When we think about food, we immediately put our minds to a canon of experiences with edibles that we have regularly experienced in our lives. When thinking a bit longer, our minds move to more obscure moments we have encountered those foods that are “strange” or “weird.”
When I do my deepest thinking about food, however, I see so much more.
As a young boy growing up in Saint Louis, Missouri, grandson to immigrant families, I learned about my past over the dinner table. Some of my earliest memories have food in them; tastes, smells, time spent cooking. I remember the aroma that grabbed my soul when we would walk into Viviano’s Italian Market in The Hill neighborhood. Garlic. Olives. Fresh breads. I remember the loud belly laughs that filled the little shop. The candies the checker would send me away with and the frozen raviolis in our bags that were better than any others in the city.
Ravioli: A filled pasta, made with two small sheets of pasta with a clump of meat, veg, and/or cheese, in some mysterious combination, sealed around the edges, cut in a square, and boiled, later to be sauced.
Not in Saint Louis.
The old story goes that a restaurateur was opening his new space. A food writer came at the end of the night and ordered the last of the ravioli pasta. As the chef was reaching for the boiling pot of water, ravioli in hand, he slipped, and down went the pasta into the fryer. Desperate for a fix, and to not shame himself, instead of disappointing the writer the chef got creative. He continued to fry the pasta until it was fully cooked, the tossed it in seasoned bread crumbs, covered it in Parmesan cheese, put a bowl of marinara on the side, and served what would be my birthday dinner until I left the house: “Toasted Ravioli.” These pillowy mouthfuls of Italian inspired yum are now served in almost every restaurant in Saint Louis.
What goes into a dish like this?
An animal is a hard character to follow in our look at food. We are, in fact, animals. In our fight for survival we have successfully distanced ourselves from them, and assumed our “superior” place on the food chain. We are without emotion when we bite into a burger, but flooded with it at the sight of a kitten. We strike a troublesome dichotomy with our pet habits and dinner habits. Children are a great barometer of this as they navigate the social dos and don’ts of dinner conversation. We shield them from the reality of what Old McDonald’s cow eventually ends up saying, just prior to the happy meal.
The brutality of animal usage in our food systems is real, wretched, and yet, I would argue (although not in this blog,) vital. Our recognition of this should flow from our societies in the form of deep gratitude, as it did from the societies that precede us. Ancient cultures hunted and gathered. Their time was spent questing for dinner. The chase, the capture and the meal were part of a larger meaning. We lose this meaning in the slick packages we easily grab from the market.
What I do want to focus on here is heritage and sacrifice.
When we partake in the eating of meat, we are reaching into our bloodline to its earliest years. We are using our canines, our serotonin, our instincts. The savory character in meat hits our stomachs where we have found receptors for those flavors only savory foods provide. That soulful, rich, nourishing feeling hits our brains due to these receptors, and we are satisfied. Our quest is over.
The animal once lived. It spent its days hunting food, processing nature’s harder-to-digest substances, storing it away, building stored energy into itself, and saving it just for us to eat. I mean, that was not the animal’s plan, but that was the end result. It spent and gave its life for that meal. That is deserving of pause.
Many people see this as such a cause to pause, that they stop eating meat all together. The sacrifice of an animal’s life, to them, is not worth the sustenance, flavor, etc. In other places, were it not for the intermediary of an animal in the food chain, the humans living there would not have enough sustenance to survive, and thus meat is incredibly necessary. Typically, as I look into food cultures around the world and through history I find that the cultures that depend on meat the most have the deepest amount of respect for the animals they consume. I guess this should really come as no surprise.
Our ancestors harnessed nature, over centuries, over millennia. They toiled and sweated, carved the earth, chose the best seeds to save for future plantings, and shaped nature into what we now have. They used something we now call… science. They tested, tried, shared information, discovered, rediscovered, failed, tried a new way, failed again, and continued until things were slowly moving in the direction they could plan and control. Thus was born what we now call “culture.”
