CSA vegetables, eggs, and chicken

Purposeful Eating and the Search for Umami

“When you pursue great flavor, you also pursue great ecology.”

–Dan Barber

I’ve always been a picky eater.

For me, food has always been an inconvenience. An annoying necessity. For some, stress is a time of over-eating; for me, it has always been the opposite: when I get stressed or anxious, I forget (or don’t feel like) eating. I also like to be transparent about the fact that I have generalized anxiety disorder…and one of the primary ways that my anxiety manifests is when I am put in situations that involve making decisions about food (“restaurant anxiety”, it is sometimes called). Eating disorders are serious business, and they’ve always been darkly looming on the outskirts of my family history. Before you start to panic, know that I am healthy and getting the help that I need for my anxiety. In fact, if you worry for me, this post should ease your nerves and make you smile. I’m about to tell you why, for the first time in my life, I am really freaking excited about food.

This past weekend, I watched an episode of a documentary, that, quite frankly, blew my goddamn mind. The documentary I speak of is called Chef’s Table, an original Netflix series, and as a whole, it’s really amazingly well done and totally worth watching. There is one episode in particular, however, that actually brought me near to tears it was so moving. It was the story of Dan Barber, head chef and creative mind behind the New York and Massachusetts based restaurants Blue Hill (New York, NY) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. This man is not only an innovator, but someone deeply invested in and aware of the relationship food has to the natural cycles of the Earth. In a modern world where most people – mainstream Americans especially – have forgotten what it’s like to survive off the land (work hard for their food, eat only what is available during any given season), Dan Barber is trying to remind us what it’s like to truly live for natural, home-grown, traditional, sustainable flavor.

What does it mean to be able to eat anything we want, whenever we want? There was a time when the inhabitants of any given landscape were only able to eat that which grew or was raised on their lands (and those that still do are, sadly, now a minority). Humans all over the modernized world are taking for granted the process of cultivation, the process of seasonal eating – after all, our supermarkets teach us that we don’t have to wait for satisfaction. Why wait until Autumn for pumpkins? Why wait until Summer for corn? Dan Barber would argue that we’ve forgotten the excitement and the appreciation for eating a thing at its freshest, at the times when it is most flavorful and most ripe. He might also argue that we’ve forgotten how to be grateful for that which the Earth provides – we’ve lost touch with her seasonal cycles. Instead, we grocery shop mindlessly, after long days at work, many of us grabbing artificially produced snack foods off shelves – foods that were never grown, never worked for, and are, therefore, never truly tasted. In addition, many of us never read the labels, never know where our foods come from; we don’t know the stories of the animals, of the people, of the places where our food was grown, raised, or produced. So much of our food industry is a vile place that the normal ethical person would feel horrified upon actually seeing and understanding.

The hard, cold truth is that many of us choose to ignore it. For a long time, me included.

Is it pretentious to suggest that we all eat organic and natural, all the time? It’s certainly unrealistic, even if it’s desired: the reality is that in our economy, and our world, too many of us just can’t plain afford to live that way. And we certainly can’t all be farmers. So what can we do? What can we learn from Dan Barber?

We can start by learning how to appreciate flavor.

We can begin our own personal journeys in search of umami.

You may now be thinking: “wait a second, what the heck is umami? And what does that have to do with all this?”

Umami is a Japanese word that literally translates to “delicious taste.” It’s actually, scientifically, the fifth basic taste that the human tongue can experience, discovered in 1908 by Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda (and officially recognized by scientists worldwide in 1985). For a long time, only four tastes were recognized: bitter, sour, sweet, and salty (think: coffee, lemon, sugar, and salt).  Umami is commonly referred to, in English, as “savory.” According to the official Umami Information Center:

“Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. As the taste of umami itself is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.”

umami map
Image from http://www.umamiinfo.com/

Umami has a history of being mysterious sought after – so much so, that the wildly controversial MSG was invented as a chemical substitute and “quick fix” for enhancing umami in cheaper fast foods. The true, pure umami, however, comes, not from a  man-made substance, but from common natural foods like mushrooms, various seafoods, and cured meats. Japanese cuisine  – known for its hearty soy and miso pastes and dashi-based broths, happens to be one of the most umami-rich cuisines in the world – no wonder a Japanese professor discovered it! Funny enough, Japanese cuisine has also been scientifically proven to be one of the healthiest diets in the world, as well. It’s really no coincidence that the place where I had the least amount of “restaurant anxiety” and the healthiest body were the times when I lived in Japan!

So what the heck does umami have to do with Dan Barber’s farm-to-table cooking and eating philosophy? Why are these two things on my mind?

I’ve long had trouble inspiring myself to cook, and to eat well. Part of it had to do with my anxiety; but part of it had to do with something far more simple: lack of knowledge. Like many busy working adults, I never stopped to educate myself in the first place about food. I’m not just talking about ethical and humane eating, which is a big deal!, but just, well, eating in general.I never knew about umami – or never realized what it was – and I never knew that I could make eating more joyful by pursuing the best possible ingredients and flavors. I also never believed in myself enough to think that I could change my relationship with food for the better.

At its core, eating is about survival. We need sustenance to live. But eating is also about an important relationship: the one we have with our land. The great chefs of the world – the Dan Barbers – would argue that the true privilege of the modern technologically advanced human isn’t that we can have any food we desire at any time, but that we can taste that food, and enjoy it for its flavor, not just its ability to keep us alive. By tasting and digesting and surviving, all at once!, off of something that comes directly from our earth, we are realizing the importance of not only ecology and environmentalism (something I personally believe a great deal in), but we are learning how to find happiness in a process that has, sadly, become something automatic…less about appreciation and gratitude, and more about “just getting by.”

I’ve never felt so inspired to start eating well, to start actually tasting things – I want to:

  • Cultivate my own herbs and plants
  • Support my local farms
  • Watch things grow over time, learn to have patience before simply diving into any one meal.
  • Challenge myself to only buy what is actually in season for my area during any given month. 
  • Be active and involved in the process of cooking.
  • Face every meal with gratitude – “I’m lucky to be alive, here, in this moment, eating this thing.”
  • Spread the word about humane eating, the life and death cycle that all sustainable, natural farms – and all wildlife ecosystems! – go through.
  • Research and educate myself about the foods and brands and places that are worth giving my money – but more importantly, my support – to.
  • Cook Japanese food at home, and feel excited about eating the cuisine I love most!

But most of all, I want to find the sensation of umami, and I want to savor it. I don’t want to settle for anything less.

It’s hard to describe in words, the realization that so much of our experiences are connected: our health is tied to what we eat, what we drink, the activities we do, the thoughts we carry. To truly beat anxiety, I need to be vigilant about my health – all aspects of it. I want to make the cooking process fun and interesting, so that it isn’t something I dread at the end of a long day, it’s something I look forward to. I want to turn going to restaurants into, not something I feel anxious about, but an adventure I can’t wait to take part in.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll help make even a small difference – for myself, and for the world.

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (Swann’s Way)




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