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A PLATE OF THAT HAUTE CUISINE, MACK

THERE’S A DIRECT LINE  from peasant fare to bourgeoise cooking to haute cuisine. There are also fascinating societal aspects, as described by Ligaya Mishan in The Humble Beginnings of Today’s Culinary Delicacies,” The New York Times, November 26, 2021. Here are tidbits gleaned from this article and from my usual Internet sleuthing

A Culinary Spectrum. Ligaya Mishan writes, “In the 1979 study ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,’ the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that, whereas the working class tend to crave meals of straightforward nourishment (‘hence the emphasis on heavy, fatty, strong food’), the bourgeoisie approach eating more daintily, as a matter of style, as if they were above such petty concerns as physical survival….”

Extending the spectrum to haute cuisine, britannica.com says, “Unlike a peasant or bourgeois cuisine, in which bold, earthy tastes and textures are allowable and even desirable, grande cuisine aims at a mellow harmony and an appearance of artfulness and order.”

A Matter of Taste. It’s often the same ingredients evolving through this spectrum. Mishan notes, “For deliciousness has never been a fixed quality, wholly measurable by sensors on the tongue; it’s an invocation and reflection of memory, history and prevailing hierarchies.”

Mishan continues, “ To have taste, in the cultural sense of showing discernment and an awareness of higher aesthetics, is to defeat taste in the physical sense: the animal instinct to simply eat what pleases us.”

Boeuf Bourguignon. Mishan writes, “Historically cheap ingredients have required effort to be coaxed into edibility. Before Auguste Escoffier codified the recipe for boeuf bourguignon in his magisterial 1903 cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire, it was a peasant’s trick: Subdue a tough slab of beef by leaving it to wallow in wine—not the fancy stuff—for hours, until the connective tissue breaks down into gelatin and makes the meat melty and ready to give. (In fact, the more coveted, leaner cuts, lacking as much collagen, are not just wasted in such a dish but yield less satisfying results.)”

Coq au vin began as a means of tenderizing tough meat of the rooster. This and following image by Patricia Heal, styled by Martin Bourne, from The New York Times, November 26, 2021.

Coq au vin dealt with what Mishan calls “haggard old roosters…. These dishes are now prized beyond rustic tables precisely because they attest to the skill and patience of the chef.”

Lobster and Other Trash Foods. The North American Atlantic coast used to teem with lobsters. Mishan cites, “ ‘Their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten,’ the Massachusetts Bay colonist William Wood wrote in 1634, observing that Native Americans speared them on hooks as bait for fish, the true prize.”

Maine lobster and Conway Pearl oysters.

Mishan offers additional lobster history: “In an 1876 report on life among British settlers in Nova Scotia, John J. Rowan noted that people were ‘ashamed’ to be seen eating lobsters, and that lobster shells strewn around a house were ‘looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.’ ”

Another Societal Aspect. In “Culinary Hierarchy: From Peasant Cooking to ‘Haute Cuisine,’ “ ResearchGate, April 2021, Vicki A. Swinbank brings gender into the picture: Peasant cooking was originated by the woman of the house. Bourgeois families had meals prepared below stairs by their cooks, also invariably women.

Then came haute cuisine, until relatively recent times a purview of male chefs. Swinbank writes, “This culinary hierarchy, whereby men’s professional cooking is awarded a higher cultural status than women’s domestic cooking, has led to a lack of acknowledgement of women’s central role in the development of culinary cultures and reflects the low value placed on activities performed by women.”

A Genderless, Classless Favorite. “I grew up in Hawaii,” writes Mishan, “where a slab of Spam is given a quick burnish of soy sauce and sugar in a pan, then tied to a mound of rice with nori to make musubi.” 

One of my favorites: Spam Musubi. Image from spam.com.

“We all eat it there,” says Mishan, “rich and poor alike, without pride. Caviar may have its mother-of-pearl spoons and rooms aflame with chandeliers; Spam musubi has 7-Eleven and a peel of plastic wrap.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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