Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thinking about the MAD Foodcamp in Denmark and wishing I could have gone

Rene Redzepi of restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is an inspiration for anyone who cares about food, art, life, and sustainability. I asked for and received his book Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine for Christmas last year, and perhaps a few photos of the book can suggest the wonder and beauty that Redzepi creates with his food and with his ideas about food.

The photos in the book remind me of the spare cold light of Scandinavia, the briny taste of the air in Reykjavik, the chill of mist rising from a Swedish field in late August as the weather turns its steps toward fall, winter, and darkness. Beautiful, evocative images and memories that truly say something about time and place.

Sadly I can only imagine what his food tastes like, because most of the book's recipes use ingredients that are impossible to find here and cooking techniques that are far beyond what I have the equipment for or wherewithal to do. Also, the chances that I would ever get to eat at his restaurant are slim to none. But none of that matters. The difficulty of the food here is not really the point; the point is the inspiration, the ideas about food and the world we live in.

Carrying forth inspiration and ideas was also part of the point of the MAD Foodcamp that took place last weekend in Denmark. Unfortunately, I only learned of it a few days ago and wouldn't have been able to attend anyway, but I have been scouring Twitter (search #MADfoodcamp) and the Internet to learn more about what happened and to perhaps add some ideas to the conversation.

I found several reports from the event. Kalle Bergman, editor of Honest Cooking: The Food Magazine called this event "a nerdy Woodstockish foodie festival and conference." You can read more on the symposium cum food festival at Food RepublicClassic Copenhagen, and Katie Parla.

But the article that inspired most food for thought (pardon the pun) came from flavourcountryfeedlot, who talks about the disconnect between people like those who participated in the conference and have a driving passion for food and the "millions of people [who] don't think they have enough time to find or cook good, real food, or that good food is worth the effort."

I am afraid I don't have much sympathy for those who don't care about good food. Trying to convince someone who doesn't care about food to think it matters is akin to convincing a religious person to stop believing or an atheist to believe: It's not going to happen. You do, or you don't. What I do understand and sympathize with is the lack of time or energy to source good food, cook it well, and present it in inspired and inspiring ways. Most people have enormous and constant demands on their time; balancing competing priorities is the order of the day--every day.

So if you are not a chef or don't have the bankroll to eat in wildly creative restaurants most of the time, what are you supposed to do with these ideas? Because these are extraordinary ideas about recognizing the wider variety of edible foods that exist, about falling in love with the wonderful array of foods that your place and season have to offer, about creating layers of sense memories that connect you to the beauty and life of the world.  

Here are some thoughts about what you can do. Start with the recognition that food can express your life, your values--can express what inspires you and makes your life beautiful. Obviously, food is also a bare bones necessity: You don't eat, you starve. Why not make it matter? Why do so many other things take precedence? Do you really need a perfect lawn? Do you really need to watch that episode of whatever show? Does your kid really need to participate in every after-school activity that you can squeeze into the schedule, or could you spend that time with him or her creating memories together in the kitchen? Unfortunately, Redzepi's comment that "there is no short cut or easy answer to good food" contains some truth. Good food does take effort and time, but so does anything that's worthwhile.

A second thought is to not try to be perfect, and this is a thought I struggle with in many contexts (I am a recovering perfectionist). You can make a difference in small ways, in inconsistent ways. Trying to get it absolutely right all the time is a good recipe for giving up or losing heart. If all you can do is eat frozen dinners all week, but then cook an amazing Sunday meal to serve your family with beautiful, local ingredients, wouldn't that make a difference? In your life and in the life of your kids? Start small and see where that takes you.

Next, look around. What do you know about the place you live? Try the farmers' markets, talk to people. Maybe someone makes amazing cheese just 15 miles from your house, and you never even knew. Take a class in foraging--it'll be great, and you'll get outside for a while. Probably get some exercise too. If you know someone who is a great cook or knows a lot about local food, talk to him or her and get some ideas. Maybe even angle for an invitation to dinner. He or she will probably feel great that you asked.

Never be afraid to try something new. How do you think that anyone ever comes up with anything? By trying something. And often by failing at least the first time. Experimentation in the kitchen is usually fun, sometimes successful, and always informative. (Here's our dry-ice ice cream experiment.) See something at the farmer's market you've never tried before? Try it! Get some! Ask the farmer what to do with it. If he or she doesn't know, look around the Internet--at some point, someone somewhere probably cooked it successfully and has some good ideas for you.      

What I want to convey with these ideas and any others that I come up with going forward is that good, beautiful, and artful food doesn't have to be exclusive. I can't make a 50- to 60-ingredient dish--hell, I don't want to make a 50- to 60-ingredient dish--but I can be inspired by how it looks and the ideas behind it. I can start looking around on the ground to find edible plants among the weeds and try to learn to cook them well. I can experiment with new varieties in the garden and see what works. I can take this whole ethos of understanding your food through the lens of time and place and figure out how to make that work for me in a home cook's kitchen. And most of the time, what I will come up with is pretty good, sometimes it will be an unmitigated disaster, but it should always be interesting and inspiring.

Now, I have to go and make some plum jam.

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