Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The Best Food on Earth

O.K., I admit it; at times, I critique the food at simchas. However, despite my own failings, I’m uncomfortable when I hear people play food critic at simchas. It bothers me because the purpose of attending a simcha is not gastronomic, an evening of fine dining, but rather to celebrate the bar mitzvah or wedding. Complaining about the meal at a wedding is like going to a baseball game and complaining about the hot dogs; if you’re a fan, the food doesn’t matter, and if you’re not a fan, you shouldn’t be there. Even worse, at times the critical comments about the salmon appetizer make their way to the family and cause them distress. Instead of celebrating a simcha with the joyous family, the erstwhile food critic causes them aggravation.

But what drives us to search for the world’s tastiest piece of salmon? Personally, I blame Martha Stewart. Not Martha directly (she’s had enough problems recently). But I do blame the Martha Stewart mindset, the attitude that everything must be elegant and tasteful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing the perfect meal or home. Life is short, and in our brief time here, we should enjoy God’s good earth. As the Talmud says, “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet” .

But here’s the problem. As we learn the nuances of fine culinary art, we also become discriminating snobs. Appreciating the best life has to offer can cause us to consider everything else inferior and disappointing. So a perfectly good piece of salmon becomes an affront to the gourmand’s tastebuds, and instead of toasting the joy of the new couple, we discuss the inept appetizer.

Indeed, the irony of learning how to “appreciate” fine food, is that at the same time genuine appreciation of food is lost. An overcooked, underseasoned piece of chicken is remarkably tasty; we’ve just turned off our tastebuds, expecting better, because our gourmet quest has caused us to lose perspective.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “hunger is the best cook”. She says that the army rations she ate right after being liberated from Auschwitz was the best meal she ever ate in her life, one that even the best chefs could never recreate. The overwhelming hunger she experienced at the time brought out the best in the bland meal she ate. What she learned then was that with the right outlook, any piece of food is enormously tasty.

Ultimately, flavour depends on perspective; and to me, the food at simchas, even if it’s unworthy of five stars in the Michelin guide, is the best food on earth.

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