The Dawn of the Century of Food

Everybody who gets up on a soapbox at some point needs to make a ritual declaration by finishing the sentence: “The twenty-first century will be about ________.” We’ve heard pronouncements from various gurus that the blank should be filled with 1) China, 2) Chindia, 3) BRIC nations 4) Global warming, 5) Terror, 6) Right-brained thinking, 7) Wisdom (the logic being “something that tops the age of information”) 8 ) Non-profits, 9) Multinationals 10) The aging global population. They are all wrong, and I know what I am talking about because my middle name is actually Guru. The twenty-first century will be about food. It will be a century of amazing progress. All aspects of humanity’s engagement of food: its culture, ethics, taste, healthfulness and philosophy, will get better. And it will all be in large part due to a revolution being ushered in by that much-maligned technology, television.

Rather superficially, Slate labeled the Food Network the new MTV. That (by valid inference) is the understatement of the century. Food Network is the bleeding edge of the a global cultural revolution. Here is how it is playing out and elevating the entire human race.

I am writing this dazed by the single best hour of television I have ever watched. The second episode of the new show Kitchen Nightmares, featuring the foul-mouthed chef with the golden heart, Gordon Ramsey. The show is about Ramsey turning around restaurants in deep deep trouble, and even all the signs of invisible scripting cannot hide the fact that finally, the reality TV movement has produced an actual reality show, and is teaching us something outside the Discovery channel. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Food and I

I am the sort of guy people suspect of doing nothing besides playing games with abstractions and blogging all day. But one area where I am undeniably an enthusiastic doer is cooking. Here is a picture of some pretty good alu gobi I made recently. In fact when I started this blog, I almost made it about food and cooking until I realized I wasn’t that good.

Alu Gobi

A Short History of Food

The history of food begins on October 10, 1993. Everything that came before is prehistory. On that day, the first episode of Iron Chef aired in Japan. On that day, the mass of humanity, beyond a few elite culinary masters, finally began to understand the stuff it had been shoving into its collective mouth since Fred Flintstone.

It wasn’t sudden; more a creeping movement that built up momentum inexorably towards a tipping point. That tipping point, I will declare officially, arrived with the premiere of Kitchen Nightmares in America last week. From now on, great chefs will join great artists, scientists, philosophers and writers as exemplifying the best humanity can produce. So here is a very short history-in-highlights:

  1. Oct 10, 1993: Iron Chef airs in Japan. Even for that country of tea-ceremony aesthetes and the food of philosophers (sushi), the show is a moment of enlightenment. No longer is food about recipes, taste or nutritional content. It is about art, improvisation, skill, philosophy and thinking.
  2. Nov 23, 1993: The Food Network is founded. We don’t know it yet, but TV will never be the same again.
  3. September 1997: The culture of food acquires its first hard-thinking ethicist. Erik Marcus, the most disciplined thinker on animal agriculture, publishes Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating and gets started on a career thinking about food. He goes on to start and, unsatisfied with his first book, dives into deep research on the subject.
  4. July 7, 1999: Good Eats starring erudite polymath chef Alton Brown airs. To an audience dazzled by the artistry, stylization and right-brained beauty of Iron Chef, Alton Brown introduces a whole new world: one governed by the physics of heating and the chemistry of caramelization. The new culture’s yin and yang find each other.
  5. 2000: In a moment of cultural awakening for the entire world, the idea that food and its rituals can, and should, be sacred, appears in the global zeitgeist, as the two-match Iron Chef series between brash American Bobby Flay and Japanese classicist Masaharu Morimoto unfolds. A new age begins for the philosophy of food.
  6. 2004: Sensationalist, yet timely, Supersize Me sweeps America and brings the abstract arguments around obesity to life. Kitchen Nightmares airs in Britain.
  7. July 15, 2005: Erik Marcus publishes his tour de force, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money. Neither sensationalist nor preachy, and without either hysterics or the shoddy reasoning so typical of the movement, Erik paints a gripping picture of the enormous cruelty involved in the modern food industry, and with dispassionate passion, suggests a reasoned approach to dismantling the animal agriculture industry.
  8. October 17, 2006: Cornell food scientist Brian Wasnick publishes a penetrating popular account of the psychology of eating, Mindless Eating
  9. January 28, 2007: The other major contemporary thinker on food, Michael Pollan, writes the hugely popular article, Unhappy Meals, in the New York Times, the first highly visible challenge to decades of dominance by the vapid intellectual movement he dubs “nutritionism.”
  10. March 1, 2007: Bobby Flay, villain of the movement since the Iron Chef showdown, after being part of a series of indifferent prehistoric-style shows, finally rejoins the revolution as a hero with Throwdown with Bobby Flay, an education in call-response artistry that brings to food the sensibilities of classical Indian jugalbandi and Duelling Fiddles.
  11. June 19, 2007: Dinner Impossible airs, featuring the Eisenhower of cooking, Robert Irvine, teaching the world that cooking can be a rich, extended metaphor for every aspect of planning, logistics, scheduling, adaptation and orchestration. The way to learn how to change the world is to watch one man pull together a dinner for hundreds in just hours.
  12. Summer, 2007: The beginning of the end of the age of Barbie Doll food arrives, as heirloom tomatoes become the hottest vegetable in decades, providing testimony to the leap in sophistication made by the masses (Creative Commons picture).

