The Palate Obsessed

Cookbooks, food memoirs, chef bios, and love.

Cookbooks, food memoirs, chef bios, and love.

I push open the door of Book Larder, a small cookbook store in Seattle that holds food and book events. The room is lined with walls of food books: cookbooks, chef memoirs, books on the history of bitters, of shrubs. Towards the back of the room is a large table piled with samples of cherry tarts and apple cider and stacks of Cherry Bombe issue four. I’m here for the issue’s launch party, the New York based magazine’s first celebration in Seattle.

I am jittery, nervous. My cider sloshes in its dixie cup. I’m there alone in a barrage of women (and maybe two men) who all look kind of like me: bangs, long hair, neutral clothing – mostly black – cardigans, boots, glasses with black plastic frames. I want to help set up chairs, hand out cups of water, pour beer; I’ve been a server for the past ten years. At events like this one I prefer to be the one serving, to be the presenter, not the presented to; it gives me a goal to accomplish, a reason to stand where I’m standing, an understanding of the best way for the night to unfold. I am uncomfortable being served because my comfort zone is behind the scenes, not in front of them.

But it’s here that the obsession flourishes. An undiscovered shadowy bar, or a foreign menu late at night, mouthing words I’ve never heard, looking them up, salivating. The snap and sizzle of a good sear. A cultural history revealed by a spice; a life explained through recipes. The experiences of the food world that have nothing to do with taste.

Cold soup.  It's a thing.

Cold soup. It’s a thing.

Taste could be where we start, where obsession smoulders. True passion, though, is born of more than a mere dabbling in ingestion. For Anthony Bourdain it began with vichyssoise: “…that cold soup stayed with me. It resonated, waking me up, making me aware of my tongue, and in some way, preparing me for future events.” Then it was the status: “Food, it appeared, could be important. It could be an event. It had secrets.” Sean Brock of Husk, Charleston, writes that food is about family, tradition, respecting those two; for him it started with taking pride in and enjoying the work we pour into growing, cooking, eating – and the tools behind the work: “I blame that damn wok for my food obsession.” And Mark Bitterman, author of Salted, began an exploration of a simple spice due to a bite of steak: “With every bite the flavor evolved – from mild and sweet to something deeper and richer. The world floated away. I was one of Odysseus’ oarsmen devouring the sacred castle of Helios. Mythic.”

Many of these chefs gush over their families, their support, their love for tradition and gathering and breaking bread, sometimes literally. For me, food is more of a substitution for family than an extension of it. My aunt may have been the first to feed me goat curry, but my memories of food are centered around experimenting alone in kitchens and sitting at tables for one. It sounds lonely, but it was and still is, always, comforting. This might be why I eat when I need comfort and lose my appetite when I’d rather be alone; food and company are integral. Woven. Bound. The food world offers its own brand of companionship.

Steak. Salt. All you need.

Steak. Salt. All you need.

I cringe when I hear people announce, without shame, “we’re foodies.” “Foodie” sounds like “groupie”: “yeah, we’re into food, but like, we’re totally here for the scene and all, ya know?” My thing for food is way deeper than that. Food and I, we’re involved. We are engaged in a behind the scenes love affair. “Foodie” doesn’t begin to cover the scope of obsession, the fervid late night menu stalking, the caress of tiramisu on my tongue. “Foodie” has the same embarrassing connotations as the word “groupie,” and those in the food world longing to be taken seriously avoid it, the way Penny Lane coins the somewhat more respectable term “band-aid” in lieu of groupie in Almost Famous.

As much as I avoid the “f” word, though, I still haven’t figured out exactly what to call ourselves, those with a voracious appetite and lustful palate not merely for food itself but everything that surrounds it: the ambiance and friendship, the farming, local sourcing, the chefs and their lives, the competition, the history, the cookbooks, maybe even a few trashy but addicting reality shows. What are we? Food hobbyists. Epicureans. Foodists. Gastro-aware. Palate chasers. Masticators. A close friend who views food as a mere caloric intake necessity calls me and my food friends “gurgitators.” It may come to that.

She gets me.

She gets me.

Lacking a proper word, we forge ahead anyhow, determined, driven by hunger. At the Cherry Bombe release party, I nibble my tart, wander around. Someone compliments my bag; we chat about the tart. Her roommate wanders over and asks if we’ve read the magazine and then mentions a restaurant in Seattle and soon we’re gushing over Serious Pie and The Walrus and the Carpenter and Renee Erickson and her new cookbook and upcoming book signing and I’m no longer nervous in this crowd because these are my people, whatever we call ourselves. We grab strong, sweet old fashioneds at a bar across the street, order crispy pig ears and pickled okra, share everything. This is what I want to do, what I came here for. What we’ve all come here for: the food scene. This is what we want to be doing.  Maybe what we call ourselves doesn’t matter.

7 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    Great post, Cynthia. I’m so looking forward to more of your food writing!

  • Jason Ludlow says:

    What a tasty article–I got nuthin.’ Seriously though, nice sensory work throughout.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    I live in a land of “foodies,” too: Portland, OR, and I’m not that fond of the term “foodie” myself. While I’m sure plenty of folks are more food savvy than me, I also get excited over new food fusions and restaurants that aim to be artful. “Aficionado” is maybe a good term for those who study food, and don’t just enjoy it like me. Regardless, I’m jealous of anyone who doesn’t have food sensitivities or allergies. I’ve had to stay away from most dairy and all gluten for about the past three years, and I so miss getting to try any old thing and not having to check labels and ask about ingredients all the time.

    • CJ Schoch CJ Schoch says:

      Jamie — I’ve always been incredibly grateful that, at least so far, no food has been declared “off limits” by my body. But from an aficionado’s standpoint ;), I will say that figuring out ways around food intolerances can be fun for a chef, even a home chef. It creates a fun challenge, like telling an artist to render an oceanscape without using any blue. Obviously that doesn’t ease the pain of saying “no” to the new cheesecake at your favorite restaurant, but I hope you’ve had some fun figuring out delectable alternatives (and if not, I can steer you towards some suggestions).

  • Cheers to a crisp verbal flex, a can of spinach and the timeless words of a wise popeye, “Yes, I am what I am.”

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Thanks, CJ. The good news is that Portland is WAY gluten-free friendly. I can find just about any of my favorite gluten-rich foods sans gluten and often made gourmet. Several of the grocery stores here (New Seasons especially) sell some of the most amazing GF pastries, and I live walking distance from one of the best GF bakeries around. I really have nothing to complain about. ;)

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