Blogging 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.
Sandwiched 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.
No 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.
All 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?
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?
I picked 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.
Back 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.
But 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.
Atwood’s 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.
NOTE: It will interest Dallasites to know that Bliss may (may) be moving to a new location soon. If you want to dine in Pleebland, better do so soon.