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GP 27 February 2008: Well-Seasoned Food

Baked Tokyo.  In July 1976, having taken in the Tall Ships from a rooftop above the Hudson River in New York City—a wonderful passage in America’s joyful Bicentennial—we repaired to Japan to investigate the merits and demerits of its mercantilist capitalism that has set the stage for all commerce throughout Asia.  It is part of the “heads I win, tails you lose” ethos that has temporarily enriched the states of the East, but which promises some long-term hardships for their economies.  Even today, more than a decade after it began to falter, Japan’s economy—the world’s second largest—has not regained its footing.

Soon enough we found ourselves on the top floor of one of Tokyo’s anonymous skyscrapers in a highbrow French restaurant.  Goodness knows why we were in a French quarter, the Japanese having no feel for things French in spite of their taste for Chanel handbags and the other accoutrements that desperately attempt to proclaim their linkage to Paris.

Ten minutes on, we saw a fast-moving waiter headed our way with a triumphal dessert, some permutation perhaps of a Bombe Alaska, bound for a table behind us.  Of a sudden, the heater underneath tipped, and flames enveloped the waiter’s tray.  Fortunately he was near us.  We threw our napkin on top, and a serious contretemps was averted.  The fire was out.  All the elements of a French meal were there, but it never quite came off.  It was not in the cards.

It takes a huge amount of time and ingestion to get inside another culture and gain a genuine feel for it.  Tokyo is a claustrophobic society where the denizens rush about and know no escape.  The rhythms of Paris are entirely different.  There’s a saying amongst pundits that all politics is local.  That’s three times as true with food and cooking. Sushi—swift food borne of a swift society—is not the Gallic currency, but a Japanese yen.

Michelin No Star.  In turn, the French surely do not grasp the Japanese.  In “Michelin Gives Stars, but Tokyo Turns Up Nose,” New York Times, February 24, 2008, pp. 1 and 8, we learn that Michelin is just out with its guide to Tokyo restaurants.  Many know that it is not really very good.  Previously Michelin had done New York and San Francisco, where the results were very mixed, as we can attest.  The guides were flat tires.  Try as it may, Michelin simply does not understand American or Japanese culture very well.  We might suppose the Michelin people might perform better in Vietnam because of France’s colonialist connection.  That said, it is terribly hard to perceive and understand quality in an alien world for which one has no feel.

Braised Oxtails.  We had cause recently to prepared braised oxtails, so we took down from the shelf one of Craig Claiborne’s tattered cookbooks, all of which have been in our library for decades.  Claiborne is the chap who got the fine food revolution going in America, through his splendid columns and other exquisite writings.  He’s the finest critic the Times has ever had, and all who have come after are rather minor league when compared to him.  Curiously, the Times  had other cultural figures from the same period on staff whom, like Claiborne, it has not been able to replace.  For instance, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic who has since moved to the Wall Street Journal, brought a sparkle to its pages it has never been able to recapture.

The oxtails, long a-cooking, turned out terribly well, but were far too rich.  We left out the shortening, but even so, there was too much there there.  The remainders sat for 48 hours, and then we downed them for lunch.  Suddenly everything was perfect.  As with salad that is allow to marinate in its dressing overnight, taste permeated everything, but the excesses fell away.  Despite the egotistical gesticulations of many chefs, so much of great food has nothing to do with their machinations.  Something else is at play.

With much food, it takes some time for a dish to develop and become finished.  Nature has to do its stuff, the bacteria rooting around.  Fermentation.  That takes time.  In cooking, art, certainly in gardening, excellence is a partnership with the forces of nature and culture and history.  Nothing instantaneous works out that well.  This is something the great German metaphysicians understood.  No man, no matter how large, can achieve greatness unless he can get in touch with the major currents of history and the omnipotent swirls of the universe.

Free Association.  In “Free Association,” one of our colleagues essays on what it takes to be a global leader:

At best the chief executive should be a fish out of water.  Take a look at Nissan.  Carlos Ghosn was born in Brazil in a Lebanese immigrant family, then had a French education first in Lebanon and later at the Ecole Polytechnique where he studied engineering.  For openers he turned around Michelin, the tire company, in Brazil to begin with, then in America.  He went on to become a cost-cutter at Renault.  Louis Schweitzer, the very original business mind who headed up Renault, posted him to Nissan with little in-France business experience and not even a smidgeon of Japanese grounding in his system.  But he was effective because he could bring a pan-global outsider’s objectivity to Nissan.  He succeeded in part because he was an alien from outer space.  He was the stranger who could see what makes the natives tick and who had no sentimental ties to sever as he cleaned house.

The new global leader is from everywhere and nowhere.  From the start he has been schooled in enough cultures to give him the kind of eyes that can see what is happening anywhere.  Run-of-the-day fellows cannot understand what is going on across the globe, each country far too different.  The states of mind differ so markedly in narcissistic America, in waltz-of-the-toreadors France, and in code-driven Japan.  Nor can average chaps picture how hard it will be to extract oil from the bottom of oceans where the best pipes man can construct cannot withstand the pressures exerted on them at such depths.

The defining characteristic of leadership in this century is world-historical imagination  borne of an extraordinarily cosmopolitan background.  Such leaders, like the best chefs, are capable of  celebrating the freshness of fish available in Japanese markets as well as the sauces the French have used to cover up lesser cooking ingredients throughout their history.  This is the great question of our time—what kind of man or woman should lead our country, our businesses, or our institutions in a globally intricate time when most people are charmingly provincial.  He—or she—is someone who is at home everywhere, and not at home anywhere.  The challenge now is to get in much better alignment with all the forces about the globe, to become less a creature magnetically rooted inside narrow borders.

Kerala, India.  Our associate who edits SpiceLines, our companion site, is now in India learning more about many of the spices that inform some of our dishes.  She reports:

We were greeted with a dot on our foreheads made of turmeric and sandalwood paste, and there is turmeric in about every dish.  All delicious by the way, nothing like the Indian food we get at home.  The ayurvedic doc here at the Taj Garden Retreat is big on turmeric for curing inflammation, inside and out.

For foodies it should be edifying to learn that one is literally anointed with spices in some parts of India.  This ritual seems a bit more edifying than the act of decorating our heads on Ash Wednesday.  As well, the Indians are quite taken with the curative properties of turmeric, which serious avant-garde physicians in the West now think has something to do with the prevention of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other serious complaints.  Somehow this India is now turning in economic growth rates that rival China’s.

P.S.  Michelin even has troubles in its homeland.  One French chef committed suicide when the Michelin editors defrocked him.

P.P.S.  The Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo is extraordinary.  We hazard a guess that there is simply nothing quite like it. But for more on public food markets, please see our “Best Public Food Markets.”

P.P.P.S.  In food, as in global affairs, we are encountering all sorts of figures who know more and more about less and less.  A goodly number of restaurateurs and specialty food makers can recite chapter and verse about ingredients, mystic preparation processes, practically everything.  They just have no taste.  Policy wonks know the details, but don’t know the world.  All the hubbub about healthcare insurance illustrates this tendency: while important, universal insurance has nothing to do with improving healthcare in America.  Wrongly instituted, it may even accelerate healthcare’s downward spiral.

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