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I read William Deresiewicz’s New York Times article, ¬†“A Matter of Taste”, which challenged the idea of food as art. It made me take a serious think on the subject. Hang on a bit, this will be a longer post than usual but a subject worth exploring.¬†Here’s what Deresiewicz says on the subject:

Food is highly developed as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art, the madeleine itself is not art.

First, let’s define art. In searching on the internet for a usable definition I thought Ellen Dissanyake’s captured it for me: the expression of the thoughts of the artist are successful when it engages both the maker and the viewer and creates dialogues of wonder. Its subjective and stimulating ends seeks to enlighten and entertain.”

Dan Barber, photo by Susie Cushner

Let’s take a modern day “madeleine” and deconstruct it as art for Mr. Deresiewicz. It’s the lowly parsnip, in the hands of a culinary master and chef, Dan Barber. Dan is the Chef/Owner/Creator of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. A restaurant that creates a dialogue with the land and a chef that speaks to the seasons.

A parsnip is one of those vegetables that is relegated to the root cellar, a cousin to the turnip and a brethren in the circle of least likely to please winter veggies such as brussel sprouts and cauliflower. So what has Dan done with the parsnip? He’s put it center plate! But not just on a one-dimensional plane in a new recipe. Dan creates dishes that are complex and intensely involved with listening to the land while delivering taste on a celestial level. The parsnip in his hands engages us in a new way and stimulates us to think about the relationship between man, food and our physical surroundings. Its more intense depth of flavor, sweetness and deliciousness surprises us. And the beauty of its presentation not only pleases but shocks us. The story behind it makes us challenge our long held opinions. How did he do this with a parsnip?

Dan started by thinking about what he could serve his customers in February in the deep of winter. He is committed to being local and seasonal. He worked with his farmer, Jack Algiere to continue growing parsnips in the snow filled months. They harvest huge parsnips from the frozen ground and crack away the dirt. These parsnips are supersweet because the freezing temperatures concentrate the sugars, unlike fall harvested vegetables. Their post autumn size allows the parsnip to be reimagined. Dan roasts these parsnips whole. Then the presentation of this root vegetable main course is done with a bit of fanfare. The diner’s attention is riveted as the once lowly parsnip is paraded tableside and sliced as a steak, ready to be a hearty meal in the cold of winter. The parsnip is the center of the plate, the star of the meal. The concept of protein as main course is moot…not even missed.

Parsnip Steak and Beet Ketchup, photo courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Does this not engage the diner in a new way? Does it not make her question the human/land connection? Does it not entertain in its deliciousness? Does it not give us a sense of wonder of how large our universe is and how limited we have been in harvesting our foods? Does it not change your relationship with the parsnip? Now a vegetable of preference but only in this new season, this new context. If the parsnip did not have a pleasure with it, an entertainment factor, the concept and recipe could be restricted to science and social issues….but precisely because it pleases in a sensual way, it qualifies on all counts….as a piece of art!

Dan’s work is important. So important that we are working with him on our new Farm to Table culinary program. It is important for our school to graduate not only the best chefs in the country. We also strive to be a breeding ground for culinary artists. Those chefs that engage both the maker and the diner and create dialogues of wonder.”

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