The Carnivore’s Dilemma
David Coggins ponders the new sociology of the menu
We all know you are what you eat, but increasingly it seems that you are also what you order. That’s to say: Your steak must be grass-fed, your sea bass line-caught and your eggs from a chicken that exercises vigorously beneath gentle sunshine in a field the size of Central Park. People confess with guilt usually associated with high treason that, no, in fact, this coffee isn’t fair trade. Scandal!
We used to roll our eyes when a waiter would introduce himself by name—but now he won’t stop there. Settle in because you’re likely to receive an in-depth recitation about the forager who located the white truffles being shaved over your gnocchi and even the breed of the trusty dog who discovered them.
This increased awareness of where our food comes from is, naturally, a good thing. We are devoted to our local green market and want to eat what’s in season and has been raised close to home. We’re game for everything from monastic Japanese cooking to an impeccable steak in the company of a band of bearded friends at Minetta Tavern.
But the entire dining process seems increasingly complicated these days, from people who are “off bread” to those who are egg white obsessed. Individuals have lists of rules as long and detailed as menus, and so it’s no wonder that more and more restaurants have a “substitutions politely declined” policy. At Brasserie Lipp, the Paris institution, the menu is entirely in French, except for one line in English: “No salad as a meal.” Now there’s a rule!
These days, coming up with a menu for a dinner party is more complicated than dividing your estate between competing heirs. You used to eat what the host served you, with the knowledge that sometimes you would be rewarded and other times punished, but that open-mindedness was part of being a good guest. Now, everybody has a dietary restriction, real or imagined, and they expect you to plan accordingly. You think you’re going to have a simple summer afternoon around the grill? Think again. You’re going to have to offer wild salmon to the meat-averse. Too complicated? Just serve a nice pasta with olive oil and pecorino. But wait, now we’re living in the age of gluten.
But actually, it’s more like the age of gluten-free. Some of us don’t really know what gluten is or what it tastes like—we just know that it can be found in quite a lot of our favorite things. Like Sacher torte and pain au chocolat, cherry clafoutis and cavatelli con vongole. If we knew gluten was synonymous with good taste, we would have ordered the gluten du jour much sooner.
More and more, navigating a menu is fraught with treachery. You look across the lunch table at a work colleague and have to decide if you should suggest ordering a glass of Burgundy—or is it too early in the day or the week? If it was a brave man who ate the first oyster, it’s a braver one who orders the first martini. It doesn’t end there—if you’re on a date are you going to ask for a rare lamb chop when the lady at the table has just ordered an arugula salad with the dressing on the side? And, when, in all of this, is it appropriate to divulge your love of sweetbreads, steak tartare or, dare you even say it, tripe?
The tolerant women in my life raise an eyebrow upon the mention of lamb, rabbit or, heaven forbid, veal. They don’t want to hear about a fascination with foie gras or the merits of marrow. My sister, possessor of a formidable shoe collection, much of it leather, furrows her brow in deep concern if I consider ordering what she refers to as “Peter Rabbit.”
I recently made a discovery that will warm the hearts of that most rigorous group of diners: the vegan. For reasons unknown, I ate a vegan cookie. Much to my surprise, it was good. Very good, in fact. Apparently, this is happening more and more—a recent article in the Wall Street Journal described stealthy vegan bakeries that didn’t promote the fact that they were vegan, fearing that it would frighten people away, with associations of flavorless cardboard. In many cases people didn’t know the virtue of what they were eating until it was too late.
That’s a long way from every vegetarian’s nightmare (technically relapsed pescatarian, as they might explain)—the discovery, to their mortification, that the reason those scallops were so good is that they were cooked in, wait for it, caul fat (if you don’t know what that is, don’t ask). A very tasteful friend alludes to her Sicilian grandmother’s secret to sublime pie crust: “A little bit of leaf lard goes a long way.”
So, where does all this leave us? Well, the people who seem to have it together are the people who enjoy what they eat without anxiety. They can be meat-mavens, like the epic London chef Fergus Henderson, or they can be masters of all the vegetables they survey, like Alice Waters. Too many rules stifle a meal, but it’s a good idea to avoid anything that turns your hands orange. And it’s promising if something has been done the same way for a long time. After all, they’ve been making wine for thousands of years, and it’s yet to be improved upon.
Let’s drink to that. BG
DAVID COGGINS is a regular contributor to Art in America and Artnet. His work has also appeared in Interview, Modern Painters, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is currently working on a book for Taschen. This holiday season, Mr Coggins will be elaborating upon the perilous art of gift giving with his weekly Gifts Most Welcome series here on 5th/58th. In addition, he’s our in-house scribe and usual tumblr contributor.