Has Food Displaced Art as Culture?

By Herb Gardener –

Starters-Sides-Made-EasyI was watching a children’s sleepy-time program recently with my three-year-old daughter, Fauna. A puppet asked several pre-K kids the perennial question: What do you want to be when you grow up? To my astonishment, the first girl replied, “I want to own a restaurant.”

Social critic William Deresiewicz writing in the New York Times claimed that food/cooking has displaced the arts and literature as high culture and that educated young people invest too much in foodism’s promise. “More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.”

But is cooking an art in the same way that we regard painting, sculpture, or music?

onion2Deresiewicz answers no, though other critics have tried to make an affirmative case. I wonder on a practical level how food would fit into an art history class. Did cooking have a cubist period? What is the iconography of borscht? In any case, to what can we attribute the First World’s veneration of and incessant chatter about food and cooking?

Hunger. Art may be nourishment as Susan Sontag claimed, but we survive on calories rather than narrative and representation. Because we are eating most every day of our lives the acquisition, preparation, cultural significance, etc. of food are inescapable topics. And where basic needs are met it is typical of our species to then elevate nature through creativity and technique.

eatingonionMore important to me than the art/not art argument is that we be fully present when cooking and mindful when eating. Religious dietary laws, for example, foster respect for food production and its origins, maintain traditions, and express gratitude. Precisely because food is ubiquitous we are prone take it for granted.

An enlightened master once defined Zen Buddhism as “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.” Just eating with full attention is difficult in an environment of multiple distractions and competing interests. Perhaps the art debate contributes yet more noise, a digestive for the mind that neglects body and soul. “At the end of the day it is just food, isn’t it? Just food.” –Chef Marco Pierre White. You be the judge.

A painting will be regarded differently if seen in a museum or bedroom. Likewise, a dish’s aesthetic value may change depending upon whether consumed on a picnic blanket or by the glimmer of Michelin star. A well-prepared onion ring is welcome anywhere, its aroma a familiar olfactory pushpin in the GPS of memory. Unless you associate them with a disagreeable grease fire in your kitchen thinking about a plate now, rings blotted and hot from the pan beside a juicy burger, may provoke an immediate visit to your local fried food hangout (or see recipe below).

Kosher food enthusiasts Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek turn their attention to the supporting cast in Starters and Sides: Favorite Triple-Tested Recipes Made Easy (Artscroll/Shaar Press, 2013). Borrowing from world cuisines these 60 satisfying bites include the familiar – quinoa, orzo, potatoes – and the unusual – silan, sweetbreads, forbidden rice. Here is a recipe for crispy crunchy onion rings that demonstrates their dexterity with a modest list of ingredients.


Crispy Crunchy Onion Rings

rawrings(When I make onion rings I sometimes place a handful of rice in a spice grinder and add the resulting flour to the other dry ingredients for extra texture).

2 medium onions (or 1 large sweet onion)

½ cup cornstarch

¼ cup flour

½ teaspoon paprika

1 ½ teaspoons salt

pinch coarse black pepper

½ cup water

1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs

oil, for frying

Peel and slice onions into ½ inch rounds. Separate the rings. If your onions have very thin layers, keep two rings together. You don’t want your rings to be limp. In a shallow bowl, combine cornstarch, flour, paprika, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Stir in water to form a thick paste (resist the temptation to add more water). Place panko breadcrumbs in a second shallow bowl.

Add an onion ring to the batter and use a spoon to help coat. Dip onion ring in the panko crumbs and use a spoon to help coat completely. Heat two inches of oil in a saucepan. When oil is hot, add onion rings and fry for 2-3 minutes. You don’t need to flip the rings. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.


Scroll to Top