I've been cooking more lately, and have been having a particular run of success with Fuschia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, which many reviews have assured me is the Sichuan cookbook. My interest has coincided with the discovery that the Asian grocery in Durham is both massive and significantly cheaper on a wide variety of items. Also, the produce is always better. The combination of these factors has gotten me to think more about the food movement and some of its political implications, a topic Phoebe also touches on here. The appeal of locavore food politics is obvious for conservatives: it places some foods in the category of 'local,' and therefore 'good,' and provides a good reason to dislike what is outside those categories; 'organic' implies 'probably not shipped from another continent.' It also has the side effect of limiting what a cuisine can be: there is one notion of what, for example, "French" food consists in, and alterations or variations are considered suspect--or if not even suspect, must be justified in some way. All of which makes my affection for Asian food problematic.

It's also of some interest to me because it inhibits the natural feedback mechanisms which make food more interesting. David Thompson argues in Thai Food that the characteristic spiciness of much of that food is a response to two things: the relative scarcity of protein sources and the omnipresence of rice as food staple. Spicier food makes it tolerable to eat less and does more to liven up otherwise plain rice. Sichuan food in general is a great example of the merits of flexibility: Sichuan is an agriculturally rich region that nevertheless is fond of integrating foods and cooking styles from the rest of the world, most famously Sichuan peppers, which are not native to the region. The distinctiveness of their food stems from the confidence that anything can be successfully integrated and made distinctively Sichuanese (in this, they are not wrong); the distinctiveness of American foodie culture seems to be the exclusion of a number of different things.

1 comment:

Phoebe said...

This post makes me think of the food-movement/foodie tension between prioritizing using the finest ingredients, simply prepared, or making the best of mediocre, inexpensive ingredients. Both of these paths market themselves as traditional, as what-our-grandmothers-did. And both are ultimately about making a bigger investment in what we eat (money and time at the farmers' market, time and some new-spices-money at the supermarket or "ethnic" market). But even if the same writers may advocate for both approaches, it would be tough to adhere to the two simultaneously.