Monday, June 6, 2011

Appropriate extravagance

Today was my friend Aneika's birthday, and she had the most wonderfully indulgent ideas! Both of them were significant firsts for me:

1) My first real massage (outside of friendly shoulder-rubs).

2) My first deliberately extravagant French meal. I've been to France twice before, but was a student both times and stuck to the budget-safe tourist menus. It... makes a difference.

I always had the idea that spa treatments and expensive foods were pointless indulgences-- something rich people did to show off their excess money. I was kind of proud to be a non-participant. But this evening, combined with my first-ever pedicure a few weeks ago, is starting to change my mind. I'm realizing that treating oneself well is not a pointless waste of money. It has a real impact on quality of life.

I typically spend a lot of money on food. I love to eat. The things I buy, though, are not big-ticket items. I've tended instead to get a lot of cheap stuff-- little pastries, convenience-store sandwiches, candy bars (definitely a sweet snacker, here)-- and just graze on them throughout the day. Though the food is not the best, it provides a lot of cheap thrills, so to speak-- it's fast and easy and tastes good going down.

This evening's dinner was different. The portions were small-- my entree would have fit on a bread plate with room to spare-- but the food was so rich and the flavors so intense that all of us were stuffed before we finished. Every bite of it was perfect, and I felt no need for more.

One of the girls at the table had taken a cooking class on a trip to France, and was talking about how strict the French food regulations are. Even vegetables, she said, are classed differently depending on quality. Our (French) waiter, who looked about 25, seemed as knowledgeable and passionate about wine and food as anyone I've ever met. I felt really out of my depth listening to him talk about cheeses with the girl who'd taken the cooking class.

It made me sad, because that kind of knowledge and passion is something most Americans really don't have. We feed ourselves on what is cheap and easy, focusing on bulk instead of quality. I would guess that most of us are only familiar with a handful of ingredients, and can only prepare a handful of dishes using a handful of cooking techniques. (I'm going by my own experience, here: my non-dessert modes are limited to "steam," "boil," "fry" and "eat raw.") Junk-food companies are allowed to advertise more or less anything as "food." Beyond cookout fare and soul food, we don't really have a proper food culture at all, and I think that's horribly sad.

I know that this post is not covering any new ground. All these points have been made a million times (notably in French Women Don't Get Fat, which I think I put down because its suggestions seemed far too hard to follow). I was just struck by how dramatic the difference can be between top-quality ingredients well prepared and the processed stuff most restaurants will sell you.

I decided that this week, at least, I would try to move back towards high-quality ingredients and cooking at home. (I love eating out, and generally prefer it, but health food is not what you get at most restaurants around here.) Top-quality stuff seems really expensive, at first-- I just bought a carton of organic eggs for double what the regular ones cost. But when you think about what's necessary for survival, food is at the top of the list. I am hoping that eating more high-quality food is going to do me some good.