What do you think of when you're hungry? Most likely you think of something your mother had ready for you when you came home from school. In my day we still thought of chickpeas and noodle soup, which were later displaced by hamburgers.
These memories remain intact, although when you are feeling peckish and walk past an appetizing bar, the power of real food smells prevails over those of memory, and you will eat anything. More so, in an American city where fast food smells haunt the air, and though your reason knows it is junk, your stomach may well prevail. The smells and flavors of this low-quality food are designed to turn adults into children, and suck them in like the pied piper of Hamelin. Many are the scientists at the service of the firms that make pre-cooked foods, snacks, soft drinks and similar industrial offal, to add the magic substances that make them actually addictive. Among these, one is particularly perverse: the one aimed at preventing satiety in the consumer, who wants more.
Fortunately my culinary memory was educated in taste so that, although I may succumb once in a while to junk food (no regrets), my prevalent, abiding desire will be for apples that taste of apple, and fish that taste of fish, not drowned in a chemical-charged sauce that masks the taste so it could be chicken for all you know.
To those for whom the Mediterranean diet is not a tradition, it seems these things have to be explained
In a recent New York Times Sunday-supplement story on these scientists from hell, a reformed and repentant one tells how, to redeem his soul, he is now preaching the virtues of the carrot. Yes, the carrot, preferably raw.
Is there not some golden mean between Kentucky Fried Chicken and chewing on raw vegetables like a goat? No, there is no middle way. In the US the culture of good food is so thin on the ground that when someone swears off fast food, he tends to flip over to organic health food as a dogma of faith. Every bite that enters his mouth has its anti-oxidizing properties, Omega3 and vitamin B. Shops abound where you see people coming out, sipping green-grunge juice preparations that look like a witch's brew.
And now, last week, the news appears on the front page, that good health depends not so much on this food or that, but on the combination of them that constitutes the so-called Mediterranean diet. A study made (where else?) in Spain recently appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and is now all over the health and cuisine supplements worldwide. Its sensible conclusions contain a truth: we have to return to home cooking. The kind granny did.
I read the menu (excellent for cardiovascular health) and smile at some items: two or three vegetable dishes per week, salads dressed with olive oil, nuts, very little red meat, fruit, wine. Seven glasses of wine per week. Not all at the same sitting, obviously. It is all about enjoying. As the wine critic Eric Asimov puts it, "wine is a pleasure. We shouldn't need the rubber stamp of a scientific study to enjoy it." To those for whom the Mediterranean diet is not a tradition, it seems these things have to be explained.
Our joys have been few of late, and we can be glad of the fact that Spain is in the news not in connection with the Duke of Palma, but in a work of research adorned with a picture of a bar in La Rioja. It is nice to know we possess a precious cultural heritage that has to be cultivated assiduously every day, not just to fatten a sterile pride, but to enjoy a variety of small pleasures, imbued with wisdom rather than chemicals, which have already been thrown to the winds in many Spanish households.
Now we find that the best is what was always in front of our noses, the dish that gives off a wonderful smell -- which even now is drifting over my desk. You can eat well in New York, particularly in my kitchen.