I can eat food without thinking, but that’s not to say I don’t think about the food I eat. Organic? Ideal. Dry-aged steaks? Pour the pinot. A box of Cheez-Its can be a meal, if there’s salami in the fridge. My kids’ leftovers wrapped in a tortilla—anything wrapped in a tortilla. That’s a meal too. I drift between gastro-debauchery and gourmet, with occasional stabs at healthy eating. The best meals are always an event: collared-shirt night with a bloody chateaubriand and a big red in crystal stemware; better yet, sausages snapping over a campfire, the wind cold and the beer colder. Stand me up at the lunch counter or seat me in a grand hall of gastronomy, just don’t ask me what kind of food I like.
There’s no simple answer to that question. Taquerias or fine dining? Yes, please.
One thing I do know is that good cooking is not all about the ingredients, blasphemous as that may sound. “Fresh, local, seasonal,” with a side of “sustainable,” is the culinary catchphrase du jour. And I like those elements on a menu, don’t get me wrong. But when I go to a restaurant with a real chef, I want more. Technique. Execution. Presentation. Then there’s creativity: the X-factor that can catapult a dish from good to great.
My wife and I were at one of the better area restaurants not long ago and the chef sent out an appetizer of local baby carrots. They were adorable—wee orange spears. They tasted exactly like carrots.
It’s an admirable concept—the poetry of purity—but I can peel my own carrots, thank you. Consider a less contrived version of eco-conscious food: roadkill. Locavore forager extraordinaire Jonathan McGowan has lived for 31 of his 45 years off dishes like owl curry and pigeon au vin. “Rabbit is actually quite bland,” he wrote in an article for The Guardian newspaper. “Fox is far tastier; there’s never any fat on it, and it’s subtle, with a lovely texture, firm but soft.”
Squirm-worthy, isn’t it? Macabre! Perhaps, but that’s what he thinks about our diets too (most of us, anyway). His vulturine tendencies are a response to what he considers a “grotesque” meat industry. His choice is “rooted in respect for the environment,” and he’s never gotten sick from, say, badger stew or rat stir-fry.
Still, you won’t find me at Jonathan McGowan’s table. I’ll take the ecological low road on this one. I mean, really, aren’t sustainably farmed oysters (p. 22) green enough? And I have been meaning to drop by the Troyna family’s spread (p. 37) for fresh, organic eggs and a few tips on raising chickens; we’re considering putting in a coop. Matt Kettmann’s story about backyard vintners (p. 48) is another in this issue that hit close to home for me, as my neighborhood is full of ripe mirabelle plums, which I’m curious to ferment for wine or distill into plum brandy.
But roadkill? No, thanks. I’ll pluck a bird or gut a fish. I’m not above organ meats, and I even like tofu. But I draw the line at gopher. Besides, I get enough nourishment from McGowan’s food descriptions. His pan-fried craneflies with olive oil, celery, and raisins, for example, which he describes as “a bit like a Waldorf salad, only with daddy longlegs.
“I don’t eat the legs, though,” he clarifies, tacking on a brilliantly ironic zinger. “That would be weird.”