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Eat to Live? Live To Eat?

Eat to Live? Live To Eat?

What explains today’s fascination with food and cooking? We all have to eat, but do we have to read an essay about it?

Today’s consumer interest doesn’t operate in the exclusive fashion that gourmet passion in the past did, when out-of-the-ordinary food and ingredients would have been expensive or difficult to procure. Today, gourmet food can be found at your local supermarket. Knowledge was also limited; at one time, you could only count on a few TV cooks like the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. Today, regular Americans are obsessed with food. In addition to the magazines, books and TV shows, you have a 24-hour cable network devoted to food. Even the movie theater isn’t immune, since Ratatouille, the new Pixar film, is nothing if not an animated tribute to being a foodie. Let’s get the kids hooked early, right?

Ratatouille is a completely charming and beautifully animated film. Granted, that means the lead character of Rémy, a rat, looks very rat-like, but it also means that the food looks good enough to eat. Rémy is a rat that would rather starve than eat bad food, a role model after my own heart.

While I’m all in favor of this interest in cooking, I am driven crazy by knuckleheaded wannabes. For example, like any good foodie, I’m a big fan of the Food Network.

If you like to cook yourself, and you watch the programming, you might have the occasional dream to have your own show on. The network, er, feeds into this desire with the reality show The Next Food Network Star, in which people compete to get their own show. I’d assumed that contestants would be total Food Network groupies, able to tell you easily when to chop, mince or julienne. But I’ve been watching the competition for the last few weeks and I’ve been shocked at the ignorance. One contestant had some garlic in a pan with oil, which he described as roasting, not sautéing. Another contestant said he’d used a vinegar glaze, which was clearly just vinegar. What is the point of having theatrical films, 24-hour cable networks, blogs, online videos, and books devoted to whatever topic you’re fixated on, unless you’re going to absorb some actual information and tuck a little data away in your brain?

I consider all my cultural obsessions to be important, but I have to admit that food probably trumps them all. I’ve probably seen more really great Asian horror films than I’ve eaten really great crême brulée. And I suppose it’s because exceptional food is not only rare, but so powerful.

Evidence comes in today’s news, a story of a would-be robber transformed by food. A masked gunman slipped into the patio of a Washington, D.C. home. A group of dinner guests froze as he demanded money and held his weapon to the head of a 14-year-old girl. Then, someone spoke up.

“We were just finishing dinner,” Cristina Rowan, 43, told the man. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?”

The intruder had a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, “Damn, that’s good wine.”

He was then offered the rest of the wine and some Camembert cheese. He eventually asked for and received hugs from the guests and left with only the filled crystal wine glass; police later found the empty wine glass unbroken on the ground in an alley behind the house.

Now you can think he was crazy and maybe he was. But I prefer to think it’s a tribute to living life for some really great eats.

Editor’s Note: PJ. Rodriguez isn’t the only Spot-on writer who cares, passionately, about food. Our food writer Kevin Weeks appears here every Monday. Here’s his take on the Food Network.