Food as cultural barometer

Greek food critic Diane Kochilas traces her country’s cultural ups and downs of the last few decades by examining its cuisine:

The Athens I knew in the 1970s and ’80s was a provincial city of bougainvillea-draped neighborhood tavernas, mostly family-run, that were cheap enough to visit almost nightly. The wine was rough and the service rougher, but the real reason for going was social. The dining scene was commendably egalitarian; even Aristotle Onassis mixed with the hoi polloi.

But Greece evolved. With tourism bringing the enticements of affluence and with the return of a generation of Greeks who had studied abroad and become more sophisticated in their tastes, the classless taverna was eclipsed by high-design restaurants where people could show off their ease with chopsticks and discuss whether a risotto was sufficiently al dente. By the mid-1990s, foreign cuisines were reaping the top prizes in nascent restaurant awards. Beyond the few lingering neighborhood tavernas, souvlaki joints and tourist traps in the Plaka area, there were few notable Greek restaurants in the capital. In retrospect, the country was wholeheartedly forsaking its traditional cuisine and, by extension, its traditional values.

E.U. membership ushered in a torrent of new foods, many available for the first time on supermarket shelves. Restaurant menus from the 1990s read like a catalogue of novel ingredients that were embraced more or less indiscriminately. In the early 1990s I reviewed dishes such as spinach-cheese pies in wonton wrappers, potato pancakes with smoked trout and heavy cream, and baked wheels of camembert with berry sauce. There was smoked salmon or salmon roe on what seemed like every other plate of pasta, with the then-requisite vodka-cream sauce.

As the ’90s progressed and stocks rose, restaurants reflected new wealth and unabashed hubris. Bouncers became fixtures at the doors, controlling who was allowed in. At one now-defunct restaurant, where my ancient Volkswagen Beetle was the only jalopy in a row of gleaming BMWs, the chef served me fish on a plate garnished with a large rock. Lavishly designed restaurants opened one after another. Mostly, the food was flashy with little substance, a metaphor for what was happening in society. The stock market eventually crashed, and the well-guarded, oversized and over-designed eateries began to close.

When the 2004 Olympics loomed large, chefs began to embrace regional ingredients and to rework forgotten dishes to fit a modern nation. Pride and provenance pervaded the restaurant scene almost to the point of excess, with menus reading like maps of the country’s food products. Greek was in.

But the five years after the Olympics marked one of the most corrupt and decadent periods in modern Greek history. Scandal after government scandal soured headlines. Crooked officials cooked the books. The epitome of excess for me came at one of Athens’s most fashionable restaurants, when I sampled, with (much justified) hesitation, a heaping mound of freeze-dried feta, numbingly cold, dry as sawdust and about as flavorful. Like the tenuous foundations on which Greeks erected their glorious glitz, so did chefs serve food that was the culinary equivalent of a house of cards: They fashioned foams from the components of skordalia, the unapologetically heady garlic-potato puree; fed us feta in myriad guises, including ice cream; and tumbled cubes of Greek-salad-flavored gel and even sacrosanct moussaka into martini glasses.

To be fair, not all of it was bad, but most of it was intimidating, food that bullied even savvy diners into feeling that they had to like it in order to fit into some new socio-culinary order. The media, meanwhile, waxed poetic about every spritz of foam. No one asked why so much of what had been a robust, earthy cuisine had been deconstructed into hot air, much like what was happening on a larger stage with government coffers.

Now, as the crisis begins searing the pockets of ordinary Greeks, the Athens food scene has suddenly retrenched. The bright side is that this is a time of much self-examination in a society not usually given to such ruminations. People are trying to figure out how to regain the dignity and perseverance that have always fueled the Greek spirit.

What is happening in Greek society is also happening in Greek kitchens: Chefs and home cooks alike are again embracing the understated splendor of their essential cuisine. The traditional fare is founded on real nutritional value and respect for the unadulterated flavors of seasonal ingredients. I see it in a resurgence of casual tavernas with affordable prices and familiar, if more artful, foods and in a food press that is catering to the needs of regular people who are looking for simple, healthy recipes that will nourish them in these hard times.

via Diane Kochilas – As goes Greek cuisine, so goes the Greek economy.

So how does American cuisine of the past few decades, from fast food to the local food movement, exemplify American culture?  And is it possible that our economic problems here, as in Greece, may force us in other ways to “get real”?

Bread, wine, and umami

No, this is not another post about the Sacrament.  Flying home on United yesterday, I read an interesting article in the airline magazine on “umami.”  Our tastebuds can perceive five different taste sensations, the combination of which–along with texture and temperature–constitutes all of the different flavors of foods.  The five tastes are  sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and “umami,” a Japanese word that I would translate as “savory.”  It’s that deep savory taste you get from a good steak or a piece of aged cheese.  It’s also found in mushrooms and tomatoes.  For a pure hit, which isn’t all that good-tasting by itself, taste some soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or MSG.

