A Commentary on Food in the U.S.

In the United States, restaurant recipes are all the buzz. We Americans talk about cooking as if it were either fine art or rocket science. We have turned television chefs into celebrities. We play them off against each other recipe by recipe, and we do the same with our restaurants. We buy cookbooks the minute the new tomes hit the shelves. And, yes, we do like to dabble in cookery. But better than we like to cook, we like to go to critically acclaimed restaurants, sit down and dine at our leisure. We have this in common with our European cousins, who feel that to rush a meal insults the digestion. What we do not have in common with our cousins is frequency of fine dining experiences. Most of the time we eat on the go and as for food preparation - we respect its importance, but often see it as another task in a too long, task-clogged day.

Sometimes we Americans push ourselves to prepare complicated restaurant recipe dishes because we feel we ought to. Ought to raise our food appreciation levels, ought to serve our families more haute cuisine, ought to cook foods with more zest, beauty, or uniqueness to prove we have finally lost our food provincialism. There's the rub.

After a hundred years, the European assessment of the dining habits of our ancestors still smarts, so much so that we ignore certain salient facts in favor of chasing after dubious approval that will probably never come for reasons that have nothing to do with food or recipes.

It seems to me that we have to answer only one question to get ourselves back on a sane track: is all this preoccupation with food preparation and dining good for us? Obesity in the United States is epidemic and while food connoisseurs put forth the argument that when food is well prepared, diners reach satisfaction levels faster and actually eat less, I know at least fifty chronic dieters who will swear otherwise. A table filled with fine food represents many things - an income capable of buying it, enough knowledge or experience to know that it exists, the luxury of time to prepare it, the calmness of spirit that allows one to enjoy it. What and how we eat implies who we are. It also implies who and what we are not. To think about food preparation in this way gives one pause.

What if we stopped the current carnival ride toward gourmet success and decided to take on a new preoccupation, one that might actually benefit someone other than our small circle of dinner friends? What if we let the cookbooks filled with restaurant recipes we will probably never make sit untouched on bookstore shelves? What if we decided not to go to three markets to find radicchio for the sauce and instead ate something simpler to prepare that would leave us extra time to listen to our children? If we took even a small percentage of the money we spend on duplicating restaurant cuisine and gave it to our local food pantry, senior citizens' center or soup kitchen, we might create a kinder, more life-affirming native landscape. We laugh as if it's old stuff and "food program" books tell us to ignore it, but what your grandmother whispered when she urged you to finish your peas is still true. Millions of people who live in the dusty, civil-war-ravaged nations of the Third World are chronically hungry.

I am not advocating the end of the good life. Heavens, no! We can still go out and enjoy dining at acclaimed restaurants and pay our due homage to the James Beard Foundation's San Pellegrino Award winner, but, perhaps, it's time to stop trying to bring that experience home with us. We would get a rest from striving and the people who don't like to fool with food would no longer feel compelled to pretend they do.

As for our distant relations across the ocean - we wish them well and invite them to make the same choice to slightly curtail their own food preoccupation because, they, too, have homeless and elderly people of limited means to look after. They, too, bear a moral responsibility for those who wander with empty stomachs.