The Humble Beginnings of Today’s Culinary Delicacies

Many of our most revered dishes were perfected by those in need, then co-opted by the affluent. Is that populism at play, or just the abuse of power?

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By Ligaya Mishan

Photographs by Patricia Heal

Styled by Martin Bourne

IN THE NEWLY moneyed Beijing of the early 1990s, a curious type of restaurant started to appear. Limousines idled in the street while, inside, diners hunched on logs or camp-style chairs strung with rope and feasted on the likes of crackly locusts, ants boiled into soup, damp weeds and wotou (a steamed bread of coarse cornmeal) — a subsistence menu that evoked the scant rations served at rural work-unit canteens during the Cultural Revolution, less than 20 years before.

A number of patrons were former zhiqing, among the more than 16 million urban and educated young people who, between 1956 and the official termination of the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside movement in 1981, were forcibly resettled in undeveloped areas and assigned hard farm labor to purge them of bourgeois thinking. (China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping, was himself sent to work in the northern province of Shaanxi at age 15 after his father, a party official and revolutionary hero, fell from grace and was imprisoned; he spent seven years in Shaanxi, living in caves, building dams and cleaning out latrines.) Why would they wish to relive their difficult pasts — and pay a premium for the pleasure? For pleasure is what these restaurants promised: not a sober history lesson but feel-good theme park nostalgia, recreating in denatured form a time of atrocities when, historians estimate, between 500,000 and eight million people died because of political upheaval, and tens of millions more were subject to persecution.

As the anthropologist Jennifer Hubbert argues in her 2005 essay “Revolution Is a Dinner Party: Cultural Revolution Restaurants in Contemporary China,” such spaces memorialized the zhiqing era, with dining rooms decked out in farm tools and attended by waitstaff wearing the army green uniforms of the feared Red Guard, but also exoticized it and turned it into a kind of perverse luxury commodity, “linking leisure to dispossession.” These restaurants, with names like Remembering Bitterness (from yiku sitian, a political campaign of the 1960s and 1970s in which citizens testified to past miseries to underscore the sweetness of life under communism), were private enterprises, after all, implicitly committed to capitalism, in repudiation of the Maoist ideology celebrated by their décor. And the people who could afford to eat at such places — where a meal might cost 10 times the average working-class lunch, as Rone Tempest reported in The Los Angeles Times in 1993 — were far removed from their onetime suffering on the black-earth plains of Heilongjiang, China’s most northeastern province, or the steppes of Inner Mongolia.

But it was precisely this distance, in space, time and above all class (even in a supposedly classless society), that made the food — once the barest minimum, eaten and endured only in order to survive — suddenly palatable. Because that distance meant it was no longer a necessity but a choice. The diners were eating out of a peculiar calculus of desire that had little to do with what the ingredients on their plates actually tasted like or how much nourishment they offered. They were displaying their power, to eat as much as they wanted, to crowd the table with plates, then leave them unfinished; to defy the austerity of old; to dare to waste.

The phenomenon is hardly unique to China. Throughout history, foods that were once a marker of precarity and a lack of resources — dishes eked from scraps; tough cuts of meat; seafood too abundant to be of value to those who treasure rarity; wild roots scraped out of the earth with hardened hands — have gradually been co-opted by the upper classes, sometimes to the point that they’re no longer accessible to the people who once relied on them. For deliciousness has never been a fixed quality, wholly measurable by sensors on the tongue; it’s an invocation and reflection of memory, history and prevailing hierarchies. To have taste, in the cultural sense of showing discernment and an awareness of higher aesthetics, is to defeat taste in the physical sense: the animal instinct to simply eat what pleases us.

CAVIAR ORIGINALLY CAME from the Caspian Sea, where roe was extracted from giant prehistoric sturgeon (to make the harvest more efficient, they were killed first) and cured in salt. The Cossacks sent it as a yearly tribute to the Russian czars from the 16th century until the imperial house’s brutal end in the early 20th — at first just one symbolic bowl and eventually 11 tons. Since 2005, the most coveted variety, from the Caspian’s wild beluga, a sturgeon species that’s listed as critically endangered by the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, has been banned from sale in the United States; only last year did American-bred beluga caviar, from fish farmed in Florida, become available, at $830 an ounce.

Today, those who can afford this treat often approach it with ritualistic reverence, scooping out the inky orbs with mother-of-pearl spoons, so no hint of metal will intrude upon the delicacy of the flavor. But in medieval Russia, caviar was a peasant staple, less expensive than fish itself, and a sanctioned fasting food on holy days: an emblem of deprivation, dolloped on porridge for a burst of brine. There was more than enough to go around: Peasants fed it to their pigs to fatten them up. In Persia (now Iran), which borders the Caspian Sea, khaviyar (the root of the English “caviar”) was considered “a cheap seasonal seaside snack, not worth exporting into the hot interior of the country, although mountain folk would eat it on bread with a glass of milk,” the Scottish writer Nichola Fletcher writes in “Caviar: A Global History” (2010). Had it continued thus, 17 species of sturgeon might not now be at risk of extinction.

