In my Introduction to Gastronomy class, we have to write three critical thinking journal entries (1-2 pages per entry) as part of our overall assignments. Here is the one that I wrote for my first entry:
Ode to Ranch Dressing
“I can’t eat without ranch dressing.” Surprisingly this is a quote from a current Culinary Institute of America student I happened to be dining with this week. The idea that someone who is seeking out a career in the culinary arts is addicted to what is basically flavored mayonnaise is an interesting contradiction to me. As culinary students, we are told to refine our palates to seek out new flavor combinations. However, as Americans, our collective palates, mine included, is numb thanks to our nation’s dependence on highly processed foods. Should we be afraid our “national palate” is devoid of resources and can only vacillate between either overly salty or sweet as a determination of good?
As a whole, we are a nation that depends on convenience in all aspects of our life, including our food consumption. Over 25% of all Americans consume fast food every day.[i] With 1 out of 4 people enjoying fast food on a regular basis, it has undoubted affected our perceptions of what food should taste like. Tastes are passed down cultural markers so the likelihood that future generations will come to see overly manufactured food as the norm for taste is quite high.
But if cultural tastes are changing, where does that leave the taste makers, the supposedly culinary leaders of today and tomorrow? As culinary students, do we adapt our cooking to popular tastes? Food has always been about trends; the French craze of the 80s ushered in the Japanese aesthetic of the 90s that beckoned the new American concepts and its various off shoots in the new millennium. So in essence, change is an innate part of the culinary experience. With change as a constant factor, then would it be so bad that if we found a way to bridge the nation’s love of all things dipped in ranch dressing?
Part of me believes that maybe this should be the case. Finding ways to bring the popular flavors of the time to the modern palate in new and interesting ways has what I always believed at the center of what we do in the culinary arts. Like with any art form, food cannot exist in an insular form. It needs the input of the public to stay relevant. But at what costs to the art itself does one decide how relevant the medium should be?
To truly consider food as art, you must also consider the audience it serves. Today we serve an audience that is different than from the audience of 10 years ago. In a very literal sense, our audience’s tastes have changed and we need to change with it. I am by no means condoning drowning a beautiful lamb chop in ranch dressing, but what if we as culinary arts found a way to endue a lamb chop with those salty, sweet and pungent qualities that Americans find so pleasing about ranch dressing?
Our jobs as chefs are to interpret the tastes of the day and to elevate them to art for our public. I do think that it may be time for us to put aside our notions of good food versus bad food and focus on how we can make tasty food reflective of our modern collective tastes. Doing so may mean that many a chef will be buying his or her first bottle of ranch dressing. And on a final note, the stuff is pretty tasty.
I know it isn’t Shakespear but I think it sums up my view that all cooking should be easy and accessible to everyone. Food should taste good, be nutritious and not fussy. Food can be art, but food is always about life and we all have complicated lives now, so why add to it.
Ok, I have one chapter to read and then I am off to bed.