by Philip Menchaca
Food is in. The ubiquitous availability of products from craft brewers, artisan coffee-roasters, and master distillers confirms that we’re living in a food Renaissance. It’s a good time to be a gourmand. And as we push the limits of our collective gustatory expectations (Starbucks? Over-roasted! Plebian!), we move beyond evaluating food based simply on taste. Now our food must stand for something! It must declare its politics: fair trade, free trade, non-GMO. It must declare its culture and personality: slow food, live food, macrobiotic, microbiotic, prebiotic and probiotic food, raw food, live food, organic and locally-sourced food. These days, it’s all about food as a lifestyle, food as medicine, food as a (pre)occupation. I now find myself questioning food that simply feeds me. It’s on my plate, yes, but what are its qualifications?
A few weeks ago, I got in a discussion about kombucha. A health conscious colleague had brought in a bottle of the dubious beverage and was proselytizing its benefits. He was thinking about making his own. To do that, he would need the “mother,” a buoyant, brown mass of bacteria and yeast responsible for turning tea into kombucha. The mother only requires sentience to become my nightmare. He poured a shot-glass full of the drink and handed it to me.
“Good for the gut.”
I sucked it down. Kombucha, a fizzy probiotic drink with a vinegary funk, has emerged from the garages of health-conscious hippies and established itself as a mainstream wonder tonic available at Duane Reade. In addition to being good for the gut, it’s been said to enhance alertness, prevent/cure cancer, treat AIDS, and combat hair loss. Anecdotally, it’s a miracle; scientifically, it’s a bust. Taste-wise, I’d say it’s okay.
Taste, however, is now only part of the equation. Take, for example, natto, another fermented product, made from soybeans and notorious for its pungency and its incredibly stretchy mucilaginous strings. It tastes bacterial (connoisseurs say, “nutty, with hints of blue cheese and old socks”). It made me cringe, sweat, mutter, and swear. It was a religious experience and the religion was Satanic. And yet, I found myself out buying natto for a second go-around after my first disastrous experience. I was in the grocery store aisle pep-talking myself into grabbing a tub: good for the gut, good for the gut.
I do not find the health food movement surprising; I was raised by a woman who once made mackerel loaf (omega-3s?). And I do not disagree that bad food leads to bad health. But I find myself reading, with fascination and desire, the excesses of people like Mario Batali and Jonathan Gold, people with superb palates and a flagrant disregard for health. For them, the experience of food, not the function of food, reigns supreme. Sitting down to a meal should consist of flavors, both complex and pure, not of amino acids and phytochemicals. Sometimes I crave excesses like lardo, the cured strips of fatback from Colonnata. However, despite my fascination with the exploits of Batali and Gold, I cannot endorse consuming a dozen bottles of wine or twenty-seven shots of espresso in a single evening, two feats that adorn their respective resumes. Bacchanals are well and good until someone has a heart attack.
Standing in the grocery aisle, I made up my mind. I went to the meat department. I got bacon. I got steak. I got rapini, to be blanched and cooked in butter and consumed with wine. They nestled in the basket beside the natto. They all looked cozy together. The soybeans lay atop strips of white fat in the package of bacon. Delicious, saturated fat. Disease causing saturated fat. Obesity and heart disease and stroke-inducing fat. Oh, to be ignorant once more!
I put the bacon back, but I kept the beef.
When Philip Menchaca bought natto for the third time, he knew he had a problem.