31 July 2009


Top: "Foie Gras Black Croque-Monsieur, Ham, Cherry, Amaretto" at Ludo Bites @ Breadbar, 21 July 2009.
Chef: Ludovic Lefebvre.


Bottom: Cover of The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight (2009).
Author: Mark Caro.


Too often I have heard art invoked as a panacea for guilt about food. And too often I myself have wished it were so that, through artistic transmutation of actual animals into spectacular victuals, culture's inoculation against the pains of nature, we humans were paying respect to the creatures who died for our dinner. How many times has Anthony Bourdain mentioned such "respect" for the many pigs whose crackling glazed skins he has made his personal Eucharist? I would like to comfort myself with the idea that the animal, in spirit, is presiding over my table like a hovering food critic, and taking offense if it, in the afterlife, has not been cooked skillfully or plated artfully.

But I doubt it. The more I ponder the issues raised by books including Mark Caro's The Foie Gras Wars, sympathetic to aspects of both sides of the debate regarding whether or not animals should die for our pleasure, and the more I continue to eat meat and delicacies that some might consider politically incorrect, the more I realize that the debate itself encompasses two persistent sides of our human nature. We kill to live. This is an unchanging fact. We also have empathy. We are born torn.

We are also born artistic, with the interest, as bioevolutionist Ellen Dissanayake has long insisted, in "making [events and subjects] special" through aesthetic manipulation. Perhaps this third aspect of our nature has been trying to reconcile the other two?

If so, I'm afraid it has fallen under the spell of another deeply human trait: wishful thinking. Artistry in food has only reproduced the same conflict between cruelty and and empathy in its spectrum of aesthetic extremes. One one end, we have naturalism (think: California-cuisine school from Chez Panisse through Lucques). On the other, we have extremes of refinement and manipulation (think: the El Bulli school). The former reminds us of our food's natural origins. The latter de-familarizes us from them.

This is too simple, of course. Both extremes, to some degree, contain the other. But the point stands. Food artistry is not a legitimate way to excuse our guilt. It is, however, a way of extending our contradictory nature. We are condemned to live with our cruelty and our empathy, and to repeat it all, in new forms, through our compulsion for art.

Copyright 2009. Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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