Everyone in my family is a good cook. All of the intimate women in my life have been good cooks. Whether this promoted or sustained the relationships, I'm not sure. I love to cook, and in my own messy, quirky, lusty way, I'm pretty good. But I'd rather watch, savor and eat.
If cooking is an art-form, which it is, then eating is more a craft. The artist designs and prepares and inspires and executes, the artisan savors and cuts and forks and consumes. It's always been that way and it always will be: a symbiotic relationship from the beginning of time, older than and as equally fulfilling as symbiotic sex and symbiotic war.
The art of cooking, like all other arts today, prospers from its elevation into a global cultural ether that spreads from the hills of Tuscany to the tondoori ovens of India to the tapas cantinas of Tierra del Fuego—and suffers, like all other arts today, from mass production, mass merchandising, mass massing of information, processes, and the volatility of random access memory, a mass amnesia of perspective, if you will.
We eat to survive and it's distasteful to keep talking about this as we stare at the millions of people around us who cannot cook or eat and may not live much longer. The art of cooking in Darfur and Somalia and a dozen other levels of hell is not only lost in the decay and destruction of lives, it is a fading memory.
In America, the art of cooking has nothing to do with survival—it's a key therapy in mental healthcare, it's entertainment. Americans do not eat to survive, they eat to consume, and they are, consumptive. But unlike the 19th century gaunt, withering-away image, American consumption is the 21st century bloat; its victims eat to get fat, diabetic, obese, fat.
In California, the art of cooking is in a perpetual 'giddy-up' phase, apparently driven by the flaming altar of change, but, really, it's all about identity—who am I? and who are you?—and marketing, mass marketing. It's called "nouvelle." Put pineapple on Bolgonese pizza, throw kiwi fruit in Vietnamese pho, add Mandy's Bel-Air organic, zen-zoftic bunched walla-walla onion tops to two cageless chicken eggs, sunny-side up: change, taste, what's old will never be new again, and what's new gets very old very quickly. Since there truly is no American cuisine and the art of cooking in the American home (which historically was more of an assemblage than an art) has become a culinary assembly line from microwave to garbage disposal, California nouvelle has galloped across the country and is accepted as another stripe and another star in the red, white&blue. Who am I? – who are you? – we are nouvelle americain and everything we need to savor, cut, fork and consume is right there on the shelves of the supermarket. Even in the Land of Culinary Nod, France, where nouvelle cuisine v. cuisine classique has a three-hundred year history of contention, nouvelle americain (read: california) floods the market shelves, seeps into restaurant kitchens, and makes French waiters less surly (but not less rude). I will not even begin to talk about the glory that was the Chinese art of cooking now that Mandy is shipping walla-wallas to Shanghai.
And so it is with tobacco. The art of smoking cigarettes is not the anathema it's made out to be. The biggest mistake I ever made was to quit smoking cigarettes and, even worse, exotic Brazilian Valencia cigars. For you who never acquired this addiction, move on. You'll never understand it. To you, it is a health catastrophe—it stinks and pollutes. All indeed true! To tobacco junkies and recovering addicts, it is a delusional demon that provides both cerebral music and the companionship of a physical rhythm that no drug, no food, no other physical activity, not even sex can provide. Not better, just unique. Not more fulfilling, just intimate, private, and sensually self-defining. Smoking marijuana is not smoking at all—it is inhaling a drug that alters your state of consciousness (or for many stoners their lack of consciousness). Smoking tobacco is smoking… it is the physical act that is sensually self-defining. It is an experience of art.
To you who live in the clean world, the smell, the taste, the health threat of tobacco is the Congo's echo crying: "the horror!" It is enough to drive you to exterminate every trace of smoke and everyone who blows it into the air. To us, the addicts, who also hear Conrad's song, "the horror" is the dream. It isn't the nicotine, which we now know is one of the most addictive substances one can ingest. If it were, we could simply chew the gum or lick the patch and live with you… smiling, secretly smiling. No, it's not just the drug, it's the physicality in the hands and fingers, between the lips, up the nose and above all, the waft of smoke that drifts and changes light, changes taste, changes smell, and is intricately woven into a thousand movements, thoughts, events. It is an experience of art. (witness: the Cinema of the 20th century).
Nothing, not cocaine nor opium or guns or fundamentalism or unsafe sex or global warming or child pornography or foreigners or aliens or skin color or obesity or old age or alcohol will ever approach the growing clamor that smoking cigarettes is the demon… and tobacco is the Anti-Christ. That's right, the horror, the antichrist. In the soon-to-come future, smoking will not only be totally banned, it will be bannered as the ultimate crime against the state, against humanity, against gods and goddesses everywhere. Punishible by death, smoking will be totally eradicated and every flake of tobacco with it. No longer a dream, no longer an experience of art. Gone with the wind.
And next: the cuisines of food, followed by sexual pleasure, perhaps. That's still a question. Without an after chunk of tobacco or a goodly slice of chocolate, what's to savor?
I point you to David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense, a beautifully crafted but seriously disturbing film about losing the arts of life. It fades to white before it fades to black.