What do you think you talk about when you talk about food? Do you even know what you should be talking about when you talk about food? Bwog didn’t know either, so we sent hungry correspondent Ross Chapman to get answers.
A crowd with a median age of somewhere around 60 gathered in the East Gallery of Buell Hall, home of the Columbia Maison Française, to hear a talk about culinary conversations. Air France and Culinary Historians of New York (CHNY) hosted Columbia professor of sociology Priscilla Ferguson (GSAS ’64 & ’67 (French)) as she gave a lecture loquaciously titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food.” Also included in the night was the presentation of CHNY’s Amelia Award, which honors significant contribution to culinary history. CHNY Chair Cathy Kaufman introduced the event and advertised Professor Ferguson’s new book, Word of Mouth, before bringing the speaker on stage.
Ferguson’s lecture, also called “Food Talk” by the speakers, focused on Haute (pronounced like “oat” because of French!) Food, a culinary movement and perspective that disdains convention and praises creativity and incongruity. The defining characteristic of Haute Food is its novelty. Filling a chocolate with nuts or raspberry was once rare and new, but is now old hat. (Ferguson praised Mondel Chocolates for staying true to these culinary staples). Now, the Haute Food chefs who want to stand out fill chocolate with wasabi and cheese. The combination of unusual and ordinary ingredients is one way to effect “Hautification.” A normal and plainly prepared hamburger paired with foie gras (as one NYC chef dared to do) would be Haute. Putting a traditionally luxurious food in a mundane location (here’s looking at you, McLobster) would be Haute. The goal is sometimes not to make the best tasting meal. “Are you even supposed to like them?” asked Ferguson about some items on a four-hour long tasting menu. Some chefs would say, “I really don’t care.” The goal is to be new and artistic.
The reaction to the Haute Food movement has been variable. Food critics (and readers of those critiques) have had a terrible time devising a good way to objectively grade food in a movement that promotes individuality. This has led to a decreased importance on stars and a greater weight on the text of reviews and the reader’s relationship with an individual critic. In American culture, the deformalization of public events has led to a clash with fancy dining. Some restaurants have learned to deal with the “smart casual” dress code (and some gourmet chefs in food trucks don’t care if customers wear anything at all), while others thrust sport jackets onto casually dressed patrons. The fascination that comes with the development of new culinary techniques has led to tables popping up in the middle of kitchens and television cameras gravitating towards celebrity chefs. “Today,” Ferguson explained, “cooking is part of the meal” much more than it once was. And a sort of jadedness has come over the eating public. While 1970’s French critics had no idea what to say about Japanese food, some college students today make it a weekly staple of their diet.