there's a phenomenon in my office that can only be described as "bacon lust." whenever the word is mentioned, people swoon. groans of delight can be heard throughout the halls. one of our most popular potluck events is "bacon fest," in which people share their most beloved, creative bacon dishes, which range from carmelized bacon rumaki to maple bacon ice cream. we've recognized stellar employees by signing them up for the "bacon of the month" club. when we have friday morning breakfast, you better be early or the only thing left will be an empty tray full of bacon drippings.
ever wonder what it is about bacon that induces such hysteria? obviously there's the taste. that crisp, salty, fatty goodness is the starting point. but i believe there's so much more. the smell, that can transport you from your office drudgery to sunday morning brunch with your family. to hefty BLTs that you've shared with your buddies. it fills your belly and warms your heart.
the bacon lust that i and my co-workers share reminds me of one of my favorite chefs and writers, anthony bourdain. he's jaded, he's cynical. he's opinionated. he looks like one of those dudes that, after a night of slamming tequila shots with his chef-lebrity friends into the wee hours, wakes up to smoke a ciggie and down a cup of black coffee just perfect the raspy horse lodged firmly in his throat. and he happens to love swine.
despite his sometimes crass demeanor, you can tell the man loves food. whether it's "whole roasted piggy" in the barrios or french fare at le bernardin, you can feel the love oozing from every pore. it's visceral. if you've ever seen him eat bone marrow, you know what i'm talking about. he closes his eyes. he savors it. his eyes roll back into his head. and after he's through, he takes a big exhale and probably reaches over to light another ciggie!
i can relate. people always ask me why i always take pictures of my food. why i takes me so long to finish. why i feel the need to post vivid descriptions of every meal on facebook (as if to not post each ingredient means it doesn't exist).
the answer is simple. it's simply because i love food. i may have been known to utter the phrase "i love it so much i'd marry it" about a plate of truffle fries once...and you know what? i meant it :P ...so when i came across a writing contest that anthony bourdain was sponsoring called "the medium raw challenge," i bit.
the assignment is simple. write an essay answering the question: "what does it mean to cook food well?" the prize: your write up being featured as a forward in the paperback edition of bourdain's new book, "medium raw". here is my essay entry, reproduced here. i guess you could also call it a manifesto about why i love food.
"Respect the Pig"
There's a poem on the postcard of one of my favorite restaurants, Paul Kahan's veritable shrine to swine, The Publican in Chicago:
Here's to the swine
That animal divine
Who through mud and slime
Grit and grime
Gorges over time
Into meats divine.
Six concise lines. A world of meaning.
What chefs know, and people who are passionate about food feel intuitively, is that "cooking food well" all comes down to one thing: respect. For the ingredients. For the artistry. And yes, for the taste—that lingers far beyond the moment when morsel touches mouth.
The ingredients: Respecting the pig in all its "piggy-ness"
In this age of mc-mass production, over-processed, genetically modified, artificially sweetened slop that is passed off as food, "cooking food well" means buying from farmers who care for their animals and crops like they do their own children. Using every part of the pig to show the little fellow that, in life as in death, he maintained his dignity, served a higher purpose. Choosing ingredients that are fresh, local, seasonal. Why? There are a plethora of reasons, from nutritional to sustainable, even metaphysical, but the one true defense, in the context of cooking and eating "well" is that it simply tastes better. Whether you're talking about a swine or sweet peas, heffers or jicama, respecting the ingredients means celebrating them in their purest form.
The artistry: From mud and slime to sublime
My respect for and fascination with cooking lies in its power of transformation. It has nothing to do with formal training, CIA-certified technique, James Beard accolades. No, this is about the ability to turn the simplest of ingredients—eggs, bread, cheese—into life-altering experiences. It's about the mastery of chefs who can turn piles of produce into painstaking masterpieces, course by delectable course. Whether you rigidly follow recipes or embrace improvisation, whether it's home cooking or haute cuisine, the foundation of "cooking well" is passion—deep, burning passion—to create (and ultimately eat) a delicious meal.
The taste: Food for the soul
A great meal has the power to transcend time and space, simply through its taste. When you experience it, the flavors linger. The taste is imprinted, seared, into your mouth, your nose, your brain, your soul. It lingers. "Cooking well" is about understanding that food doesn't just exist to provide fuel, satiate your appetite or satisfy hunger. It's about something much deeper. It nourishes your spirit. Deepens bonds. Connects you to loved ones. Fills the void. Turns that frown upside down. It gives you a taste of life. Offers a glimpse of truth.
"Cooking well" fuels living well. Food for your body and your soul.