An extravagant meal, or even a simple pleasure such as a simple meal, seems decadent in the face of famine. However, cooking well for our families, especially from a foreign cuisine, can open our eyes to the world. When human beings are happy, it is a natural phenomenon to want others to be happy. We want to share our joy. We often do that through the sharing of food.
Some people criticize the gastronomic approach to life as decadent or immoral. Why is it then that we don’t criticize painting, which is neither a waste of time nor decadent? Neither should we misjudge gastronomy. It is defined as the art or science of good eating, but it is more than that because it concerns itself with culinary customs. Don’t confuse a “gastronome” or a “gourmet” with a “gourmand.” A gourmand is excessively fond of eating and drinking, someone who approaches the definition of a glutton. A gastronome appreciates and educates about the cooking and eating of food. Our founding fathers understood all this when they talked about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Democracy and hunger
Pursuing happiness is a good thing and part of that pursuit is helping others pursue it too. I don’t believe there is anything immoral or decadent about spending time thinking about our food when millions around the world starve. Thinking gastronomically at home doesn’t demonstrate lack of care for others. Invading and destroying other countries does. Contributing less than 1 percent of our gross national product to foreign aid does. We can help others, and we do as individuals, through the easiest way — monetary contributions to good causes. But as we know from the works of thinkers such as Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for economic sciences, hunger is related to poverty and not food production.
Hunger’s solution is political and perhaps out of the reach of well-meaning givers to charity. Famine is closely related to democracy and authoritarianism. When India became a democratic and independent country in 1947, famine disappeared. When Zimbabwe ceased to be a functioning democracy in the 1990s it faced a considerable danger from famine. On the other hand, a monetary contribution by a Western do-gooder may do nothing. So we concentrate, as individuals, on the improvement that can be made closer to home, namely, feeding your family better, feeding them wholesome and nutritious food that tastes good (so they’ll eat it). That’s where good cooking comes in. It’s not an indulgence; it’s a necessity. If we truly wanted to end world hunger, we might be better served by writing to our congressional representatives — demanding an end to U.S. support of authoritarian regimes — than by sending $25 to a charity.
Enjoy simple scarpassa
I’m aware that it’s quite a leap to shift our thoughts from a food we like to eat to solving world hunger, but one needs to start somewhere. We can begin with a paradigm of good food. Mediterranean food and the way Mediterranean peoples eat food is a fine paradigm to utilize. I like to use spinach as an example of a simple Mediterranean food that is nutritious, delicious and pretty. A simple yet elegant dish is called scarpassa in the Emilian dialect; it is made in Northern Italy’s Piacenza, a city well-known in the history of capitalism. Scarpassa is a spinach tart made with a breadcrumb crust. Wilted spinach, all bright green, is mixed with parsley, garlic and dried porcini mushrooms in a saute pan and seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg. To that mixture is added breadcrumbs and light cream, and finally some eggs. The breadcrumbs are browned until golden in olive oil and then form a crust in a tart pan for the spinach mixture. It is baked, and that is all there is to it. Now this cooking is a true simple pleasure. It will make you happy. And when you’re happy you’ll be inclined to make others happy.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Scarpassa, and Emilian spinach torte. Credit: buttalapasta.it