get-attachment copy 14I’ve been having some conversations this past week with some local chefs and foodies, talking about the problems and the potential of the Baton Rouge culinary scene. Why is it that New Orleans has a world-renown restaurant and food culture, Lafayette — the capital of Cajun country — has its own distinct food scene, but the Baton Rouge food scene is so conventional? While you can certainly eat better in Baton Rouge than you can in many, perhaps most, American cities, Louisiana’s capital city is fairly bland compared to the two other south Louisiana cities (north Louisiana is part of a different food culture). In these conversations, I’ve learned from working chefs and others that Baton Rouge eaters have a strong bias toward the conventional, and chefs serve that. If you want to do something creative and interesting with food, you need to leave Baton Rouge for New Orleans — that’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

A new generation of locally-trained chefs are trying to change that. It’s a story I’m telling in a piece I’m writing — more on this later — but the gist of it is that these local chefs are doing it in large part by working within Louisiana’s own culinary tradition, using local ingredients, but putting different spins on the familiar. I mentioned here last week that I’d eaten shrimp Creole cooked by Chef Cody Carroll at Hot Tails, the little cafe on the other side of the Mississippi River from where I live. I’ve grown up eating shrimp Creole, but I’ve never tasted shrimp Creole with the depth and vividness of Carroll’s. I spoke to Carroll’s sous chef, who explained to me how Carroll, using standard ingredients, coaxed so much flavor out of something as simple as a shrimp Creole. Carroll has created a highly successful cafe by doing old standbys with great flair, and having showed his cautious customers that he can be trusted with the basics, introducing them to more adventurous dishes from his kitchen.

What I’m learning from these chefs is that the changing of cultural tastes across the generations is opening the doors of creativity locally. It’s no accident, one chef told me, that the most interesting food in the city now is coming from the kitchens of younger chefs — and that this is happening along with the craft beer revolution. Younger people are open to more adventurous tastes, they say. This particular chef and I laughed about how our fathers’ generation only wants to drink Bud Light, but our generation is more interested in drinking craft beer, because we want something that tastes complex. Take that sensibility and apply it to the broader culinary landscape, and you can see culture changing, and the directions in which it’s going.

I’m thinking this morning about what I’ve been learning about the evolving local food culture in light of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theory of the relationship between food and culture. A reader sent me this short essay by Sara Davis, exploring what the great anthropologist’s insights can tell us about the relationship between food and culture. Davis writes:

We make decisions every day about what to eat, and rarely do we choose our meals by empirical measures of biocompatibility or organic composition. The determination of what may be considered food — let alone what makes food ready to eat — is largely a cultural distinction.

So Claude Lévi-Strauss noted when he observed and recorded the eating habits of tribal societies of North and South America in the mid-20th century. Though he saw that most cultures categorized foodstuff into three phases — raw, cooked, and rotten — he also observed that those categories were subject to interpretation, and that there was no reason any two communities would come to the same terms. In The Origin of Table Manners, third volume of his wide-ranging Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss illustrates the fluidity of these terms with examples from his native France: Italian restaurants, he claims, widened French receptivity to eating raw vegetables without an acidic vinegar dressing; for a more dramatic example, American soldiers landing in Normandy during WW2 occasionally burned down cheese dairies, mistaking the smell of ripe cheese for that of corpses.

Levi-Strauss’s theory posits a triangular relationship between people and the types of food they accept, and reject. If culture is at the top of the triangular relationship, then human preferences mediate between the raw and the rotten — and this varies from culture to culture. People in south Louisiana think eating raw oysters is completely normal, but many (older people, mostly) find the concept of sushi to be disgusting. Julie and I have talked in the past about how our mothers, who were both acculturated in the 1950s, a time in which mass culture taught women to think that industrially processed and packaged food was more hygienic, find it difficult to think of food not purchased at the supermarket as quite … clean. Go to Davis’s essay to see a diagram of it, and read her discussion. This passage jumped out at me:

