The Impermanence of Cuisine
On holding on and letting go.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” ― Heraclitus
In Iceland, utilizing every bit of food was a means of survival. Cod heads and putrefied skate were typical foods and every scrap of a that was not eaten was pickled in whey to be consumed when there was nothing else. When the country grew wealthy, they could afford to just eat the fillets and recipes for many of the more difficult parts to use were forgotten.
In Venice, they loved oysters until all the oysters were gone. Later there were periods when the people ate millet from Africa, sturgeon from Egypt and meat from the mountains. All of these things became part of Venetian cuisine until the people there moved on to something else.
In Mexico, moles changed because of colonialism, from forcibly introduced foods from Europe and native ones that were eradicated. The new vegetables and spices paired with the loss of others changed their character and mestizo moles were adapted into the national cuisine and those recipes continue to change over time as different forms of the ingredients become available or less expensive.
Throughout the world, a changing climate is luring fish into waters where they have never been and allowing fruits and grains to grow in places they couldn’t before, while once fertile valleys have dried up because of inconsistent rainfall and the loss of glacial melt. Globalization has allowed us to have access to almost any food from anywhere at any time, while disconnecting us from seasonal harvests and the landscapes we live within. Our food system is more dysfunctional than ever and our connections to foods past are you even more vulnerable.
So, why am I mentioning all of this? Maybe because my father passed away recently and with the holidays approaching my personal food traditions are already changing, even if that’s logistically. Or maybe because of all these years I have spent comparing modern and historical recipes, seeing how clearly nearly all of them change, sometimes minutely and sometimes drastically, within a century or even decades.
Maybe it is the older I get the more I realize how impermanent cuisine is. The holidays, as well as other celebrations of life, are where our personal culinary traditions are most vibrant. It’s where we try our hardest to hold on to the way things were. It’s the time of the year where the word authenticity gets tossed around often. Celebratory foods are the ideal of how we eat. As much as we romanticize these memories with our friends and families, nothing lasts. There are exceptions, though most of our culinary traditions only hang around for a generation or two before some incremental shift.
The world is not static - our personal world and the wider world around us -but it’s in a constant state of change. It always has and it always will be. With it, the nature of what we eat will always change. It makes our hearts ache to know that some foods that we hold so dearly, flavor memories, cannot be recreated one day. That eventually, they will be forgotten or evolve into something else. This causes us pain. To know that we are fighting a losing battle. Or we can try to find comfort in it. To accept that all things must pass. That the foods we eat are not artifacts, but tiny links in a large chain.
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