Friday, November 16, 2018

The Soy Sauce 99%

Hello from the land of too pregnant to teach. I am not, shockingly, too pregnant to Netflix. Decided to go with "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," former Chez Panisse chef (with Michael Pollan ties as well) Samin Nosrat's docuseries, and am currently two episodes in. I will doubtless get to the other two soon, and if they massively change my thoughts, perhaps expect an update.

What's to say about the show? Critic Jenny G. Zhang is right: It is something different for a woman of color to be in the naive-but-adventurous American traveler role. What Nosrat does with that role itself may not be revolutionary — no, it's not a revelation that there'd be good food in Tuscany (the episode "Fat"); and I personally could have lived with fewer remarks about how Americans don't know about dashi stock, or other basics of Japanese home cooking, when... plenty of us have YouTube and Japanese cookbooks, and there's nothing "secret" about bonito flakes or associated techniques (from "Salt") — but Nosrat's physical presence is the difference between something that risks feeling stale or Orientalist, and carefree escapism.

And yes, it's refreshing for a woman-and-food show (or really any US-based show) not to involve a modelesque woman, whether promoting or condemning 'clean' eating. It's not just that Nosrat is bigger than the typical woman TV host. (Imagine the eye-rolls provoked by an episode venerating fat-the-ingredient, with a size-zero host.) It's also that she doesn't look done up in the way generally expected of women in this context. She's there because she's a chef, educator, and writer who knows her stuff (including fluent Italian), and an engaging presence, and that is — as it would be, for a male TV host — enough.

Put another way: that Nosrat isn't a dashing middle-aged white dude sneering at the bourgeoisie while urging regular sorts (women) back into the kitchen has a way of making the show, in this day and age, less distracting.

It's a good show, both as entertainment and in terms of probably making the world a better place. But I'm having trouble interpreting the show as the revolutionary achievement some critics seem to receive it as. I was especially baffled by Malcolm Harris's claim that there's something "Marxist" about the show, with "its vision of unalienated labor." Harris acknowledges that he's talking about a travel-centric cooking show featuring artisanal ingredients, but argues that this quality makes it not elitist: "Her point isn’t to communicate the rarity of these ingredients in a Most Expensivest kind of way — there are few purchases and no prices on the show." Which, technically speaking, sure.

Harris's interpretation of slow food as socialist utopia might make sense in the abstract, but not in the context of food writing/food culture of the past decade or so. Artisanal-fetishization as an aesthetic is always a discreet sort of conspicuous consumption. It's always venerating something foraged in a remote locale over the mundane ingredients available in supermarkets near home. And more specifically, it's venerating being the sort of person who can travel the world for — or, at least, import — those special ingredients. It's an aesthetic that rejects 'gourmet', with all its fussiness, but that effectively reproduces it in a slightly different guise. I mean, read a typical David Tanis recipe. Tanis, another Chez Panisse alum, is constantly advising making sure one buys the absolute freshest this or that, with it taken for granted that you're at the very least shopping at farmers markets and fishmongers, but preferably eating freshly-plucked produce, farmed or perhaps wild. Or think of Alice Waters herself, and her notorious fire-cooked egg. (I had remembered the egg incident, but was just reminded on Twitter of the ultra-pricey spoon the egg was prepared with.)

In other words, the same issues that come up with other food movement... advocacy? entertainment? arise here. There are home-cooking segments, but the gist of the show is that the best ingredients are near-impossible to procure, subtext being, whatever it is you're cooking with is inferior and a little bit tragic. A visit to Japan includes a lesson in how a special seaweed-derived salt is made, but then that seems industrial compared with a trip to the old-methods soy sauce... I don't even want to call it a factory, more like an artist's workshop, where we learn that less than 1% of soy sauce in Japan is produced the traditional way, and that most Japanese people won't have even tried this version. And it's like, is the 1% soy sauce that much better than the 99%, or does the viewer just want it to be, given how majestic the whole thing looks, with the barrels and the very serious soy-sauce producer? A part of me desperately wants to try the special soy sauce, but another is left feeling like, if even spending up at a local Japanese grocery wouldn't be good enough, what's the point, and wouldn't this have been time better spent learning what to do with a bottle of Kikkoman?

The show's thesis statement as it were might be simplicity — the universality of salt, fat, acid, and heat as elements that make good cooking worldwide — but the focus is on sighing over the very best of these ingredients. And there's no way to do this that doesn't implicitly (or at times explicitly, as in Nosrat's Alice Waters-esque references to what the typical American consumer is used to) suggest that the everyday versions of these ingredients are insufficient. The regular home cook — the person (the woman) expected to have dinner on the table each night — might be left inspired by the show, but could just as well be left feeling the usual you're-not-good-enough pressures reinforced.

All of this gets at a problem with the privilege framework for cultural critique. Once it gets decided that whichever new cultural product is — as Lauren Oyler memorably put it — "necessary," that is, that it's making an important social-justice contribution At A Time Like This, the work itself gets at once over- and under-appreciated. Over-, because... it's a travel food show partly about how the true Parmagiano, eaten on-site in Italy, really is that good. And under-, because once you hold the show to a full checklist of wokeness standards, you're asking more of it than you would be of yet another such show by a white guy. Which... if the show is revolutionary, it is in the same way "The Mindy Project" was. And let's allow it to be that, no more, no less. It can be at one and the same time annoying that food-movement preciousness lives on, and a positive development that its public-facing proponents now come from a more diverse array of backgrounds.

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