In preparation for my upcoming trip to Paris, I’ve been reading a book on the rise of French cuisine, looking for an explanation of why French food is so influential in world cuisine. I will spare you the details of what I’ve learned so far (I will probably do a book review for the blog when I’m done). The thing that has really gotten me thinking is the concept of “gastronomy”, which is central to the book. One definition of gastronomy is “the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food.” More simply, it is the conscious appreciation of what we eat.
The word is obviously Greek in origin (just like astronomy, geology, and all those other great fields of study). Gastro- relates to Greek for stomach and –nomy comes from “nomos” or “the laws that govern”. But the law of the stomach doesn’t quite capture it. While it ends at the stomach (mostly), it is the complex path from farm-to-table and the cultural, economic, and artistic expression that drives that journey that makes gastronomy a worthy intellectual and social calling.
Traditionally, gastronomy has been associated with haute cuisine, fine wines, and, in the modern era, the high-end restaurants that cater to a wealthy, food-conscious elite. In some ways, I feel like my start working for big law firms and eating on expense account in D.C. and elsewhere were an introduction to that culture.
But there is so much more to food. Gastronomy can’t just be about what rich people eat in fancy restaurants. It’s about knowing your food and that touches everyone.
Americans have long had an awareness of the function of food, just look at the resources the FDA and USDA spend to regulate nutritional guidelines and health claims, or the billions of dollars made on fad diets, nutritional supplements, and food advertising. Over the past century or so, we’ve also had an obsession over the price of food (much to the despair of farmers). But as the Information Age (as well as rising obesity and myriad other health concerns) has laid bare our questionable understanding of nutrition and made clear the many hidden costs of cheap (bad) food, we are in a panic to find better ways to eat. We’ve come to distrust the “food system” and it has driven many of us to look deeper into food, to try to understand it, to wrap our heads around its origin, function, meaning, and economics, as well as its taste and whether or not we can get our kids to eat it.
My own search stretches from finding healthful, interesting food for my family (in rural Upstate New York) to exploring innovation and variation in world cuisine to appreciating the variety and geography of beer and wine. And that’s before you get into my professional interest in food & beverage entrepreneurship and food technology.
While my interests might be peculiar to me, the new American gastronomy reflects that everyone has their thing. People are eating gluten-free or vegan or paleo. Allergies or free trade or avoiding high-fructose corn syrup drive our buying decisions. GMO, organics, and buying local produce deep opinions and allegiances. Farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, and agricultural and culinary tourism are putting us back in touch with production. We are becoming a nation of label readers, Internet researchers, and reviewers and champions for products, brands, and restaurants that connect with our interests and tastes.
Gastronomy really is about knowing your food. It can be overwhelming trying to understand and appreciate what you should eat, but it can also be fun and illuminating. The beautiful part is that there is always more to know. So, get out there. Pursue and share your food knowledge and experience. Let’s all lend a hand to the new American gastronomy. Food matters.