So much seafood was once dismissed as the debris of the sea: eels, snared from the Thames River in 16th-century England and tucked into pies in lieu of meat; clams, eaten by New England colonists only in times of desperation; oysters, offered all-you-can-eat for 6 cents at bars in 19th-century New York City; whelks, pickled and trundled by wheelbarrow through London streets, which in the mid-19th century the British social reformer Henry Mayhew tallied “among the delicacies of the poor,” and which housemaids wouldn’t eat in public, lest they be judged unladylike. Even lowlier were lobsters, scorned as indiscriminate bottom feeders, fobbed off on servants and put on prison menus, or else consigned to fertilizer. (Their flesh and shells are still used in this way, as their high concentration of nitrogen and calcium helps plants grow.)

Such was the abundance of the American lobster in the North Atlantic that coastal peoples didn’t need to set traps to catch them. Instead, they plucked them straight from the shallows and raked them up by the hundreds off the beach after storms — a gift from the ocean that went largely unappreciated. “Their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten,” the Massachusetts Bay colonist William Wood wrote in 1634, observing that Native Americans speared them on hooks as bait for fish, the true prize. In an 1876 report on life among British settlers in Nova Scotia, John J. Rowan noted that people were “ashamed” to be seen eating lobsters, and that lobster shells strewn around a house were “looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.”

Even into the 20th century, schoolchildren living in New England and the Canadian Maritimes were mortified to find lobster sandwiches in their lunchboxes, proof of their poverty. In World War II, American G.I.s ate tins of lobster in the trenches. Yet this past summer, lobster rolls, heavy with sweet claw and knuckle meat and dripping butter, sold for as much as $34 each in Maine. Like caviar, the American lobster has risen in status as its stocks have declined. Although populations are currently stable, as the ocean grows warmer, lobsters seek colder waters farther offshore and to the north, leaving fewer specimens to be found along the southern New England coast.

Still, the price is high due not to scarcity but to demand. For the rich have claimed both lobster and caviar, in seeming disregard for their humble origins — because those origins are now essentially invisible. The lobster on a silver platter, the caviar in a lustrous spoon: These foods only became extravagances once deracinated, taken out of context and presented as novelties for people who neither lived where they were harvested nor had any role in procuring them, beyond waging war, like the czar, or handing over a fistful of cash; who didn’t have to depend on proximity to furnish their feasts; who could pay the price to have anything shipped from anywhere, in any season, and make the world (mad phrase) their oyster.

HISTORICALLY, CHEAP INGREDIENTS have required effort to be coaxed into edibility. Before Auguste Escoffier codified the recipe for boeuf bourguignon in his magisterial 1903 cookbook, “Le Guide Culinaire,” it was a peasant’s trick: Subdue a tough slab of beef by leaving it to wallow in wine — not the fancy stuff — for hours, until the connective tissue breaks down into gelatin and makes the meat melty and ready to give. (In fact, the more coveted, leaner cuts, lacking as much collagen, are not just wasted in such a dish but yield less satisfying results.) So, too, with haggard old roosters, slotted for the pot in coq au vin. These dishes are now prized beyond rustic tables precisely because they attest to the skill and patience of the chef.

In the American South, barbecue likewise emerged as a way to doll up inferior meat, by first anointing it — be it with vinegar and sugar, a tincture of tomato and molasses, a pat-down of garlic and cumin or just straight-up salt and pepper — then letting it unknot over a low, vigilantly monitored fire for close to a day as it takes in smoke and learns to yield. As the culinary historian Adrian Miller has chronicled, in the antebellum era, enslaved people did the hard labor of barbecue — “someone had to … chop and burn the wood for cooking, dig the pit, butcher, process, cook and season the animals, serve the food, entertain the guests and clean up afterward” — and after Emancipation, white diners sought out Black pit masters and cooks, although their talent was often subsumed into white-fronted businesses.

For much of the 20th century, barbecue remained a “folk art,” as Miller describes it, enshrined at tumbledown roadside stands, which languished in the 1960s as customers turned to fast-food chains. But in the 1980s, this plain-spoken art gained new admirers, perhaps because of the rise in national prosperity and a society-wide embrace of wealth as a virtue — eating meat has always been a way to telegraph riches, since the breeding of livestock is an expensive proposition, consuming enormous resources of land and water — or because the rapid pace of globalization inspired a longing for the steadying anchor of regional traditions: something to call our own.

Then, in the early 2000s, Americans took barbecue further, into the realm of fetish, an obsession for tinkerers equipped with the latest technology in home grills, who descend on barbecue competitions armed with pistol-grip injectors, headlamps and bungee cords, and for pilgrims who wait in line in the beating sun, sometimes for as long as five hours, then post pictures online of their trophy meals. Is the luxury the stack of meat, or having that much time to spare in pursuit of lunch? It’s notable that, despite the long history of Black barbecue, today’s celebrity pit masters, those singled out by the media for fame, are mostly white men.

