CHOCOLATE and SAUERKRAUT (8): Bowl Food
Recently I was given a book called Bowl Food by a well meaning friend from California who thought I might be craving recipes and English in equal amounts. The book is a stout 400 pages with a cheerful lime green spine and very carefully chosen typeface suggesting a hip San Francisco resident's interpretation of what 'bowl food' might be. The cover photograph emphasizes this worldly San Fran attitude by featuring a simple white porcelain bowl of shrimp Pho soup accompanied by the correct utensils: chopsticks, Asian soupspoon, and a wedge of lime. Bowl Food is 'comfort food for people on the move.'
This message bears out with recipes that are exactly one page long and concise as haiku. Each recipe is accompanied by a mouthwatering, nouveau 'food-porn' photo, replete with oozing cheeses, oily strands of shimmering phallic noodles, sumptuous mounds of parsley flecked risotto, and glistening towers of baby lettuces punctuated by magenta beets and cloud-like clusters of goat cheese. The recipes are so succinct that the longest sentence in most of them is the recipe title itself: 'wonton chicken ravioli with a Thai dressing' for example, has no mention of its pan-Asian origin nor any helpful tips on how to form wontons using pre-made wrappers and a loose filling. I'm not saying this procedure is rocket science, but it's not exactly intuitive either. There's a sequence of events beyond 'place a tablespoon of the mixture in the center of a wonton wrapper, brush edges with water and top with another wrapper.'
But Bowl Food is not interested in subtlety, countries of origin, authorial anecdotes or step-by-step photos. Bowl food is an inexpensive massively produced cookbook for people who just want to look at appetizing photos of food. In essence, it's the anti-cookbook and it makes people like me, who make my living (barely) by cooking and writing about food nervous. While my colleagues and I try desperately to place food in accurate historical and geographical settings, imbuing each meatloaf, curry and gelato with social and personal significance, and above all respect, Bowl Food is content with hinting at a lifestyle in which its 'readers' serve shrimp Pho because they have a new set of fabulous bowls, or because it seems trendy and vaguely ethnic. Bowl Food jumps from continent to continent with nary a mention of food source.
Bland concoctions like 'Green Pilaf with Cashews' is enigmatically placeless; as likely to be a Persian dish or a feature of the Californian Vegan revolution. And this is maddening for people like me who care about where food comes from and don't sit well with a book full of such a vast collection of food cultures that it could only exist in full simultaneity at an international airport food court where it would likely be soulless and mediocre at best.