Food Is Beautiful

People eat with more than just their mouth, and to fill more than just their stomach.

'Still Life' by Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644

Or, if they do not, I would ask myself why do they not, for it is for a reason that the words “to feast one’s eyes” are a common idiom even today.

There is a reason why opulent cooking shows are far more popular today than can be accounted for by the popularity of cooking – they have become a spectator sport.  There is a reason why we (yes, oh yes, count me in!) love cookbooks with glossy photos of finished dish (or stages of preparation) and are far more inspired by those than any number of pages with dry instructions.

Eyes are the windows of the soul, and the soul wants to eat (unless it is fooling itself, but even then the body still does).  And so to me – and many more people out there, except the unlucky ones caught in the food-is-evil-and-I-hate-it cycle, food is a lovely sight and is wonderful to behold.

I enjoy visiting the supermarkets.  Well, ok, not when I need to haul home large bags of produce while ill and/or tired, though those prosaic trips also happen due to inevitable necessity of eating, but I do love going to those emporiums of edible gorgeousness and figuring out whether there is anything in there that I want, need to eat NOW, and what to feed Tobias and I in the next few days, and the guests coming on some approaching date.  I feel no guilt about wanting to acquire, prepare or eat food – or feed the people I care for, for that matter.  I do not believe there should be any.

It is no wonder that the Dutch masters‘ paintings of abundance of field and sea are museum pieces and were admired so – they, too, are a celebration and commemoration of food, in a time when its abundance was treated with joy rather than the creeping guilt or shame of obesity and overeating – associated with seeing rich food in quantity these days.  Indeed, the above painting (one of my personal favorites) celebrates food as beauty – accented not just by the arrangement and careful composition of the still life itself, but by the inclusion of sheet music and instruments, to bring in hints of celebration which is more than that of just eating itself, to show food as equal to art, akin to music and to be enjoyed alongside it.

But I digress.  And yes, I do admit that I find the still life paintings of food far more fascinating than posed portraits of random stern-and-self-important looking men in severe black clothes in the museums, for more reasons than just drooling (but who in their right mind wouldn’t, when they look at them?).  To me, these paintings are a window into the relationship of the people and the food in those bygone days – both, the relative dearth of it (compared to aforementioned supermarket with shelves looming at any time of year), and the admiration and celebration of it, which is scarce and hard to come by in the generally antiseptic atmosphere of todays’ health spas and weight-loss centres.  Leaving aside the sanitation and availability, the people who commissioned such paintings were not people who would, had those been available, choose to drink with pride the utterly useless and over-hyped snake oil remedies wheatgrass shots or (insert me shuddering in disgust!) over-processed ‘soy milk’.  And, had you suggested something of the sort to them as food, leaving snake oil aside, they would have probably thought you insane.

So, what changed then?  Where did we go wrong?

I imagine that there are many things to blame – but chief among them would be the cheapening of food by the junk-food industry, and the fact that there is no such thing as free lunch.  And the people who happily fall upon the ‘cheap and tasty’, the over-processed and/or -sugared that passes for food these days alongside with actual food pay the ultimate price – that of their health and life expectancy.  And the resulting backlash against fat-and-ugly (not to mention unhealthy) people whips up the frenzy of self-flagellation eating (see the oh-so-‘virtuous’ wheatgrass above: benefit-, calorie-, taste- AND guilt-free in one go!), demonizing food as the culprit and driving people into guilt over wanting a steak or a slice of dried ham with a good strip of fat on it like in the painting, and not a cucumber-and-soy smoothie to eat.  Since when should food be divided into the ‘sinful’ and ‘virtuous’?  Perhaps since we created the over-processed, food color-, flavor- and chemical-laden abominations and called them that.

Entrecote roast, fresh button mushrooms, dried porcini and chanterelles.

I have actually seen grown up adult people cut off and discard the wonderfully tender, delicious strip of cured fat off the prosciutto or speck before eating the meat – not because they did not like or want it, but because to them, that tiny strip of fat was a threat, one which needed to be feared, and removed lest it make its way into their plate by some unholy design.  No, I will not go into a discussion of the recent prevalence of eating disorders – let me just say that it simply saddens me to see such amount of self-loathing in normal, healthy and not at all obese people.

I refuse to bow down to this trend.  It is neither good science, nor is it good taste (in the most literal sense) to treat the thing which sustains us (also very literally) with such disdain.  If it is a fashion, it is a bad one –  and besides, I’ve long believed that fashion is what those who have no taste (metaphorically as well as literally here), attempt to substitute for it (with downright depressing results more often than not).

And so it was in the spirit of thinking that food – and the fact that we can afford and have it every day – should be adored, loved and celebrated properly, that I took the above photo.  It was not actually for a specific recipe, but a combination of what I had on the counter while cooking two separate courses for our guests for that night – the entrecote was resting on its way to the searing-and-oven, and the onions, button and dried mushrooms and smoked salt were about to be respectively fried or steeped and prepared as ingredients and garnish to a beef marrow bone soup which was slated to go before the roast.  But, as it was all laying on the oiled wood of my kitchen, I looked on it, and thought it beautiful, and reminiscent (as a very tiny incarnation) of those feasts laid out in the studios of Dutch masters, to be commemorated in oils on canvas, and so to feed the soul with their beauty when the harsher seasons come.

Perhaps it is because the supermarket shelves never grow empty that we seem to forget it, though even our grandparents probably understood it better than we, as a generation, do now.  I am unsure of all the why-s.  What I am sure of, is that to me, food is, and will remain beauty and art, and a celebration, one I want to share with friends, with relatives, and with anyone who cares to read this.

It is not about gluttony, nor is it a call to excess and waste – or if you do want to cook a huge feast, just invite enough people to eat and that solves that problem – but about sharing in the spiritual admiration of something wonderful about this world and being alive and a part of it:  to acquire, to prepare, to scent, to see and to eat.  The gifts of the Divine are not to be thrown aside or squandered.


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