wolfe Ranch quail with verjus sauce, wild mushroom ragoût, and parsnip purée
As in Italy, Waters’s preoccupation with the local geography of foodstuffs comes at the exact moment when geography is set to disappear from the globe altogether, now that the world’s countryside threatens to morph into one great, undifferentiated mall. Forty years ago, Italy, California, and China were places profoundly different from one another, places with huge tracts of unspoiled, undeveloped land, where birds and butterflies fluttered in droves and children…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.