A Gourmet's Recipe for Happiness

The IHT asked Patricia to write an essay on food in the new millenium for a special section the paper published on Dec. 3, 1999. Here's what she said:

A Gourmet's Recipe for Happiness

I AM LOOKING at the cover of a current American food magazine. The background of the photo is a deep, dark blue, the shade of the sky of Las Vegas. In the foreground there is a cute, preppy young man with shoulder-length, jet-black hair. He is on his black cell phone, has Hollywood star-style black sunglasses, holds a white coffee cup and is dressed in never-been-washed chef's whites. Note, also, there is NO FOOD on the cover of this food magazine.

In a nutshell, the cover epitomizes almost everything about the future of food in the world. Or at least the image of such. Chefs don't work; they sit on the phone beneath the blue Las Vegas sky, probably talking to their agents about the next deal, the next ad, the next free BMW, the next franchise, the next public offering. Restaurants, more and more and more around the world, are about money, about sex, about power, about seeing and being seen. Or being scene. They are not about what is on the menu or what is on the plate, much less the excellent quality of the ingredients, the true creativity of the chef.

They are not about food. A few pages later in the same magazine, there is a fat, bearded, naked chef holding a blender in front of him so that the machine just manages to cover his private parts. It is part of a series of advertisements entitled ''Famous Chefs Naked With Blender.'' Again, no food. But sex.

If one believes much of what one reads, no one in the modern world eats at home or cooks anymore. Then, I ask, why are farmers' markets, especially organic markets, flourishing around the world? Why are supermarkets being built with 150 checkout counters? Why are we soon to have refrigerators with computer chips that tell the store to deliver another quart of milk, or pickles, or a dozen eggs as soon as the last one is empty?

If one believes much of what one reads, no one in the world eats anymore, or at least eats what we used to call ''three square meals.'' They are all on the latest diet, whether it's the moon diet (where you fast for 24 hours before each new moon and each full moon) or the protein power diet (where you give up all that great sourdough bread, sweets and wine, pasta and rice but gorge on thick steaks, foie gras and triple-creme cheese) or they just starve themselves. Then why are obesity rates jumping off the charts?

It is because more and more and more we live in a world of contradictions. Speed up, so we can do more, see more, make more money, HAVE more stuff versus SLOW DOWN, so we can enjoy, savor, appreciate. On the one hand, all of this makes me very depressed. In a day where there is so much money in the world and so much CHANCE for a healthy segment of that world to develop a true sense of taste, serious palates, with an opportunity to truly appreciate and savor the best foods that nature can offer, we throw it all over for gloss, money, sex, glamour, emptiness.

It does not take more time to eat a good meal than it takes to eat a bad one, so why would anyone ever select the latter? How DID we get to where we are today? Where did we go wrong? How did we get derailed? Because the money people rule the world and they have no sense of taste? Because you can't make good money from good food? I don't agree.

Every day I meet people - winemakers, small independent merchants who run cheese shops or butcher's shops, dedicated farmers who make extraordinary raw milk goat cheeses, chefs who run small restaurants - who make a very good living happily doing what they are passionate about and that they do best.

On those days, I am wholeheartedly optimistic that the millennium will see a sea change in the world of food. I still believe that in my lifetime I will see the death of the McDonald's hamburger chain, which to me is more and more the symbol of how we got on this path to madness, quickness, blandness, sameness. Next time you walk by a McDonald's hamburger stand anywhere in the world, look at the people inside: No one is having fun, no one is laughing, or even smiling. Mostly they are there alone staring into their Big Mac and beyond into a world of emptiness.

