Colorado Cuisine: From Traditional Food to Porno-Molecular Gastronomy

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

Up next for the anthropologies #22 food issue, we have an essay by Fernando Valerio Holguín.*–R.A.

Introduction

According to the old German saying, “We are what we eat.” Therefore, many gastronomic stereotypes have come to describe people from various countries according to their food preferences.  For example, Italians are known as “macaroni”, English as “roast beef,” Belgians as “chip-eaters”, French as “frogs” and Germans as “krauts” (Fischler 1988: 279). The word ‘stereotype’ comes from the Greek, ‘stereos’: solid, and the French ‘type’: type, meaning “stereotype plate” or “image perpetuated without change” (Online Etymology Dictionary). As can be observed, some cultures reduce (and) locate other cultures by means of various gastronomic stereotypes. Hence, the ingestion of certain types of foods is what comes to define one’s culture.  This metonymic reduction (‘food’,(substituting) for ‘the diner’) is not free from disdain, scorn, or satire toward these respective cultures, and constitutes an expression of political power.

The question arises about the gastronomic stereotypes with respect to Americans, and specifically, Coloradoans. What is Colorado’s cuisine and thus, what is the culinary stereotype that defines Coloradoans? According to Linda Hayes, “We [Coloradoans] are known for our lamb, as well as wild game…” (Cited in Cross Castañeda xviii). If lamb defines Coloradoans, then should the Coloradoans be called “Lamb eaters?” My purpose in this article is to analyze Colorado’s gastronomic identity. Furthermore, I suggest that in addition to the traditional cuisine, over the last decade, international, vegetarian and molecular gastronomies, as well as cannabis, have been integrated into the Colorado cuisine, making it one of the most diverse gastronomies in the United States. More even than (simply) the different types of food – which can be found alone or in combination in other states of the American Union, what makes the gastronomy of Colorado unique is the co-existence and varying combination  of all the types of cooking already mentioned,  thus creating a century-old, multicultural gastronomic identity. There seems to be a discursive struggle of flavors and tastes that has affected the gastronomic identity of Coloradoans.

From the Gastronomical Lawless to the Cosmopolitan Foodies

Colorado’s cuisine belongs to the Southwest or Rocky Mountain gastronomic region. It can be defined as a hybrid between the colonial Spanish, Mexican, Native American and cowboy cuisines. Some of the ingredients that make up this cuisine include vegetables, wild game and chili. Among its most popular dishes are tacos, rice and beans, stuffed peppers, chimichangas, pozole, enchiladas, quesadillas, mountain oysters, chops, bacon-wrapped buffalo or lamb steak covered with wine or berry sauce, fish such as trout or bass, pecan-crusted venison, slow-roasted buffalo meat, patés, sausages and slow-cooked stews (Cross Castañeda 2006).

Coloradoans have created a century-old, multicultural gastronomic identity. In her article Colorado Cuisine is a Culinary Rodeo, Laura Shunk (2015) defines it as “Libertarian and lawless… Made without regard for authenticity or rules” (3). Moreover, she adds the following:

It’s a freakin’ culinary rodeo. And while I could predict that most menus will showcase farm-to-table vegetables, game meat and something spicy, I have no idea if those elements are going to show up in the form of Midwestern meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a fancified–and probably smothered–burrito or house-cured charcuterie and crudités (3).

Additionally, in the eyes of Shunk, Colorado’s cuisine defines the American Wild West experience: “Colorado cuisine pulls together defining elements of the American experience in this country – or at least the American experience in the Wild West – where pioneers abandoned what remained from European customs for libertarian lawlessness” (3).

Over time, Colorado’s gastronomic identity has undergone a transformation under the influence of international gastronomy. Nowadays, Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins could be considered to be among the ‘noteworthy’ gastronomic cities in the Southwest. You can find in these Colorado cities what are  known as “ethnic foods”, such as Ethiopian, German, French, Latin American, Japanese, and Italian. Denver, in particular, has lost its reputation of a “cow town” to become one of the most important cosmopolitan gastronomic cities in the Southwest. More recently, it has joined the list of cities that host molecular gastronomy restaurants. However, molecular gastronomy has not replaced the traditional and centennial Southwestern cuisine; both coexist on the state’s gastronomic map.

