Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Culinary Triangle....

This is a food-related post.

Claude Levi-Strauss passed over the border last Friday at the age of 100. He almost made it to 101.

Claude was a famous anthropologist....anyone bludgeoned into taking Anthro 101 has been forced to read Tristes Tropiques or the Savage Mind. I hope.

Claude was the kind of genius that is readily recognizable in physics, chemistry, etc. He looked at modern culture and saw a completely different rationale for the way we live, work......cook. Had he written prose fiction, he would have won a Nobel. As it was he inspired a whole new generation of philosophers who in turn inspired physicists, think not just outside the box, but outside the hexahedron.

Basically, Claude looked at nature and human culture and saw that we had been struggling to define our world in blacks and whites. Ones and zeros. True and false. Good and bad. Fun and boring. He blamed all this on Plato, and he probably had a point. Well, three points as it turns out.

Claude thought the human brain was actually organized to perceive, evaluate and act on three points of view. 1, 0, and not 1 or 0. Good, bad....and not good or bad.

Claude was the son of a painter who was classically educated in Paris at the Sorbonne. He fell in love with an ethnologist and wound up in Brazil for five years in the 30's. His observations of primitive Amazonian cultures were what lit him up.

Anyway, one of his big teaching points was the Culinary Triangle. He used this to push his point about the limiting nature of binary thought.

Raw and rotten on one team. Raw and smoked on another team. Smoked and rotten/fermented on a team and so on.

Here is the extended version.

Culture determines where any piece of food (being French, he is talking meat here, mostly) winds up on the triangle. With no cultural intervention you have raw....rotten.

Roasting Claude saw as a mostly male endeavor. The introduction of subtlety and complexity in the processing of food he saw as female. Boiling is female because it needs a pot, and what dumbass hunter is gonna make a pot? Smoking is on the female side of things because it does not involve heat. Both boiling and smoking preserve all the juices in a given joint...which Claude saw as female. Conservation. Ditto fermenting...a natural process that needs to be controlled to keep it from descending to rotten.

By the way....Claude noticed that the cannibals would roast their enemies....and boil their friends.

Levi-Strauss was an early hero of the feminist movement....a buddy of Simone de Beauvoir. Believe it or not, his thesis that women held an important position in the establishment of human culture was radical at the time.

Claude's book "The Savage Mind" written about his experiences in Brazil in the called in French "La Pensee Sauvage". As an illustration of his ping-pong thinking...."pensee" also means "pansy" as well as "thought" in French. Sauvage means "savage" as well as "wild" in the sense of uncultivated (riz sauvage is wild rice). So the title could be "Wild Pansies"....which was the title Claude wanted for the English edtion. Given his triangle thinking about everything, including is an untranslatable pun. French editions of "La Pensee Sauvage" still have a pansy on the cover.

Think in triangles.....hold two or three thoughts in your head at once. It is how we are wired.

Anyhow....back in the 60's and 70's when all this hit the universities and coffee shops of the world....many different types of people were listening. Dumbass crappy electrical engineering students working in French restaurants. Crazy, cocaine snorting young kids stuck in Dad's traditional restaurants in Barcelona and Denia. Sober, thoughtful philosophy students in Paris working in restaurants on the side to pay the rent. Whacky philosophy students in the Santa Cruz mountains. Automotive engineers in Torino who spent all their free time in restaurants and kitchens. Wack-job poetry students stuck in Mum and Da's pub outside London.

Levi-Strauss' philosophy...or more accurately, his branch of anthropology.....was called structuralism. He believed that the human brain was structured in a different way than was being exploited by modern European culture.

Levi-Strauss was so fucking smart that to follow his reasoning about anything requires a polymath education in linguistics, music, folklore, neurology, philosophy, mathmatics....and a well-caffeinated IQ of over 150. Personally, I found IV administration of
upper Amazonian alkaloids seconds before class to be useful to be barely able to keep up and hang on for dear life as talk spun from phonemes to kinship charts to Plato and back to the campfire.

Instantly, the opposite thought process leaps to mind. Well, the mind of the upper Amazonian chemically
addled line chef.....the wacky philosopher Santa Cruz guy living in a guest house in a vineyard....the poet with a food science buddy.....the engineer feeling cut off from life.


Why am I doing any of this? Why do I have to use only a wooden spoon to whip in the 16 eggs into the pate-a-choux? Why are we sauteeing salmon when cold smoking it preserves all the texture, moisture and flavor? What is the difference between holding something in a bain-marie, and flash finishing it at the end? Why are all the women in the pastry and salad kitchen and all the men on the line?

It seems silly now....but I spent hours trying master tucking the tail of a perfectly trimmed branch of parsley under the curled anchovy caper garnish so the chef wouldn't notice the tucked tail and so the wind of the opening walk-in door wouldn't blow the parsley on 100 canapes all over the place. I almost always failed, and had to redo hours of work to make it look like it always had....and the wind from opening the walk-in door would ruin everything and cause all the work to be done twice.

This was cooking in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's....most places. In Monterey, it is still the way.

Other places, chefs and servers think about every possible aspect of each ingredient in each dish. The concept that boiling and steaming is feminine is a given. Cultural aspects of every ingredient and every process involved in preparing a dish are examined upside down, backwards and forwards. What is it about the combination of these flavors and textures that can we analyze it, take it apart and put it back together in a way that makes people think.....and enjoy it even more for the thought process.

Anyway.....If you are ever in France in the spring or summer and are lucky enough to eat at Michel Bras in Laguigole.....or you eat at Arzak or Akelarre or Mugaritz in San Sebastian with guys inspired by Michel Bras...or if you ever are on the east coast of Spain and eat at El Bulli, or any of the dozen other places Feran Adria's apprentices have opened...if you ever eat at Manresa in Los Gatos....if you ever drink Randall Graham's wines from Bonny Doon....if you are ever lucky enough to eat at The Fat Duck outside London, or La Locanda de Tamerici in Ameglia in Italy.....or even at the Cachagua will be participating in the wonderful legacy of Claude Levi-Strauss.

Today was my first Saturday off in six months. I still had to go in and turn some gorgeous halibut and some spot prawns that Les had caught for Dickie Springs' wake into a ceviche. When I dropped off the dish at the Community Center, all the men were gathered around the bbq's roasting steaks and pig. The women were inside laying out the pasta salads.

Here's to you, Claude!


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