One thing that remains consistent throughout Lévi-Strauss’s studies — as well as most of the modern comparisons we can make — is that most languages, cultures, and foodways favor the cooked — literally and metaphorically. Our social agreements generally dictate that things (food, people, ideas) that are raw are also incomplete, and things that are rotten must be discarded. But suppose you don’t agree with the elevation of culture to the top of this hierarchy? Suppose you consider modern society to have a polluting rather than civilizing effect? Around the turn of the millennium, anthropologist Dylan Clark published a study he had made of the foodways and philosophy in a Seattle punk community during the 1990s. For this alternative society, concerned about the environmental and economic effects of industrial food production and branding, most of the food processed and packaged for the grocery store was beyond cooked: the long chain of production from monoculture farming to plastic packaging pushed mainstream food into their conceptualization of rotten. But Clark observed with interest that although his counterculture community disparaged the costly production and marketing of packaged food, many members of the community would willingly eat the same packaged food salvaged from the dumpsters where chain stores regularly discard edible unsold food. Such food is not literally rotten, but widely considered taboo — for if the floor is considered a contaminating zone, the dumpster is exponentially more so. Clark suggests that freeganism (our word, not his) “purifies” packaged food of its industrially-cooked contamination. (If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, perhaps the refuse of my enemy is my re-use.)

For the community of Clark’s study, it’s as though the culinary triangle is flipped upside-down: mainstream culture and cooking at the bottom of the pyramid, and that which mainstream culture considers rotten or raw at the top. Alternative foodways embrace literal raw foods as well as whole and unrefined foods, bulk and minimally packaged foods — any edible substance that hasn’t been over-processed, wrapped in non-biodegradable materials, and marketed as good to eat. Of course, this angle will sound more familiar — an example of the way counterculture politics and practices eventually trickle into the mainstream. Broadly, our national definition of “cooked” is shifting as we learn to value raw ingredients over processed food, chunky over smooth, honey over sugar. Wild or young plants — dandelion greens, ramps, green garlic — are now prized for the very qualities that may once have disqualified them from the category of food. We are trying to learn the lexicon of whole, fresh, organic so that there are fewer steps between natural food and ourselves.

This slight tip to the triangle — valuing raw-er foods with less human intervention — seems like a reasonable reaction to a culture in which so much food is cooked and packed in factories.

The point, however, is that this is still a cultural judgment. Davis goes on to say that savvy marketers exploit this cultural shift by positioning foods that may be highly processed (e.g., sweetened yogurt) as “natural,” thereby shifting it in the Levi-Straussian sense from “rotten” to acceptable. You have just as much sugar in a homemade chocolate chip cookie as you do in a Chips Ahoy, but aside from taste — and that’s a big issue — it’s hard to see what makes one “rotten” and the other not, aside from a cultural judgment.

Similarly, Levi-Strauss’s theory puts a central event I recount in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming into perspective for me — and gives me a way, through food, to understand the culture war between my sister and me. Readers will recall the story of Julie and me coming home from New York City in the Christmas of 1998, after one year of marriage, and asking my family if we could make a bouillabaisse for them. It’s something we had taught ourselves how to do, and for us, it was a gift of love. We explained in advance that it was nothing more than a seafood stew, made with ingredients that were very familiar to them: fish, shellfish, tomatoes, garlic, onions, herbs. After receiving permission to cook it, we spent all day preparing the stew, and served it. None of them would eat it. My father tried a little bit in a teacup, to be polite, but he was the only one who would go even that far. Whereupon my sister made a nasty remark to the effect of, “I don’t appreciate you coming down here with your big-city foodways and trying to make us eat your crap.”

Now, that was shockingly rude by any standard, and flatly unacceptable. But Levi-Strauss’s theory helps me to understand it, if not excuse it. For my Louisiana family, the apparent strangeness of this dish moved it to the category of “rotten.” I say apparent strangeness, because a bouillabaisse is very close what south Louisiana people eat when they eat what is locally called a courtbouillion (not the same thing as a French courtbouillion). This is why we chose to make bouillabaisse; in its courtbouillion guise, fish stew was a familiar item in the south Louisiana menu, it’s not something they commonly had, which is why we thought it would be a special treat for them. If I had called it a courtbouillion instead of a bouillabaisse, my family almost certainly would have accepted it and eaten it with pleasure. What made it “rotten” in their cultural framework was its apparent strangeness, plus, to my sister’s mind, the fact that it was something being introduced by her fake-cosmopolitan brother, who insulted her by his tastes. Thus did a food that ought to have been completely familiar to them become something alien and repulsive.

