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Mar 7, 2007 08:28 AM

Ruth Reichl Talk at Princeton Last Night

She gave a talk called "Watch What You Eat." I don't know where else she's given the talk, so perhaps some of you have heard it before... Her thesis was basically that in cultures like Rome, Greece, early-Medieval Islam, Medieval China, Medieval thru Renaissance thru Enlightenment France and England(mostly) and the US from, say, the 30s-present, there's been an arc in how meat is presented and eaten. At first, these cultures serve big, often enormous, portions of meat, which is generally presented with heads on, obvious limbs displayed, etc, that is to say, there's no disguising that the food was very recently a living creature. These feast get more and more epic in proportion as time goes by. Then, as the middle class rises and expands, and has more access not only to meat but to larger portions of it, the richest have to change the way in which they eat meat. Soon, meats are no longer presented with heads on, but rather are chopped, minced, spiced, reshaped and otherwise altered to look nothing like the creatures they once were. One example she showed was a dish from the Islamic world which was minced meat, shaped into a lemon form, covered with a golden (from saffron) wash, and presented to look like a citrus fruit, a very fancy kofte. Now, instead of looking like an animal, meat looks like something completely different. Her modern equivalent of this was, not surprisingly, Ferran Adria's creations. Of course, her other point was that once these cultures reach the fancy meat in disguise level, they often crash and burn--Rome, Louis XVI, and so forth. She didn't really make that conclusion specifically for the US or Western Europe, but she certainly hinted at it. It was an interesting talk, not that I'm sure I agree entirely with her premise once you bring it to today. What do you all think?

On another note, and something i found hilarious (tho that was not her intention): in the Q&A, someone asked a question about Gourmet and making it more populist. She said, well, that's really been my goal, to not have lots of articles about fancy cruises and expensive destinations. Or, as I thought to myself elaborate dinner parties with expensive ingredients or kitchen gadgets and equipment that costs $10,000. Right... I know, if I want to read about cheaper stuff and trips I could actually afford, I could read blogs and CH postings. My friend and I turned to each other and said: and the magazine is less elitist now how?? Sure those trips could be done on a less elaborate budget, but we can't even really afford to fly to Dalmatia (or wherever) in the first place... Oh well, that's what a good food safari to Queens is all about ;)

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  1. Interesting. I used to really like Ruth Reichl and have enjoyed her books. However, this month's editorial in Gourmet really annoyed me. It was about making sure that your kids eat what you eat for dinner. Not that it isn't a good idea, but she seemed awfully preachy and superior. Does she even have kids? And, no, I don't think the magazine is less elitist now.

    1. She does have a son, who from the look of him last night is maybe 17?
      I do agree about that editorial. Not a fan of preachy and I don't usually find her that way. she was fairly down to earth in the Q&A.

      1. It was an interesting theory, but you're right she didn't really offer up what's next for our society now that we've reached the point of conspicuous consumption and disguising of our food. Ideally the local farmers would rise up and overthrow P.F. Chang's right? Unfortunately, though, I think it's probably going to take something of catastrophic epidemic proportions to get this country to go back to eating locally grown sustainable food.

        She did have a couple interesting answers to audience questions. She had talked about sumptuary laws imposed by the upper class to keep the middle classes in their place and one guy asked if she though the legislation banning foie gras in some cities was that (doesn't really make sense given that foie gras is an upper class food...), but she said no, she thinks it was a way for the vegetarian/animal rights movement to start with something they could win, set a precedent, and move on from there.