Colorado Cuisine: Struggle of Flavors

Food makes up an important factor in terms of building cultural identity in social practices through the “incorporation principle”, which connects the body with the external world through the mouth (Fischler 1988: 276-78). Fischler qualifies the incorporation of food substances as both “real” and “imaginary”, thus redefining the “We are what we eat” slogan. Additionally, she concedes: “Incorporation is also the basis of collective identity and, by the same token, of otherness. Food and cuisine are a quite central component of a sense of collective belonging” (278). Consequently, how do Coloradoans build their identity in relation to food (and its representation)? On the one hand, the image of the tough cowboy remains, the lawless Libertarian who incorporates the substances of the hunted animals (game meat) into his body; on the other hand, there coexists with this image, an alternate image of a Cosmopolitan foodie or a refined gourmand who frequents international, vanguard, molecular gastronomy restaurants. What this quandary suggests, together with other trends, is a struggle of flavors in Colorado. Besides the lawless libertarian and the molecular cuisine aficionados, there are people in Colorado who prefer junk food, others who are in the new movement of slow food, vegetarians (divided between vegans and fishetarians or pescatarians), the freegans, and the frugal health-focused eaters, sarcastically referred to as “granola people.” In addition to the former, we have to add those who experiment with cannabis cuisine. Should we call them “Cooking potheads?”

Any culinary preference implies an ideology expressed in a lifestyle and a discourse. Although various tendencies coexist, conflicts of discursive character are manifest through colloquial phrases, jokes and recommendations regarding one’s health.  The main confrontation, I think, could come from the common front of the vegetarians and the “granola people,” who prefer a healthy diet based on organic products, against the libertarians and junk food consumers who incorporate in their bodies large quantities of cholesterol, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, and gluten, among other substances.

I am not sure where to locate cannabis cuisine, maybe it is the cuisine in-transit–between the lawless (due to the old prohibition) and the avant-garde experimentation. Another difference exists, between the healthy eaters, in general, and the molecular cooks, who consume harmful substances such as liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide. In the latter case, in order to get an artistic and philosophical image, the gourmet refinement would be accompanied by a high level of toxicity. In terms of drinks, a divide has also formed between local beer drinkers and molecular mixology fanatics. While some prefer homemade beers or local microbreweries, others favor molecular drinks such as cocktails with liquid nitrogen added for the purpose of creating smoke.

New elements that introduce changes in any system represent a threat, since they wreak havoc with our beliefs and values. Therefore, there exists an attitude of rejection of dietary changes through the use of pejorative phrases.  What is at stake in this apparently simple choice of flavors is an identity that is expressed in beliefs, lifestyles, politics, artistic sensibility, and ideologies. Molecular and cannabis gastronomies represent a threat to the libertarian lawless, who identify themselves with traditional food inherited from their ancestors, in which they can recognize themselves as inhabitants of Colorado or the Old Wild West, as is the case with those who, in junk foods such as the hamburger and the hot dog, see the essence of Americanism. On the other hand, some militant vegetarians and “granola people” see in molecular gastronomy only the incorporation of harmful substances into what they call the “temple” of the human body.

Since marijuana legalization in 2014, there has emerged in Colorado a series of gourmet dishes that range from cannabis-infused breads, butters, peanut brittles, brownies, chocolates, and cupcakes. Recently, Bon Appétit magazine has published an issue featuring an article on cannabis-inspired food, which has caused consternation if not outrage among conservative groups. Here, for example, is the response of a local reader directed to the editors of Bon Appétit: “You should be ashamed of yourself. . .  Definitely, I am ashamed of you. Here I spend my life trying to keep kids off drugs, trying to counter the misguided impression that marijuana abuse is harmless and you run an article about cannabis in cooking” (Quoted by Moulton 2014). There is an explicit attack in this quote that equates marijuana to other drugs, from a moral and health-conscious point of view.

Furthermore, porno-molecular consumers would be perceived as yuppies or snobs by the libertarian lawless. There is also a pornographic aspect in molecular gastronomy that comes from representing dishes as “glossily lush of voluptuous and sinful” (Magee 2007: 1), as opposed to the simple, real and puritan aspect of wild game dishes. Although molecular gastronomy is not new in Colorado, not until recently  has it risen to  prominence. Several schools in Boulder, such as Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, offer courses dedicated to this specialty. More recently, three restaurants serving molecular food have opened in Denver: 1515 Restaurant in Northwest Lodo, Palace Arms in Northwest Uptown, and Tables in Park Hill. Here is the description of the dishes served at 1515 restaurant lounge:

As soon as you sit down, charming waiters offer you a list of available contemporary cocktails, many of which are cooled with liquid nitrogen that creates a billowing smoke effect. Once you’ve had your fill of delicious chemically-precise alcoholic beverages, you can turn your eyes to the menu. You will find a slew of appealing appetizers and main dishes, including lamb sweetbreads showered in truffle powders and stylishly decorated with almond gelatin. Or you could decide to enjoy a tender New York Strip steak, prepared sous-vide and paired with delectable wild mushrooms (picked locally) and a variety of garnish.” (Auguste Scoffier School).