This diligent, thoughtful work in the field did not stay there. Indeed it was brought into the kitchen, and new ways of dealing with these season products was born. Drying grain has been essential to human’s ability to keep food across barren seasons. Grinding grain allows it to be stored in less space. Adding water and yeast allows new vitamins to be made, new textures, new tastes, new products, like bread! Other substances were combined with the ground grains. Combining egg and flour allowed it to be more nourishing, take new shapes, and dry with even more viable food compounds in it for later. Enter: PASTA! The toil and creative of a long line of humans, thousands of years old leads to this food product that we find so ubiquitous today. This too should lead us to pause before we crush that lasagna, or smash that burger.
Our look into this little dish does not stop here, however. Meat and pasta, although solid, is nothing without all of the other surrounding flavors that can be added. Just yesterday evening I opened my spice cabinet to a world of aroma possibilities. Think about it for a minute!!
Every seed has the story of wheat… cultivated, cared for, selected for certain enhanced characteristics and shaped by human choices meeting with genetics meeting with terroir for every single spice used. Every onion. Every clove of garlic. Every herb is manipulated through time and taste. It is a wormhole of thought for me.
Then, after each individual component is honed in and of itself, we humans combine these ingredients into millions of possibility. Does garlic go well with black pepper? How much black pepper to how much garlic? Now, add ground beef… do the ratios need to change?
The storm of possibilities is cascading with ideas, triumphs and failures, and so very many happy accidents.
Now pull back further. This is the story of our food. This is the story of all of our foods. Every dish has meaning. Every plate is a story of triumph, full of batons that have been passed to us, full of sacrifice and work, play and life, possibilities.
This is where we come in.
I look around today and I see the malaise of our culture toward food. It is, in many ways, beginning to shake away, which is super encouraging. At the same time, it still exists. It exists in the calls to not talk about a cow when we are eating steak. “I just don’t want to think about it.” It creeps in when we say, “Ew! That’s weird!” or, “gross…. How can those people eat that?!?”
We lose sight of the struggle it took to make that dish. We lose the dignity that the human eating it has. We lose our place in the story.
When we package food in sanitary cans and know nothing of its origins and story, we force the story to end. We put the baton down. We stop creativity. We destroy the process that brought that miracle to this moment. We have a responsibility to keep the baton moving forward! We must create our own new recipes, combinations, and choices. The story should grow, not die.
Right now we have more access to more ingredients, tools, and information than all of history combined. Let’s leverage that to spring board into a sustainable, delicious, gracious, grateful, nourishing future. Let’s pass our kids the stories of why food matters, and what food matters. Let’s remember that the foods our families eat are the literal materials we are using to build their brains, hearts, bones and futures. This is not meant to “food shame” anyone, but to encourage us all to be a part of the system in a new and vital way.
When someone asks you what you like, instead of answering with your preferences, tell them you want to try what they like.
Explore food and ask for the stories.
Connecting to people through food is far more powerful than any other way. Yes, even more powerful than that. A smell can send you back in time to being with a certain person more viscerally than just about anything. Those connections to our past as individuals and as humanity are so vital to moving forward. When I smell garlic cooking I am in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen. Omelets: my great aunt Helen. Canned tuna: my maternal grandmother (who forever ruined it for me, but whom I love deeply.) Tea: mom. Coffee, maple syrup: dad. Corn tortillas: in Mexico in a kitchen with about 10 older ladies laughing that the gringo can make a decent tortilla. Fish: the creek I grew up near. Roast beef: Sundays. Chicken: lazy late afternoons. Tomatoes: our huge garden and my itchy arms freshly assaulted from picking. I could go on and on.
What memories are you implanting on those around you?
Food makes peace.
When people come together over food we are able to see each other. Cooking for another human, preparing food, serving, these things put us on level playing fields. These things bring us together.
Food is more than a drive-through convenience. The more consumeristic we are with food, the more disconnected from our heritage and each other we become. When we disconnect from others, we disconnect from and lose ourselves. Pausing to be grateful, thoughtful, creative, educated, precise, connected, and to simply taste with our whole present mind engaged has the potential to change our lives.
So does toasted ravioli.
Read more thoughts from Joe on coffee roasting, food, and life at https://joemarrocco.com/