My earliest memories are made of bones and eggs. My mother was a midnight cook who washed away the accumulated anxieties of her day in the vapors of stockpots. And if I woke and found her rattling around the steamy kitchen, she would sit me down to a slice of soft bread, spread with marrow scooped from a piece of beef shin. Add a sprinkling of salt and a hard-boiled egg. Who wouldn't go back to bed happy?
Both my parents were polyglot immigrants and avid cooks. You could trace their wanderings through the war-torn 20th century in the food on our table: here a wisp of Hungary, there a reminder of Russia-via-Romania, perhaps an exotic note from Turkey. And then, in exuberant America, a sudden overlay of suburban ambition when the Julia Child craze hit the country in the 1960s.
Food, in other words, is information, a text written in flavors, scents, and textures. If you want to learn about a foreign place, by all means visit the cathedral and museum. Then head straight to the fishmonger and the butcher. Go to the open-air market and jostle with the locals as they haggle over peppers, cheese, and fruit. Skip the hotel dining room and the fancy restaurant serving denatured versions of the local cuisine to tourists. Instead, slurp noodles at a stall, or check out the tiny kebab place down that alley. You can even gain insights into the life of a U.S. city from a quick tour of the supermarket, believe it or not. (They're not as homogenized as you might think.)
Food is also an expression of many of the things we admire and write about in this magazine. It's about the expertise and mastery that come from practicing stuff over and over until you get it right. I'm pretty proud of my 18-hour barbecued brisket, which is the product of about 10 years of trial and error and a garage full of grills and smokers. It's also about the fun of tackling something completely new. For St. Patrick's Day this year, my daughter and I cured our own corned beef. (It's astonishingly easy and good—you should try it.) And it's about cool new tools: One of my most eagerly anticipated recent acquisitions was, I kid you not, a sausage stuffer.
Our attitudes about food also reflect a fascinating paradox. There is nothing so intimate, nothing so culturally determined, and nothing so hard to change as our preferences for what we eat. Tell me what you had for dinner, and I'll tell you who you are. Yet at the same time, we're constantly on the lookout for something new, something different, something surprising. Think, for example, of what once passed for foreign food in much of the United States—something "continental," cream-sauced, and usually overcooked. Now, well, what's your pleasure? Piadina flatbreads from Emilia-Romagna? Masala dosa from South India? Shanghainese soup dumplings? How about Uighur hot pot?
All of that helps explain why, personal obsession aside, we chose to devote so much of this issue to food. You'll meet Homaro Cantu, the subject of this month's cover story by senior writer Jennifer Reingold. He's a mad scientist-chef who's using lasers, liquid nitrogen, and sheer wild inventiveness to challenge diners' basic assumptions about what constitutes food and cooking—and even what a fork can be. You'll also meet the folks who are trying to bring fancy food to the masses, 20,000 diners at a time. And you'll visit a company that's imposing data-driven discipline on the chaotic restaurant business.
The more we learned about Cantu and others, the more we realized they made for great Fast Company stories. They're artists, wizards, and problem solvers, and they're shaking up what has been a hidebound industry. Thanks to them, it's hard to imagine an arena of American culture that is seeing as much transformation these days. So if you have a taste for creative risk-taking, if you hunger for imagination and innovation, pull up a chair and dig in. There's lots of food for thought.
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A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.