America is, quite simply, fascinated by food in a way it never has been. We have become a nation of "foodies" who celebrate, debate, pursue, and show off knowledge of what we eat and how to make it. We're watching food shows endlessly on TV. We're enrolling in cooking classes in record numbers. We're loading our shelves with cookbooks and our e-mail with recipes for salt-crusted snapper. Our new celebrities aren't LeBron James or Julia Roberts. They're Bobby Flay and Southern food queen Paula Deen. In short, we have become something of a Sous-Chef Nation.
"We are witnessing the Italian Renaissance in food … an intellectual elevation that is turned into something durable through media," says Krishnendu Ray, a food and nutrition expert at New York University. "The world of food today is exactly how the world of literature and painting evolved."
Really – nouvelle meatloaf as the Mona Lisa?
Not exactly. What he means is that painting started with artists producing images on canvas. Then people began buying paintings, critics began critiquing them, and soon an entire culture had sprung up around art. Today food is creating a similar buzz – people, young and old alike, are trying to become Botticellis of braised short ribs and then celebrating it with friends, reveling in the experience of mastering the art of cumin.
Cooking, in other words, is no longer just something your mother does to put dinner on the table. It's a vehicle to express creativity, forge social connections, articulate what we have learned from other cultures, and in some cases save the environment.