In Defense of Passion. The Elements of Eating.
Any kind of love without passion
That ain’t no kind of lovin’ at all
– “After The Thrill Is Gone,” The Eagles
Anyone who knows me knows I am passionate about what I eat. Lots of groaning, sometimes some swearing. Arms flailing. Hands pounding the table. It’s embarrassing really. Not for me, but for everyone else around me. Okay, I admit it, I’m kinda the same way watching American Idol too. But this post is about food.
I don’t want to get too psychological right away and scare you all off, but you’ll get to know more about this side of me the more I write. I’m fascinated by psychology and spirituality and what makes people tick. I see people going through their lives perfectly happy never veering outside the lines and I both envy and pity them. I can’t live that way. I’m constantly looking for another great experience, and those experiences, I find, are not the expected ones. It’s the same thing that drives me to experiment with food. To cook without recipes and anything I can get my hands on. There’s no predicting the outcome.
I have a lot of experience studying ancient spiritualities and medicine, and have always been fascinated by the fact that things come in fours. Four directions. Four Humours. Four seasons. For this post I want to talk about the four elements – Air, Fire, Earth, Water – and what they mean to food for me. How they feed my passion, and how I think you can get more enjoyment out of food if you try out thinking this way, both when you eat out and when you cook.
Now I’m not going to go so far as to say “if you’re a spicy person, you should eat spicy foods,” or “maybe you should try eating the opposite of your personality to balance you out.” There’s plenty of opinions out there about that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. What I do believe, however, is that one of the things that makes food so fascinating and fulfilling is its complexity. More complexity typically means more flavors for your tongue and brain to decode, like a great mystery novel. And scientifically, this means more compounds that have different affects, simultaneously, on the brain. Chocolate, for example, has anywhere from 300-500 different natural compounds in it, making it one of the most complex foods around and one of the most loved. And, to the point of this post, chocolate represents passion.
So this is what I do. I classify, for me, which of the four elements foods represent. There are no right answers, really, but a good guideline is that Air foods are light or leavened, subtle, crunchy, grown in the air, or clarifying (like mint). Fire foods are spicy, biting, or those where flame is represented as in a smoky flavor. Earth foods are heavy, meaty, rich, or sometimes pulled literally out of the earth like potato. Water foods are mild, liquidy and typically grow in or near water or are made up of a great deal of water.
Now think of a typical American dinner: fried steak (earth), potato (earth), and salad (water). But without seasoning or additions, it’s just not balanced. BBQ the steak and add some steak sauce (fire), chives to your potato (air), and some garlic bread (earth, air, fire) with butter (water) and now we’re talkin.
Try dissecting a single food this way, too, and you’ll see what I mean. Salads are the easiest. Chinese Chicken Salad: lettuce (water), nuts (air), chicken (earth), ginger (fire), orange (water), chives (air), rice noodles (air for crunch, water because rice is grown in water). This is a “light” salad, full of water and air, a touch of fire, and one of the lighter meats of the earth. I picked it because flavor-wise, it’s also one of the most popular salads out there. Why? I would argue because of its balance of the elements. It’s complex, interesting, and there’s lots of mystery on the tongue.
The best cheeses are incredibly complex. Creamy (water), a bite (fire), a rich musty note (earth), and when put on a piece of bread or cracker (air) is a completely perfect morsel. Pork and oysters are very popular right now. Bacon and chocolate. Fried burrata cheese. What do you get when you look at your favorite dishes? Are they lopsided and single note, or more complex? If you haven’t experimented lately, maybe it’s time to get out there and add some elements to your food. Put some chipotle seasoning on that hot chocolate, or a sage leaf on your turkey sandwich.
Maybe you don’t have to go so far as to cry when watching American Idol, like I do, but I’m sure you’ll be surprised and delighted by what you find.