A Letter to Richard Graff of
The American Institute of Wine and Food


June 2, 1983

Richard H. Graff
The American Institute of Wine and Food
655 Sutter Street
San Francisco, California

Dear Richard Graff,

Some weeks ago Michael Wild of the Baywolf passed along to me his copy of the AIWF Newsletter for February 1983, drawing attention to the search for an Executive Director. As an academic with an intense, on-going interest in wine and food, the suggestion appeared adventuresome but attractive.

Indeed, my current research in art history and archaeology indicates the need for a survey of surviving integrated cultures with attention to the ways in which food (from ecology and agriculture to the sense of style in haute cuisine) interacts with the arts, domestic and popular as well as fine.

Your column on the purposes and goals of the Institute therefore caught my interest, with particular appreciation for your words on Gastronomy and the elite.

The problem of elitism is also an intricate and recurrent issue for art history, while presently the last vestiges of elitist canons are being forcefully challenged by artists and performers in all areas. By themselves, the new electronic media have introduced potential esthetic vehicles of great power, a network of global, instantaneous communication.

Thoughtful commentators have noted that it is much more difficult to ignore human suffering, whether from war, catastrophe or famine because of television. As Carnegie Corporation head David Hamburg said recently before the American Psychiatric Association:

"It can link different groups, different cultures, indeed, the entire planet, as never before. But its potential for reducing intergroup conflict has scarcely been utilized so far. Television can vividly portray human diversity sympathetically while highlighting shared human experiences--including the common humanity of our adversaries, even in times of stress."

In view of the mounting stress posed by the threat of nuclear war, Dr. Hamburg values the global perspective of "a single, interdependent worldwide species, seeking adaptations to new conditions of life," which may bring about a "change in psychological orientation...identifying ourselves with the entire species on a worldwide basis, and doing so in a way that respects diversity."

But if the bottom line is not nuclear war or radiation, then it may be hunger. As a matter of record we might very much like to know what the AIWF may support or attempt by way of alleviating the global problem of human starvation. Genuine com­passion, beyond a merely non-elitist stance, among such a distinguished membership might contribute in some practical way acknowledging the essential human dignity of such programs presently underway in Ethiopia and Somali, Cambodia, India, Central America....

However distant and abstract these issues appear, they are sure to arise even though we know that hunger in the world today is a consequence of politics and economics, moreso even than the capa­city of the earth to feed its present, and an even greater future population. The key to such an under­taking is the production of grain, argues Dan Morgan in his excellent book, The Merchants of Grain; and the key to grain is the willingness of a few families who control the multinational grain companies to extend a line of credit to hungry people who happen to live in this or that country. Facing a problem of such magnitude, it may seem unlikely that an organization of individual lovers of wine and food could do much--and yet, better perhaps to have set our purposes and goals into too grand a context than to have ignored certain realities altogether.

Just as our new global consciousness, through its instant electronic telecommunications network, can articulate and help solve the problems of our worldwide food supply and its distribution, surely it will generate as well new attitudes toward food. For example, Colin Tudge in Future Food makes a pungent case:

"We can create a world like an emperor's garden, yet leave large parts to go their natural way; we can live out our alloted span; and yet, ful­filling both ambitions, we could each of us eat as richly as a medieval prince. It takes a little subtlety, it takes a little knowledge, and it begins and ends with cooking."

And it is based upon an agriculture designed to feed people rather than to maximize short-term profits. We may all very well be eating less red meat and more potatoes, cereals and legumes in our Future Food, in which event clearly the arts of good cooking (nutritious, wholesome, economical, appetizing, attractive...) will enjoy increasing respect.

The diversity of traditional styles of food preparation represents one of the great global cultural treasures. We live in a time when many of the surviving traditional cultures are threatened with extinction, and their lessons must be recorded or lost. At the same time, even with viable cultures, there appears to be an inexorable process of homogeni­zation and the sacrifice of the old ways with their grace and profundity is averted only by the staunchest resistance, even to those who would document them for posterity.

It is my hope to study a few worked examples of this theme during the course of my year of sab­batical leave from teaching. I was interested in the relationships between food, traditional music and dance, and surviving crafts such as ceremonial weaving in various cultural contexts of South America, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Travel to these or other areas remains an attractive possibility. On the other hand, it seems ironic to think of travel at all when right here in California we are witnessing one of the most extraordinary changes of consciousness about food manifested in our time. The most civilized conversa­tion these days, with incisive intelligence, a sense of the poetic and theatrical, delicate perceptions, and robust innovations, is all about food (not music, not painting, not architecture).

Two things in particular fascinate me about the recent California food phenomenon. First, the blessings of natural resources and climate together with a cultural consciousness at the leading edge of change have combined to create a distinctly new approach to food destined to produce international consequences. Secondly, in California it is possible to find either restaurants or the necessary ingredients that enable one to taste food from many of the peoples who live on the rim of the Pacific Ocean. What gives me pause, for example, is that as more people discover sushi and Szechuan cuisine, as Indo­nesian and Vietnamese restaurants begin to appear in other parts of the country, in Berkeley alone there are three different restaurants to offer excellent approaches to Thai cuisine. Even the great Cajun chefs such as Paul Prudhomme want to come to San Francisco because they know they will receive respect in a climate of informed enthusiasm.

What an extraordinary time and circumstance in which all of this energetic concern about food and drink could be brought to a focus, articulated and presented: with full regard for the gourmet expanding and revitalizing a creative approach to food and for the many to whom fine wines and foods represent newer commanding attractions. Both groups seem to be seeking ground rules and guide lines, the honest counsel and creative inspiration, from anyone who can speak or write with authority.

Now there is a loaded word: authority. Its root (as for augment and authorship) has to do with creativity and increase--originally with what caused the crops to increase.

Kurt von Meier