Ridiculous, right? I think so. But Levi-Strauss makes me think about how Ruthie and I carried out our culture war through food, though I was completely unaware what we were doing. I thought it was merely a difference in taste and what we valued (e.g., I preferred meat that wasn’t factory-farmed, for moral and aesthetic reasons), but she saw it as utterly defined by culture. I see now that our not letting our children snack on processed foods was not interpreted by her as a mere difference, but was rather interpreted by her as a judgment on her personal culture — and further, as a sign of my own inauthenticity, because it meant a rejection of the culture in which I was raised.

Again, I think this was pointlessly destructive; she cared a lot more about the food differences between us than I did, and it was for her symbolic of something far greater. Still, the Levi-Strauss framework implicates me, in that I had come to consider highly processed food “rotten” in the same way that she saw my food preferences as “rotten.” Of course I would have eaten a processed food dinner with no complaint, out of politeness, but it is true that I would have made a negative cultural judgment on it, no matter how much I kept it to myself.

I’m reminded too of the time I went to a conventional supermarket in suburban Philadelphia (versus Whole Foods, or Wegman’s), and saw a mom filling her basket up with Tastykakes. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my first response was disgust at the thought that people ate so many of those things. Now, I pointedly did not think that this woman was a bad person for eating that stuff, but I did have a sharp reaction to the sight of six or seven boxes of Tastykakes in her basket, because I judge a diet heavy in Tastykake to be inferior. Thing is, I was raised eating this way (Little Debbie was our Tastykake), so the food preferences I’ve come to later in life really does involve a conscious rejection of the food culture in which I was raised.

I bring up the bouillabaisse example from my book, which many of you have read, because that incident really is the central myth from my history symbolizing the cultural clash between my family and me, a clash that has had emotional resonance far, far beyond the table. As Levi-Strauss understood, food is very rarely just food.

Take a look at Davis’s essay — it’s not long — and apply it to your own food preferences and way of eating. I think it’s hard for all of us to avoid making cultural judgments when we decide what we like and don’t like, because our food likes and dislikes are shaped by the culture in which we are raised. The chef who observed that younger beer drinkers are a lot more adventurous than older beer drinkers was onto something — and nobody who cares about beer thinks of it as merely an aesthetic difference. Craft beer drinkers look down on the lowbrow (in their judgment) taste those who prefer mass-produced beer — and the old guard looks down on the highfalutin’ (in their judgment) taste of the craft beer people. I don’t want to overstate this; I don’t think most beer drinkers of either tribe care enough to hate on the other. But I’ve seen it too many times on both sides not to recognize it’s a real thing, and a true expression of cultural difference. In talking to the rising generation of Baton Rouge chefs, I can discern a countercultural sensibility rising, though it’s one that comes up against a deep aesthetic conservatism within the local culture.

It reminds me, in a way, of the culture war over the future of French cuisine that Adam Gopnik wrote about 16 years ago. The French developed cooking to a very high level, but (the argument goes) became so stuck on formalism that they’ve strongly resisted any innovation, and thus have lost a lot of their status atop world cuisine. Too bad that Gopnik’s story is only available in full to New Yorker subscribers (though he tells the same story in his book Paris To The Moon). What you see is that this argument the French were (are?) having over their food is really an argument about the future of French culture, and how much the French should be bound by the traditions they’ve received, and how much freedom they should exercise to innovate. That is, it’s about identity, and anxiety over the stability of one’s identity in a pluralistic and fast-changing world.

Which, more or less, is what the culture war between me and my sister — who was a good and enthusiastic cook, though I didn’t learn this until after she died because she wouldn’t talk about cooking with me –played out on battlefield of the kitchen and the table, was all about.