And while in many places the no-fuss trappings haven’t changed — crumply butcher paper, squeeze bottles of sweet-smoky sauce, pallid white bread or saltines still in the wrapper — an aura of fine dining now surrounds the pit. Brisket, long a budget cut, today commands $34 a pound at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, because the pit master buys U.S.D.A. Prime Black Angus beef. This is in keeping with the notion, also of recent vintage, of “elevating” what are, by that verb, implicitly “lesser” foods, like the $28 mozzarella sticks that come bearing caviar at Carne Mare in Manhattan or the $120 cheese steak accented with foie gras mousse and truffles (elsewhere it’s more commonly sluiced with Cheez Whiz) at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia. The toppings are intentionally outrageous, part of the joke, although it’s not clear if it’s the original dish and the people who eat it that are being mocked, or the suckers who pony up the big bucks for a simulacrum.

FOR SOME PEOPLE who are, if not rich, then comfortable (or at least secure enough not to fear a wolf at the door), it’s become a badge of honor to eat as if they lived in want, or like their working-class counterparts of old: sticking to what’s in season, tending a kitchen garden, foraging in the hills, making their own bread from scratch, laying away preserves for the winter. This is labor, but freely given, and a choice to accept restrictions on pleasure for the greater good, be that a closer attunement to nature, a shunning of the corporate world of supermarkets and processed goods or a sense of connection to the ways of their ancestors.

In the 1979 study “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste,” the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that, whereas the working class tend to crave meals of straightforward nourishment (“hence the emphasis on heavy, fatty, strong food”), the bourgeoisie approach eating more daintily, as a matter of style, as if they were above such petty concerns as physical survival: “It is a way of denying the meaning and primary function of consumption, which are essentially common, by making the meal a social ceremony, an affirmation of ethical tone and aesthetic refinement.” Thus the triumph of kale in the past decade, a hardy and nutritious if not particularly lovable vegetable. The horticulturist Matt Mattus notes in “Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening” (2018) that as late as the 19th century, French gardening texts referred to the winter green as “more curious than useful.” People ate it because they had to — until it started showing up on high-end menus that trumpeted local ingredients from small farms, and asceticism became a kind of indulgence.

Eating, or rather being able to eat whatever you like, whether sumptuous or spartan, can be a means of exerting control. Sometimes this manifests as culinary tourism, dabbling in the foods of other cultures or classes, with the assurance of knowing you can always retreat to the safety of your own. I’ve never forgotten a restaurant that opened briefly in Brooklyn about a decade ago, dedicated to the Baltimore working-class specialty of lake trout, the name a euphemism for silvery little whiting, sheathed in cracker meal and deep-fried. The dining room was dismal, with graffiti bubble letters on the walls and a vulgar word emblazoned on the bathroom door, as if trying to conjure some imagined shattered inner city — the urban decay of predominantly Black neighborhoods that were long neglected as a legacy of segregation — as atmosphere for the mostly white hipsters who wandered in.

Perhaps this was meant as homage. But I was conscious of the food only as a souvenir from another life: someone else’s struggle, reduced to a commodity, with a backdrop of distress as window dressing. A few years later, there was an outcry in New York City when the chopped cheese — a sandwich immortalized in rap lyrics, of ground beef, onions and melted cheese, whose invention is credited to a bodega in East Harlem — was “discovered” by outsiders, remade and sold at a markup. Was this a crime? Foods travel; recipes aren’t static. And yet, a certain carelessness seems to take hold when people borrow (or simply take) from those of lesser means. “Poverty becomes wealth, despair becomes fun,” the American sociologist Karen Bettez Halnon writes in “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty” (2002). To play at being poor is to pretend real poverty doesn’t exist.

People aren’t static either, of course. Some of us have traced our own trajectory from childhoods of limited resources, of clipped coupons, parents pulling overtime and the splendor of lunch at McDonald’s. And no matter how refined our palates become, however much we believe we’ve freed ourselves of that taint of cheapness, there are certain foods, certain shames, that will always be ours. For me, it’s Spam, a canned meat of ground pork and ham, bound by potato starch and seasoned with salt and sugar — a terrine of sorts, albeit in highly processed form. (Terrines themselves were once exemplars of peasant ingenuity, a way to use up scraps.) Spam came to the Philippines and South Korea via American military bases, and is still beloved in those countries, submerged in stew with hot dogs and kimchi or crisped for breakfast alongside garlic rice and a lace-edged fried egg. It has come to high-end restaurants, too, although typically with a heavy helping of irony.

Don’t fuss with it, I say. I grew up in Hawaii, where a slab of Spam is given a quick burnish of soy sauce and sugar in a pan, then tied to a mound of rice with nori to make musubi. We all eat it there, rich and poor alike, without pride. Caviar may have its mother-of-pearl spoons and rooms aflame with chandeliers; Spam musubi has 7-Eleven and a peel of plastic wrap. Salty-sweet, it makes you thirstier with each bite. I could eat kale all day, I could denounce globalization and the inequities of the capitalist food system with a pure heart — and still that blue tin from Hormel would remain.

Digital tech: Biagio Dell’Aiera. Photo assistant: Maian Tran. Stylist’s assistant: Sam Salisbury

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