Molecular gastronomy relies on scientific methods, more specifically physical-chemical procedures, in order to prepare food. In the process, chemical substances are used and these include liquid nitrogen, titanium, carbon dioxide, sodium alginate (E401), chloride or calcium salt (E509), xanthan, agar-agar (E406), sodium citrate, silver dust, liquid titanium, diluted citric acid, and methylcellulose ( Casalins 2012).

Molecular gastronomy, also known as deconstructive, vanguard, conceptual, author, technical-conceptual or technical-emotional gastronomy, emerged in 1998 as part of the project by French chemist, Hervé This. It had already been conceptualized by the Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti from Oxford University, who, in 1969, at the famous conference “The Physicist in the Kitchen” said the following: “I think with great sadness about our civilization, while we measure the atmosphere’s temperature in Venus, we ignore the Celsius temperature of our soufflés” (Casalins 2012: 126). As can be seen, for Kurti there exists a disparity of knowledge between physics and gastronomy. Porno-molecular and cannabis cuisines have scandalized the simplicity and puritanism of some healthy eaters who consider their body as a “temple” that needs to be respected by not adding toxins.

Conclusion

As we have seen, over the last fifty years, Coloradoans have experienced a transformation in their gastronomy, ranging from the southwest traditional cuisine through cannabis cuisine, vegetarian, vegan, fishetarian and international cuisines, ending with molecular gastronomy. The question remains: What has been Coloradoans’ relation to these cuisine trends, and how have they rebuilt their gastronomic identity after the inclusion of these new foods? Currently, all these trends coexist in a struggle of flavors between different generations and lifestyles, from the most conservative in terms of food, to the most avant-garde. If Colorado cuisine has been traditionally a hybrid of colonial Spanish, Mexican, and cowboy and Native American, molecular cuisine has become a scandal due to what Richard Magee would denominate as “pornography” of the dishes and the toxicity of the chemical substances used in the preparation of the dishes. Both molecular and marijuana cuisines emphasize their reduction to the molecular –THC for cannabis cuisine. The same could potentially be said for “health-food” eaters in the emphasis on reducing certain specific constituents of food (e.g. cholesterol). This could be the main source of the threats and conflicts among Coloradoans.

*Fernando Valerio-Holguín is a Dominican poet, critic, and John N. Stern Distinguished Professor of Latin American Literature at Colorado State University. He has been invited to lecture and read poetry at universities and institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Oxford University, University of Antwerp, and the Library of Congress, among others. He has published extensively on Latin American and literature and culture, popular music, cinema, and gastronomy. He is the author of Poetics of Coldness: The Narrative of Virgilio Piñera, and Post-Modern Banality: Essays on Latin American Cultural Identity.

References

Auguste Scoffier School of Culinary Arts. 2014. Exploring the Molecular Gastronomy Scene Near Boulder. http://www.escoffier.edu/industry-news/exploring-the-molecular-gastronomy-scene-near-boulder/ accessed September 2, 2015.

Casalins, Eduardo. 2012. Cocina Molecular: Conceptos, Técnicas y Recetas. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Lea S. A. Cross Castañeda, Eliza
—–2006. Food Lover´s Guide To Colorado. Guildford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press.

Fischler, Claude. 1988. Food, Self and Identity. Social Science Information 27:275-293.

Magee, Richard M. 2007. Food Puritanism and Food Pornography: The Gourmet Semiotics of Martha and Nigella.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture.

Moulton, Rory. 2014. Cannabis Cuisine Takes Colorado with Gourmet Munchies, THC Sodas, Food-Pot Pairings.” Bon Appétit: Food+Culture. http://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/slideshow/cannabis-cuisine-colorado/?slide=2 accessed October 23, 2015.

Online Etymology Dictionary. www.etymonline.com accessed July 16, 2016.

Shunk, Laura. 2015. Colorado Cuisine is a Culinary Rodeo: Libertarian and Lawless.”            http://www.westword.com/restaurants/colorado-cuisine-is-a-culinary-rodeo-libertarian-and-lawless-5734955 accessed September 9, 2015.

Series Navigation<< Eating with Strangers: Bringing an Anthropological Perspective to the Table

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

Leave a Reply