The point is that  umami needs to be complemented by other flavors to really taste good.  After making that observation, the article said this:

When combined with the acids or, more specifically, ribonucleotides isonine and guanosine—found in fermented foods, from yeast-based bread to wine—“umami synergism” occurs, flooding the mouth with an amped-up savoriness.

This is why bread and wine make food taste better!

via Hemispheres Inflight Magazine » Flavor of the Month.

America and the World Cup

The whole world is caught up in the excitement of the World Cup, the global championship of soccer. This is a true world series, involving virtually every nation in the world, all of whom care passionately about it. Except the United States! We have a team, which opens the tournament Saturday in South Africa in a game against England, but who here is noticing?

What I want to know is this: Why is the United States so apathetic when it comes to soccer? You could say that it isn’t part of our culture, and yet our kids play it, and many parents take that very seriously. Do even soccer-playing kids follow the World Cup? Despite the low scores, soccer can be an exciting game. The scores are no lower than hockey–in fact, the games are very similar, except hockey is on ice–and that sport is a big deal in this country (ask Chicago Blackhawk fans, whose team just won that championship). So how do you account for America’s lack of interest in soccer, unlike virtually every other country in the world? We get all excited about the Olympics, even with less popular sporting events. Shouldn’t we get similarly psyched up about the World Cup?

UPDATE:  The American team took a 1-1 draw with England, which counts as a major upset!  England is ranked way up there as a contender for the championship, and a tie gives you a point and undefeated status in the tournament.  C’mon, everybody:  U-S-A!  U-S-A!  U-S-A!

A non-believer on Christian art

Aaron Rosen, in the atheist magazine New Humanist, acknowledges that much of Western art reflects Christianity.  The iconography, themes, and vocabulary of images derives not just from religion in general, but, very specifically, from the Christian faith.  Somehow, he says, the figure of Christ is just overwhelmingly powerful.

This is even true in modern art.  Even apparent attempts to subvert religion, such as the notorious “Piss Christ”–a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine–end up re-enforcing the power of the Christian message.

What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ than to see his form submerged in urine? Meanwhile, the beauty of the image, suffused in a hazy, golden light, invites us to consider a salvific message – the “good news” of Christ’s victory over death.

So this unbeliever urges his fellows to open themselves up to this uncanny quality of Christian art:

The supposed enmity between modern art and religion dissolves. The question of how to get the “godfearing” to appreciate modern art may still be a relevant one, but it isn’t necessarily the most interesting. In light of the religious roots and preoccupations of so much modern art, maybe we should start asking what the “god-less” can learn from modern art. Indeed, perhaps the gallery is uniquely poised to foster a productive encounter with religion for even the most avowed atheist. In the inoculating ambiance of the gallery, a modern Christ perched on a plinth, or framed along the wall, can commune with the same skeptic who would quickly scuttle by a church.

After looking at a crucifixion painting by the Jewish Marc Chagall–his response to the Holocaust–Rosen suggests that Christian art is intrinsically mind-blowing, which he tries to turn into an aesthetic quality.

This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.

For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.

via Aaron Rosen – Divine Image | New Humanist.

This supports what I have often said, that the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).

HT:  Joe Carter

What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

My last board meeting at CPH

Well, I just finished my last board meeting at Concordia Publishing House.  When I was first elected by the LCMS convention back in 1998, I did not realize that the term of office was the same as the U.S. Senate, 6 years!  Then I got re-elected.  I’ve been going to quarterly meetings for 12 years.  That’s 48 meetings!

And they have been eventful.  Lots of changes, controversies, and challenges were taken up by the board during the last 12 years.  Now, I leave with a good feeling.  The quality of the books and other resources being published at CPH has shot up during my term, and now the house is turning out books like the Lutheran Study Bible, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, The Lutheran Service Book, the Concordia, and scores of other superb products.  That quality includes Biblical and confessional fidelity and depth.  Not only that, the company has never been stronger financially, defying the times and the trends.

So, farewell, CPH!  I’ll miss my quarterly box of free books, but you are in good hands.

The death of the Big 12

Nebraska has fled the Big 12 for the Big 10!  Missouri may follow.  Now, in even bigger news, the word is that Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and either Baylor or Colorado will join the Pac-10, forming a Western superconference!

So much for the Cornhusker/Sooner rivalry that has always been a big part of my college football memories.  I wonder what new rivalries might emerge.  Does Nebraska, which has been in somewhat of a decline, think it will do better against Michigan and Ohio State? 

The Cornhuskers will make more money.  Big 10 teams get an equal cut of a rich TV deal, reportedly $22 million a year.  Big 12 teams just get $7 million, according to what I heard.  But what kind of TV deal might a Pac-West megaconference bring? And what will happen to the other Big 12 teams, such as my other alma mater, Kansas?

See Orangebloods.com – Pac-10 ready to make moves; Nebraska’s decision is key.


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