(Part of me wants to go back in time and reinvent that stupid chain all by myself, creating a golden world of fresh food, gorgeous ingredients, wholesome food with flavor. Where people laugh and are really happy as they eat. )

I learned a long time ago that people who love food, really love food and care every day about what they put in their mouths, are HAPPY people. That's because no matter what other frustrations, trials, tribulations they may face, they are satisfied at least three times a day by foods, such as a fabulously fragrant tarte Tatin made with fresh, mildly acidic Cox's Golden Pippin apples fresh from the tree. Or they are moved to ecstasy by the pure simplicity of a perfect sliced tomato sprinkled with fleur de sel, a few leaves of basil cut into a fine chiffonade, a drizzle of golden, unfiltered, new-season olive oil. Or they find true happiness in a bottle of vintage Champagne, a perfectly aged cheese, a loaf of bread warm from the wood oven.

I guess what frustrates me is that more and more people have access to these simple pleasures, yet because of lack of time or stupidity or stubbornness or phobias do not reach out and touch that pleasure.

How many people do you know who spend a fortune on a new kitchen and never cook, and never intend to? How many people do you know who have a trophy, state-of-the-art wine cellar and prefer to drink Diet Coke? - I THINK that in the world of ''haves,'' there is still tremendous guilt related to food. For those of us who grew up in an era of Devil's Food Cake and Angel Food Cake and moved on to Sinfully Delicious Brownies, it is clear that food is both sinful and rewarding and can, I guess, be a little of each in the same meal. We are more and more worried about the safety of our food supply, more and more fearful of developing deadly allergies. So we move toward more and more sanitized and processed food. That doesn't make sense at all. Individuals, even those who cook, also are more and more disconnected from the food they do eat.

There is a French program in the schools designed to teach children about taste and on the first day of the session the teacher brings in a beehive and asks the students what it is for.

Fifteen years ago a lot of young students knew it had something to do with honey. Today almost no children know. The other day I bought a guinea hen from my Paris butcher. When he asked how I wanted him to prepare it, I said I would do it myself. He was shocked, and responded, ''That's certainly rare!'' When I have time, I like to trim those wings, chop off that head, trim the feet, for it gives me pleasure to know that bird first as a whole entity, not a lot of chopped up parts. I have a dream that I am queen of the world.
I guess that the scenario for my dream world of the future would go something like this: Technology would provide the world - developed and underdeveloped countries alike - with sufficient simple, nutritious food for everyone on earth.

Everyone would have enough and a wonderful aura of satisfaction would overtake the world. For those who wanted to delve more deeply, there would be an incredible stock of fresh, organic, delicious ingredients available on a Web site the likes of an Amazon.com. Anything you wanted - from fresh truffles in season to Australian yabbies, or plump Italian tomatoes, Venezuelan coffee beans, to the first crop of just-pressed extra virgin olive oil - could be on your doorstep within 24 hours.

For those who wanted more public contact with the people who actually grow your food, there would be organized open-air markets everywhere, so that you could joke with the butcher, laugh with the farmer who offers you a baker's dozen of 14 because he is superstitious of 13, watch as the elderly farm lady wraps her last two precious eggs in yesterday's newspaper. - PUBLIC vegetable gardens - like the victory gardens of old - would flourish around the world.

For a small fee, we could each have gardens tended by experts, and we could go each morning and pick our day's crop. To make cooking easier and more pleasurable, there would be a battery of small, simple, inexpensive machines that would perform many tasks that require no cooking skill: perfect cooked rice, a perfect hard-cooked egg, a perfect flaky pastry. Those supermarkets with 150 checkout counters would be virtual regional food centers, offering the freshest produce, poultry, meat, and fish and shellfish for the area. They would have regular stands where local farmers would offer samples of their crops. The frozen food department would have healthy delicious fare for the days you do not want to cook, with everything from quality frozen pizza to chili con carne to seven-hour leg of lamb.

Third World countries would export specialty food items - everything from African hot sauce, dark and pungent unrefined sugar from the Philippines - and that could be found everywhere. The local farmers would profit directly, with no middleman.

In fact, this world does exist, for those who want to take advantage of it. All it takes is desire. And a certain hunger. I'm cooking tonight. Anyone want to come for dinner at my house?