I cook therefore I am: The Aesthetics of Food

On special occasions, I cook a favorite dish that I call Pastelero Pasta, which my wife serves to her friends after they whip out an afternoon of pastel painting. I developed this recipe after years of fascination with spaghetti, a special dish in the Filipino birthday and holiday table. As an Asian kid who lived on rice as a regular meal, I was delighted with having this pasta with red sauce and bits of meat and cheese, which was the ultimate treat. The recipe was canonical, and everywhere we went spaghetti was served almost with the same look and taste. My experience with spaghetti changed  when my late mother brought home one afternoon a box of Jollibee Spaghetti. It came to me then that spaghetti can be sweet and spicy. I had long suspected that they used banana ketchup, but I have no evidence to back me up.

After getting married and having children, I took the task of serving the Saturday home snack and began to experiment on the taste of  spaghetti to which my young family obliged. After months of practice, I decided I wanted a spaghetti sauce that would have sour and salty tones that seem like they are dancing or pulling each other in a tug of war — similar to the four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a sort of dance that could take in the flavors of the herbs and spices, such as the basil, peppers, paprika, as well as the fragrance of olives and capers, and that protein clincher: chorizo.  I have learned a couple of recipe hacks after reading a lot on Italian cuisine, and I wanted to use what I knew on the pasta, as if it were a canvas for a painting, and my medium was the sauce.

My interest here, however,  is to breakdown the cooking experience and find out what may bring food the possibilities of art. There is a system in the art of cooking from the gathering of the ingredients, to the preparation and cooking process, and finally to the plating. Yet, it is not just system and all, there is also the possibility that food will bring a meaningful experience, one that makes it not just nourishment for the body but also for the soul. What might these elements be?

The fundamentals should underscore the function of food. Thus, food safety is the first priority.  In preparing the Pastelero Pasta, I buy several kilos of fresh tomatoes.  I inspect them each to make sure they are not overripe or rotten. They have to be cleaned before they are boiled.  It helps to soak them a bit on water with a spoon of vinegar and rinsed to kill the harmful bacteria that might have contaminated them. The same emphasis on cleanliness should be made on the cooking materials and the cooking process.

Nutrition is the second element. The basic food groups, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, should be represented, based on the daily recommended diet. Some diets encourage more of one food group, such as the keto diet, which emphasizes fat and protein. As a pasta dish meant to nourish hungry pasteleros, the carbohydrates in the recipe are big in this dish. Protein is in the chorizo and the anchovies and the fat is in the olive oil.

Third is the contingencies of time and place. The environment where the food is to be consumed affects the availability of the ingredients and the appropriateness of serving the food. Nobody plants olives and capers in the Philippines. We have no choice but to buy them in cans. The pasta is available from manufacturers. But the preference is fresh pasta from flour.

Pasta is best served straight from the pot. Unfortunately, the limitations of space prevent us from cooking the pasta on the venue, and so sadly we compromise by pre-cooking it and splashing it with ice to prevent it from over-cooking. For other dishes, I imagine that the changing of the seasons restrict their availability. In the Philippines, pasta is an all weather food. It can be cooked and served anytime of the year. The time constraint is in the two hours needed to cook the sauce.

The fourth element is one that I call food semantics. This is where it gets exciting. Is there a system of meaning for food? I believe there is. There is food we serve on happy occasions, food for business, and also food for days of mourning. To be able to harness this, one must be sensitive to the cultures that come into play with food.

Ingredients can be a metaphor for a place. The spaghetti represents the heritage of Italy. And to serve the Pastelero Pasta, with other Italian ingredients like olives and capers, to pastel artists after an afternoon of painting, connects the Filipino artists to the Italian and western artists who first discovered the medium of pastel for painting.

The spaghetti also represents a period in one’s life — especially to us Filipinos who had the spaghetti in children’s parties as we were growing up — that is filled with innocence and pure joy. Thus, to serve and be served with spaghetti always recalls a time of happiness and delight.

In the case of the Pastelero, the taste also has a meaning. The tug of war between the sourness and saltiness of the sauce, the two dominant tastes in the dish represent the marriage of the Apollonius and Dionysus forces of art. The sourness came from the ripe tomatoes that were born from shrub that had life and energy, and the saltiness from the salt of the earth, lifeless element of the Dionysius, that is banal and crass. The form can also mean a lot. We could say that the formlessness of the sauce like water that envelopes the pasta is epitome of power and strength.

In my case, a lot of this is accidental, but in the hands a master chef whose life is dedicated to the art of food, the play of symbology in the elements of cooking can be as insightful as a Picasso mural.

In the book, The Flavor Matrix, James Briscione theorizes with the aid of scientific knowledge and a computer that flavors balance and complement each other. I looked up the sour and salty combination, and it’s not there. But what I discovered is that sour is balanced by fat, which is why olive oil is a crucial part of the recipe, and fat is complimented by salty. Thus, in this little tug of war that I’ve imagined, what is happening scientifically is the sour taste that is playing a tug of war with the fat, and the salty is complementing the fat.

The last stage of the cooking process which is the plating completes the fifth element of the aesthetics of food. The way the food is presented can be metaphorical and can provide the key to understanding the true meaning of the dish. I once had the privilege to eat at a first class restaurant with the food arranged in the proportion of the fibonacci number. How could this not be art?

Thus, food may be elevated to the status of art if these elements are meticulously used by the cook to create a meaningful experience: safety, nutrition, time and space, semantics, and plating.

I sometimes imagine my favorite philosopher, Rene Descartes, eating a chorizo. It’s the same chorizo that I put in the recipe and is not typically mixed with the tomato sauce. The standard Italian pasta recipe normally uses the meatball or an Italian garlic sausage, which are not bad either. Descartes is credited for saving the modern world from insanity and hopelessness, for his single insight, I think therefor I am. Putting the chorizo in the Pastelero is my metaphor for existence, an act of the thinking mind nourished by the Filipinos’ love for spaghetti. By cooking this dish exclusively for my family and my wife’s friends, I declare, I cook therefore I am. Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

Update: Jollibee spaghetti has banana ketchup according to this news article about Jollibee Restaurant opening in Milan, Italy.

Author: Leon de Pola

Semiotician by profession. Philosopher by vocation.

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