Eat

Bernie is bring it all back to the '60s. Trump to a scary earlier time. So I'm thinking about food.

I'm no historian. All I can manage is what Paul Goodman ('60s flashback) called "shaggy histories." And basically, the history I've lived through. I first learned of nouvelle cuisine in the '70s. It seems the French were transforming their gorgeous cooking by assuming influences from the weight and health consciousness of the day, as well as the new interest in Asian cuisine -- it was in the '70s that I od'd on sushi. Gone (alas!) were the enriched sauces of the old, in were reductions. A minimalism enveloped portions and presentation: tiny but intensely prepared sides accompanied the equally tiny and intense main item, set in aloof scantiness on sauce-painted plates.

Mutatis mutandi, to quote another '60s folk hero, William F. Buckley (oh, what fun he'd have today!), nouvelle cuisine invaded other nations, notably the U.S., resulting in New American Cooking: traditional cooking of our country's regions, lightened up, jazzed up and retrofitted. To this day this prevails, with New (insert any nationality) Cooking everywhere in the globe.

All this New stuff went down well in California, a place that's new even as it ages. Typically, LA was enthralled by glitz. The Bay Area is another story, one that brings us back to the '60s and its home town, Berkeley. Another kind of gastronomic movement was already afoot. Call it hippie food, health food, even politically correct food (say no to iceberg lettuce and table grapes, a guilty boycott for someone like me who dislikes both).

A lot of hippie food was, let's face it, awful. It was only palatable thanks to political consciousness and weed. But one hippie was the big exception. Alice Waters, I've never been to Chez Panisse, but it was arguably the most influential restaurant until Ferran Adria's El Bulli, where I never went either. It was the locavore, organic, seasonal, sustainable thing but prepared by someone who knew her way around the kitchen.

And why not? In gastronomy, as in most things, the good new is the good old, and the bad was a glitch, albeit one of monumental proportions. Traditional cooking, the one found in any country kitchen anywhere in the world, was local, organic, seasonal, sustainable, simply because that was what there was. The era of supermarkets and industrial food is still with us, but very degraded in prestige. It was a glitch of modernity, like bottle-fed babies. Be gone!

If there's a city that outglitzes Los Angeles, it's Miami, including Miami Beach. The new is so new that you have to accidentally discover sacred Indian ground to stumble on history. New cooking hit Miami thanks to a handful of gifted chefs. It was pretty good. And it was pretty glitzy -- I remember one dish garnished with gold dust. Where is the Alice Waters influence?, I asked my food editor at the Miami Herald. And she pointed me to Michael Schwartz and his restaurant, Michael's Genuine, in the newly trendy Design District. Sure enough (I wound up writing about him). His idea of the best cuisine, he told me, was an heirloom tomato, extra virgin olive oil and fleur de sel. That's it. I agreed.

True to its '60s roots, this current of new cooking was responsible. Ecologically and in other ways. I once walked into one such restaurant in Cleveland and the menu was prefaced by what I must call a manifesto, an outcry against agrobiz and the food industry, their destruction of the American family farm and their shabby treatment of workers. When I finished the preface I didn't know whether to order a martini and keep reading the menu, or take arms and join the rural revolution.

The martini was perfect. So was the food.

No place in Miami reaches such heights of righteousness, but after Katrina, Schwartz and others organized dinners at an organic farm in Homestead to raise funds for devastated small farmers. There are now restaurateurs and food consumers that try to do the right thing.

Still, I can't help feeling guilty about participating in the hedonism of the food revolution -- as a writer, as a restaurant patron, as a home cook -- in the context of global hunger. Even if my indulgence is just a tomato with oil and salt. I am of two minds.

As with so much of my lifestyle, I am aware of my belonging to an elite, by virtue of living in this affluent First World country and of moving among the educated food conscious, practically a caste difference from the obese consumers of fast food. 

And I am grateful for my life, whIch grounded me in a traditional society of hedonists in food and other matters before joining the food (and other matters) debacle of 1950s USA. And then allowed me to live in the wonderfully topsy-turvy scene that led from brown rice to perfectly cooked risotto. Is there a better argument for tolerance in immigration than it allows us to live inside the pages of a menu as infinite as the sphere of our planet?