In the first century AD, Roman Senator Petronius asserted in his ‘Satyricon’ that the decline of a great empire is anticipated by the celebrity of chefs. When food no longer serves as a daily necessity but an idolized, luxurious, status symbol, the society has grown decadent and, oft times quite literally, too fat to stand. Petronius knew what he was talking about, living in the time of the insatiable Nero. Perhaps there has been no more gluttonous time, until now as is apparent in our appetite for haute cuisine. This certainly was not always the case. Just as we used to be fully content with one brand of tomato soup, once, not so long ago, we were fully sated with just one celebrity chef – the down to earth if somewhat dowdy Julia Child. Today the cable channels are a veritable buffet of food and cooking shows. Such glamorous chefs as petulant Gordon Ramsay, bodacious Nigella Lawson and the impish Wolfgang Puck have inspired websites, books, blogs and legions of fans. The latter may attribute his fame to giving consumers the sense that they are being fed simultaneously by Motzart and Shakespeare. This is a key point here, because in essence we are talking about society’s sense of style and sophistication. These shows with their highfalutin attention to food and chefs are fed by our desire to feed and our desire to seem refined while doing it. For Americans, food as theater spotlights their number one passive pastime: consumption. Moreover, this means celebrity aspirations for anyone with an inkling of skill in a kitchen. Shows like American Idol made anyone who can carry a microphone (rather than a tune) believe they had enough pure, raw talent to dazzle the masses. So too shows like The Chopping Block make kitcheneers nationwide believe that with enough gumption and the right combination of spices they will open the next Alinea. Alinea was named the best restraurant in America according to S. Pellegrino. S. Pellegrino is the maker of “fine dining waters”, an outfit that also claims to know a thing or two about nice restaurants.
Petronius was right. A society has most definitely lost its way when it begins to glamorize the heating of meats and vegetables to the point that they actually believe there is such a thing as fine dining water. There are only two kinds of water. Clean and good or dirty and bad. Simple as that. As for food, if it tastes good all the better. But I don’t want to pay too much for it, and I refuse to accept that its preparation is either rocket science or high art. Food is simultaneously a simple human necessity and perhaps the most important and universal tenant of human culture. However, we should never take it too seriously. Cooking can be and should be fun, not an obsession. Turn off the cooking shows. Toss out the latest chef’s best seller. Anything you need to know about cooking has already been covered by Julia Child. Beyond that, you can look to W.C. Fields for inspiration. His insight will help cooks of any skill set. He said, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even put it on the food.” After all, if this is all just one more signal of our societal decline, a bottle of wine would certainly come in handy.