    Heirloom tomatoes

  13. September 19, 2007: Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares hits American screens. The revolution has arrived. This revolution will be televised.

What the Future Holds

So why is food so important? Why is an evolution in our attitudes towards food a significant leap for humanity?

The answer is simple. It is something that gets at our very deepest nature. Only fighting for your life is more fundamental in Maslow’s hierarchy. Even sex is less fundamental. Elevating our discourses, and eventually our behaviors, around food, elevates humanity more than just about anything.

Food is also intimate and personal. We all eat, and mostly, we all enjoy eating. It can drive our moods. A fresh salad can elevate us, a greasy samosa can depress us. In the microcosm that is the kitchen, we can find metaphors for everything from war, to career planning to art. We can reconnect with nature through one of the last remaining channels.

The Dark and Gray Sides

There are people who hurt the revolution; people who do not belong in it. Some, like Two Fat Ladies, are fading into the obscurity they deserve. Others, like Sandra Lee, the villain responsible for the idea of Semi-Home Made, for all their money, are enjoying well-deserved obscurity in the shadow of giants like Gordon Ramsey. Included in the dark side are also such horrible things as the Food Pyramid and the Atkins diet.

Some are harmless, like the vapid, but entertaining Rachel Ray, and the blustery brand, Emeril. They belong in the gray zone. I’ll add to the gray zone, the entire dieting movement. Whether you count calories or Weight Watchers’ points, bean counting is a horrible way to relate to food. You need to relate to food aesthetically, ethically, philosophically and profoundly. Still, we haven’t yet found better ideas.

Freebie Idea

For years, I was developing an idea for a book called Zero-Recipe Cooking, which I envisioned as a book combining the aesthetics of raga with the mechanics of cooking, and getting away from that terrible industrial-age construct, the recipe. I wrote extensive notes, and even did two whole kitchen sessions, photographing my work in stages and writing raga-metaphor commentary around it.

But one fine day, I realized that I was neither a good enough cook, nor knowledgeable enough about raga, to do the job. It is still a phenomenal idea, and a guaranteed bestseller for anyone who can execute on the concept. If you think you can, I will give you the idea and all my notes, and help you write it.


Here is a picture of an improvised Ethiopean dinner my wife, Mee Yong, and I, made recently. Bon Appetit. Join the revolution!


(Erik Marcus told me he was covering this post in his latest podcast, so a hello to visitors from I write occasionally about food and related broader cultural themes, so if you’d like to be on the ribbonfarm mailing list drop me a line at, or just subscribe to the RSS feed.)

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I love the cookbook idea– maybe not the raga so much, but the abolition of recipes. There are a few cookbooks out there about improvisational cooking, but the focus is too much on revising recipes rather than on just cooking.

    What would be more effective would be live cooking classes. You can just take all of these participants and put them in a room with no recipes, just ingredients and say “cook something you’ve never cooked before.” The instructor can walk around and prevent disasters– or rather let the disasters happen and then help the participant learn from it. It would be liberating.

  2. and now cooking videogames for the wii too….

  3. hi i liked your commentary, it entertained me while my girlfriend showered.