Taste is physiological. It is also psychological. And what we eat has an aesthetic component — the way it plays with our senses — that often reflects our economic position. The poorer you are, the less you'll experience cooking as fine art.
Before you start huffing that all luxury is that way, keep in mind that eating, unlike a vacation, is a biological necessity. As such, it acquires more visceral meaning.
An example: In early November of last year, I visited McDonald's on Cheshire Bridge Road. I wanted to try the infamous McRib sandwich that has been offered temporarily for about 30 years. I found the sandwich, made of "restructured pork trimmings," visually repulsive. But, despite the annual tidal wave of outraged reviews, it tasted no more horrible than the usual cheap sausage in greasy spoons. I didn't gag, but I didn't get a flicker of the senses at pleasurable play.
Looking around, I was surprised to see two friends from 20-plus years ago. I asked them what the hell they were doing there. The explanation came quickly. They had become poor, the food was cheaper than they could cook at home, and it was "not bad." There were also three or four Latino kids on laptops using the free Wi-Fi. Their mothers, sipping coffee, told me school programs supplied the used computers. I was, I realized, at Starbucks for comparatively poor people.
We all know the story. Obesity is rampant among the poor, in part, because food like McDonald's is so inexpensive. The idealistic Alice Waters and Michelle Obama always cite the aesthetics of good food. Beauty defeats fat, you know. They want the urban poor to tend sweet-smelling gardens in the sunlight and eat eccentrically shaped heirloom tomatoes with the meat of chickens that frolicked in the sun under Paula Deen's gaze. Or they want them simply to grocery shop with more nutritional savvy. They are clueless either way. The proposal barely dings the monster of sprawling poverty.
Last week, four of us lunched at Bocado, which serves my favorite burger in town. It's a simple stack of two patties with American cheese, beautifully symmetrical and loaded with flavor that needs no special condiments. The same night, I joined five friends at HD1 — the "haute dog" joint with a menu that was created by "Top Chef" Richard Blais. The place was filled mainly with people younger than 35, drinking beer and eating wittily baroque versions of the ballpark-style hot dogs they enjoyed as children.
The cost for my two meals that day was almost $40, including tip. As good restaurant dining goes, that's relatively cheap but quite expensive compared to two meals at McDonald's or cooked at home. The taste was, of course, far better than fast food, thanks in part to "sourced" ingredients. But the presentation of the food, especially at HD1, was the most immediately striking feature. It was, like Blais' earlier molecular cuisine, irony on a plate — a postmodern representation of the iconic hot dog of everyone's youth colliding with a stream of grown-up foodie flavors.
Food, as TV relentlessly reminds us, is fashion. Eat at Bocado or HD1 and you'll be hip — which is in itself an aesthetic measurement. But many of us will rue the cost, no matter how it makes us look. Not long after encountering my friends at McDonald's, I overnight became poorer than I've been since my 20s, when I routinely dined on free "happy hour" buffets. Now, the formerly silly indulgence of my own favorite fast food, Popeyes, is a calculated bargain. I get dinner and lunch out of the "two-can-dine" meal for less than $10 (complete with salt and fat). It is very hard to cook for less. Do I care how it looks? Somewhat, but I'm more concerned with how my bank account looks. That will likely change for me. For many others, it won't.
None of this is to disparage the beauty of truly fine dining, which has actually evaporated outside our city's hotels for the most part. The recession early on flattened the appeal of expensive dining and its artistic complexity. Remember Seeger's, Joel, MF Buckhead? I still recall images of dishes there; then I'm flooded with taste-memory.
Many believe it's more accurate to say that the aesthetic of fine dining has morphed. As soon as the recession hit, the clarion call of "comfort food" was sounded. But that does not require abandonment of artfulness. Consider Billy Allin and David Sweeney of Cakes & Ale, Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, and Ryan Smith of Empire State South. Their food radiates comfort and pleasure. It stimulates all the senses. No plate leaves the kitchen that isn't culinary feng shui. And consult the work of Mark Bittman, the New York Times columnist, to see stunning examples of home-cooked riffs on single ingredients.
There's also the aesthetic appeal of the exotic. The nose-to-tail movement, for example, pushes cheap soul food into the realm of the rarefied with funky tastes in highfalutin guise. Try the chicken necks at One Eared Stag or the pig tails and ears at Holeman & Finch. Lots of ethnic food on Buford Highway is as cheap as Popeyes and evokes exotic reverie while bestowing a foodie label. Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill brilliantly applies Western fine dining's feel to the mysterious cuisine of southwestern India.
But you won't be going to any of these restaurants without considerable cash on hand. There are exceptions to my thesis. Café 458 in the Old Fourth Ward daily feeds the homeless meals with attention to more than placation of hunger. It also opens to the general public for Sunday brunch.
And, yes, the poor folks in our city who aren't homeless can make something beautiful at home out of a plate of gizzards and greens. Or a cake that would make Marie Antoinette cry. They have the time, after all: They don't have jobs.