Things have a source, the originating mother ship that seems to always be there. Whatever the source, one’s proximity to it is often valuable, if not enviable, and no doubt preferable.
Food is no different.
Sushi connoisseurs often tell tall tales of their ability to taste the difference of nigiri sushi by “distance” alone. In other words, nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed at the bar (the source) tastes better than nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed elsewhere, say a table thirty feet away. From the first seconds when the sushi chef molds the rice, smears the wasabi, and places the fish, each bite becomes less perfect as the nigiri ventures further away. After all, Edo-style sushi originated as a commuter’s meal, made in roadside stands, meant to be eaten on the go. Nigiri is only nigiri when the transfer time between sushi chef and patron comprises of a few heartbeats. Proximity is not an option.
Ramen – or any type of hot noodle soup for that matter – is a ticking time bomb. Timing is everything for an immaculate noodle dish. The second the steaming, semi-boiling broth hits the noodles, it begins “decomposing,” rapidly giving in to the spiking temperature and sodium. Noodles, broth, scallions, bean sprouts, nori, and off you go. Sitting right there at the bar is a complete immersion into the ramen experience. Not only does it taste better, but the action – the clanking, shouting, steaming, stirring, flipping – is part of the taste, feeding the eyes before vapors hit the nose or broth envelopes the tongue. Feeds the eyes, feeds the nose, the source does. Proximity is not an option.
According to this recent article in Time, mozzarella cheese has been scientifically proven to be the “best” cheese for pizza. But no matter the quality or type of cheese, it’s no secret that the further the fresh margherita pizza travels from the oven, the less relevant it becomes, falling to an obsolete afterthought that no one remembers. There’s something unique about seeing your pizza go into a Neapolitan oven, to sit at a table with a clear view to said oven, and to gulf down a still-squirming slice while a steady flow of pies go in and out of that oven. The mozzarella and tomato sauce cool to Goldilocks-right as the server takes just the right number of steps from the oven to the table. Proximity is not an option.
Living in this concrete jungle we call city, one often feels distant from a source, known or unknown. Perhaps that explains why one feels liberated – or at home – stepping on grass or running on soil. Concrete layers and cement blocks under the feet may elevate off the ground, both literally and figuratively, but they also strip you from your source, to the point where concrete whispers in your ear that it is your new source, your new home.
The recent “farm-to-table” phenomenon is a meager attempt to restore this sense of proximity to one’s food source. But even at its best, what you’re getting is fresh meat and produce cooked in a restaurant kitchen in the heart of some downtown, miles and miles away from the rancher or farmer that last had contact with what’s on the plate. In essence, farm-to-table is our dear outcry to take a step back to the source, to the soil. It’s our leap towards proximity.
Not all of us can live on a farm and cook our meals right next door. But in the meantime, we can all appreciate the sense of proximity one gets from “fire-to-mouth” dining, whether it’s ramen or pizza. Closer to the fire, closer to the heat, closer to the source. Closer to what makes food, food.