at 3 Quarks Daily, the legal philosopher Gerald Dworkin
recently discussed whether food can be considered art. Cooking
is a “minor art form,” he argues, but if he’s
right, food doesn’t always lend itself to discussion.
Food writers tend to tell me more than I want to know about
the state of their taste buds, seldom making the jump to any
bigger issues. No wonder: most of the time, food isn’t
about anything. But it can be, as I discovered during a trip
to a raw food restaurant in Dallas, promisingly called Bliss.
between a busy street and an elevated train track, the tiny
place had outdoor seating only. Across the street was a ‘can
this be real?’ liquor store where bikini-clad women brought
orders out to customers sitting in cars and pick-up trucks --
possibly all a holdover from a strip club next door that seemed
to have shut down. We looked over menu options like Rawsagna
Supreme, Rawko Taco and Naked Pizza while suffering a sense
of impending doom, thanks to the vapid, end-of-the-world soundtrack
that was being piped in. Our children had to be reassured that
we were safe, despite the panhandler who reached his hand in
and asked for train fare.
doubt I was receptive to the semiotic possibilities because
I had been reading The Year of the Flood, a new novel
by Margaret Atwood. The restaurant staff could have been members
of The Gardeners, a cult set in the near future that uses organic
gardening, veganism, science, and a little Old Testament religion
to hold their own in a world overrun by mega-corporations, environmental
devastation and genetic engineering run amok. The Gardeners
live in Pleebland, a violence-infested neighbourhood outside
the wealthy, gated HelthWyzer community. Under the leadership
of Adam One, they prepare for a prophesied flood by honing survival
skills and respect for animals and nature. Ren grew up a Gardener,
but works in a strip club called Scales and Tails when the year
of the flood -- a waterless pandemic, as it turns out -- arrives.
She has to do more than deliver liquor to cars, but maintains
her wits and doesn’t forget her Gardener roots.
organic and vegan, Bliss goes a step further than the Gardeners,
and eschews cooking. As we waited for our food, we wondered
about this. It’s environmentally sound to eat local and
organic, and good for animals to eat vegan, but how is it better
to eat raw? I pondered the fact that heat is just the motion
of molecules. Were we to prefer less motion, the way Puritans
disapproved of dancing?
on I looked into health claims made by raw foodists. Cooking
robs food of vitamins, and some of the compounds formed by cooking
are possible carcinogens. But in a new book called Catching
Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Harvard primatologist
Richard Wrangham argues that cooking has its benefits, or at
least had them, back in the days when we were barely past apehood.
Heating changes the chemistry of food, making it more readily
digested. Our forebears got more energy from their food when
they started cooking it and quickly developed smaller guts and
bigger brains. Social relations were altered and time was freed
up for other pursuits, at least for men (Wrangham says that
cooking is universally women’s work). If it weren’t
for cooking, we’d still be chewing our food for six hours
a day, like chimpanzees. Plus, cooking is needed to make things
taste good. Isn’t it?
up Atwood’s book not because I was thinking about going
to Bliss, but because I’d been paying attention to a debate
about animals and genetic engineering. Atwood’s novel
is full of perverse animal life. Most of our familiar species
have gone extinct, and greedy corporate scientists are busy
engineering new and curious species. There are colourful Mo’hair
sheep with human hair, rakunks made from raccoon and skunk genes,
and pigs with human brains. The Liobam has been created to support
the biblical prophesy about the lion lying down with the lamb.
here in the real world, I’d been reading about a proposal
to genetically alter factory farmed animals so that they can’t
feel pain. Though there are thorny arguments to be considered,
novelists can help us imagine who we will have become, by the
time we are using bioengineering to remake the animal world.
We will have become a species on the precipice of extinction,
Atwood’s novel says. There’s nothing that isn’t
strange in this novel, but there’s both strange-good and
strange-bad. The Gardeners, though gently mocked throughout
the book, are strange-good. Though they are greener than green,
I’m pretty sure we are meant to heed their messages.
what about going one step beyond -- going green, organic, vegan,
and raw? When our food finally arrived, I was stunned. It was
absolutely delicious. The flavours were intense and unique,
and sheer heat was not missed. In fact, it turns out that hot
spices are just as warming as high temperatures. And we did
not sit there chewing for hours like chimpanzees.
novel was delicious too -- as an exploration of science and
religion, environmental ethics, and our planet’s future,
but also as just plain riveting fiction.
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