War & Peas: Looking at the culture and history behind your food

New food column War & Peas aims to look at the culture, politics, and history behind your food.

My generation, the dreaded millennials, fucking loves food. The majority of us—about 60 percent across genders, according to a research report from earlier this year—enjoy cooking. We eat out more frequently than older generations do, and as a result spend more at restaurants per month. We're more likely to seek out international cuisines and try new things, and an overwhelming majority—87 percent, according to marketing company Restaurant Marketing Labs—are willing to splurge on a nice meal, "even when money is tight."

That's because there's something escapist about a beautiful meal at a restaurant. Millennials are more into paying for experiences than objects, and a truly great meal at a restaurant gives you a chance to turn off your brain for a moment, turn on your senses, and focus on the moment at the table. Eating might be escapist, but that doesn't mean the meal itself is disconnected from the rest of the world. There's more to a meal than how it tastes—food is inextricably tied to politics and history and environmental issues and culture, and I'm hoping to use this column to talk about those ties.

Take, as an example, a meal at La Cuchara, a Basque restaurant in Woodberry that I reviewed in July. It served one of the best meals I've had out in Baltimore this year. The strip steak, a slice of buttery, high-quality meat, was sourced from Roseda Farms, located in nearby Monkton, and the waiter informed us that some of the ingredients in our dishes had been foraged nearby—there are environmental implications to that choice to use ingredients that are so local, as opposed to getting fish flown in from the Aegean Sea daily, as Fells Point restaurant Mare Nostrum does. But that doesn't mean a locally sourced steak is a steak absolved of environmental issues: It takes a metric fuck-ton more water and energy to raise a cow and turn it into a steak than it does to grow, say, the equivalent weight of potatoes. (Too bad steak tastes so damn good.)

And what happens when you order too many tapas and can't finish all your food? Unless you're packing up those leftovers to take home, the scraps of your meal will get tossed, joining the more than 133 billion pounds of food that the United States throws away in a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That makes food waste the single largest component of our landfills, where it produces the potent greenhouse gas methane as banana peels and unfinished meals slowly decompose. Yum.

But thinking too much about food doesn't necessarily need to be a guilt trip about your meal. There's so much history behind each of the ingredients on your plate that to begin to delve into it all is to fall down a delightfully dizzying, nerdy rabbit hole. Take the patatas bravas on La Cuchara's menu, a drool-worthy tapas dish of potatoes with garlic, green onions, spice, and citrus that provide a beautifully complex flavor profile. The potato has its own long and storied history, what with its role in the Irish famine of the mid-19th century, but so does garlic. The pungent bulb has whole books dedicated to it, including Robin Cherry's "Garlic: An Edible Biography," an overwhelmingly comprehensive guide to its history, medicine, and mythology. Did you know there are more than 200 varieties of garlic? Or that the competitors in the first Olympics in 776 B.C. ate garlic in order to enhance their athletic performance? Or that in the 17th and 18th centuries, you could use garlic to pay your taxes in Siberia? (Cherry writes, "The tax rate was fifteen bulbs for a man, ten bulbs for a woman, and five for a child. Resist the temptation to try this with the IRS.") And these are mere excerpts from the story of just one ingredient in one meal—there's plenty more to talk about. I hope you're as excited as I am to start digging into the rich feast of culinary culture.

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