The Spoon, Not the Scepter | Darra Goldstein

How odd to be writing a second letter before the first issue of Gastronomica has appeared! But such is the timing of publishing. It’s a lot like writing for a time capsule, not knowing how future readers will react, but feeling sure that the world will have changed by the time these words are read: by now George W. has been inaugurated, and Gastronomica, too. What will you think of this new journal being served up for you?

If Gastronomica‘s first issue looked largely at present trends, this second issue is decidedly more historical, if only because looking back also helps us to understand where we are now. What, for instance, is the connection between the exquisite nineteenth-century confections of William Alexis Jarrin and Janine Antoni’s postmodern crafted pieces? Is there a relationship between molded sugar and gnawed lard-cum-lipstick, both jewel-like in their appearance, or is each firmly fixed in its own place and time? Jan Longone’s research suggests that fashions don’t change as much as we think. Her discovery of Pierre Blot, the nineteenth-century French cooking-school star who caused proper ladies to swoon, shows that neither celebrity chefs nor celebrity effects are a modern phenomenon. In a different sort of investigation, Andrew Dalby also implicitly connects the past with the present as he relates the exploits of early Spanish explorers in search of cinnamon, his tale recalling our present exploitation of native resources with too little regard for environment or local populations.

Food is often a source of prejudice, as Helen Leach points out in her study of that “stinking herbe,” coriander. Right now I’m preparing to teach a course in Russian cultural history, so I’ve been thinking a lot about prejudice and cultural stereotypes. Early Western European travelers to Russia found the populace “rude and barbarous” for their avid consumption of garlic and onions, which caused royal halls and cottages alike (not to mention the people) to smell strongly. A preference for tame smells, as well as the progressive whitening and refining of the foods we eat, points to uncomfortable truths about Anglo-Saxon preconceptions. In this way food helps us to arrive at an understanding of national identity and self-definition; by approaching history from a domestic point of view—the wooden spoon and not only the scepter—we can learn a lot about ourselves and others.

Janine Antoni, Lipstick Display, 1992 Courtesy of Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York

In the process we find that progress works both ways. This issue’s offerings confirm that even as we rue the demise of traditional food preparation methods in India, where the bonti is gradually losing ground to western-style implements, we can celebrate the beginnings of a national cuisine in Iceland, which paradoxically results from recent outside influences. If there is a lesson here, it is that we must be open to change—the progression from molded sugar to gnawed lipstick—even as we try to preserve all that is best, lest what we destroy prove unrecoverable.