Back in my gastronomy grad classes in Australia, we talked a lot about the concept of gastronomy; what it was, how people participated in it throughout history, etc. If you don’t already know, gastronomy at it’s most basic level is discourse about fine food and drink. That means simply eating a delicious meal is not enough to make you a gastronomer, but if you write about the meal, discuss it with your mates, post about it on your blog or participate in a message board discussion about it, that would be viewed as a gastronomical act. But one of my favorite topics (and one that was heatedly debated amongst my classmates)was the question of who can have a gastronomical experience? Are they reserved only for those with money and high social status, who can afford eating out at only the finest restaurants every week? Or can an average person who doesn’t eat out often have a gastronomical experience by eating at McDonald’s, if McDonald’s is truly the pinnacle of eating that person’s life? Before you respond, I’m gonna need all you Michael Pollan worshippers to take all those ideas he gave you about fast food being the downfall of American society and shove them up your bum, because that is not the question being asked here. We all know fast food is generally a bad thing. But do you think a gastronomical experience can happen to any person of any race, color or class? Are the ramblings of a food writing master like Jefferey Steingarten just as important as what Joe Schmoe from Kokomo thinks of his Big Mac and fries? I thought the answer was obvious–of course anyone can have a gastronomical experience! After all, wasn’t it MFK Fischer, the grandmommy of all modern food writers known to go on at length about the joy of something as simple as a fresh piece of fruit? And isn’t a popular trend in food today peasant food, albeit with a non-peasant price tag? If rich people can have a gastronomic experience with peasant food, then damn it, so can the peasants. But some of my classmates felt otherwise. One of them was a former sommelier from California, quite accustomed to the world of fine dining by that point, and she was insistent that it was impossible for McDonald’s to be considered a gastronomical experience because gastronomy was reserved for those who had enough money, not just those who were interested in food. She didn’t say in a snobby way, but in a way that almost suggested she felt this idea was unfair, but it did exist. I can understand this position to a point, because I do think that idea exists in certain places of the world, but I also know people are interested in hearing about gastronomic experiences from a variety of people and classes. It is difficult for myself to get much pleasure out of fast or highly processed foods, especially since I know so much now about all that bad stuff that goes into it. But at the same time, I remember another part of my life, when I was younger. When my lower-middle class family could only afford to eat out once a week, and when places like Taco Bell and Burger King really did feel like a magical, gastronomic experience to me, experiences I still recall and write about today. Today, eating those same foods would kill me–literally. My body is not as strong and resilient as it was back in the day. Once on a road trip, I ate some bad Taco Bell and ended up in a hospital in Alabama, where the food wasn’t much better. But that doesn’t erase the feelings those foods gave me. Hell, I am sure plenty of Americans feel the same way, because most of us did grow up enjoying the pleasures of processed food, from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with it’s neon cheese powder to twinkies with their nuclear war resistant-filling. That’s probably when I came home from a hard day at work where nothing seemed to go my way, traveling through the crappy cold rain, I didn’t have a hankering for a thick, juicy aged steak or king crab legs. I wanted a box of fake tacos.
Not the authentic tacos that you can get from just about any regional South American restaurant or stand in Chicago. I’m talking ground beef, bright orange shredded cheese, a lovely mix of chili powder, garlic and cumin that comes in a packet. The crunchy corn shells you heat up in the oven until they are warm and just slightly crispy, the crappy package of taco sauce that has more heat than flavor–that is my comfort food. It is the food I grew up with, the food that made it feel like a special occasion to me. If I had my way, the beer would be swapped for a cold Stone’s Ginger Beer or a Amber Woodchuck cider, but I didn’t complain much because it was raining and I was feeling lazy. Now this isn’t food I’m gonna brag about to my friends, and if you ask me in public, I will probably deny it and slap you a few times for even suggesting such a thing. But sometimes, when your heart needs a little lovin’, fake tacos are the only way to go. In my world, yes, anyone can have a gastronomical experience with ANY kind of food in ANY situation. Just like all the snags I ate at Aussie barbies on campus, all charred with delicious carcinogens and decidedly NOT organic or free range but rather factory meat. Just like all those late night burgers and burritos as big as my head that I consumed during college, both drunk and sober, or all the meat pies I ate during grad school. All delicious in their own ways, and since I’m writing about now (or have already in the past), clearly all gastronomic experiences. (But seriously, if you ever bring up fake tacos to me, I may have to hit a bitch. A girl’s got a rep to protect. I’m just saying.) ~LTG!