The Digest

The Birthplace of Soy Sauce & Other News

19th May 2017

Words: James Hansen
Photograph: Tony Coolidge

Soy sauce production

Joining soy sauce in this week’s food writing digest: the dilemma of chef worship, the elusiveness of umami and the politics of food photography

We begin with Drew Magary sticking a fork into chef idolatry at Deadspin. The central tenet: the worship of chefs has created a self-serving, insular culinary dreamworld right at the top. Key quotations: “food can’t just be food”; “A lot of chefs are ASSHOLES1“; “Is the world really better off? Or is this a COLOSSAL circle jerk at a point in history where we can’t afford circle jerks?” It’s provocative, entertaining, and in some cases, right on the money; it’s also overwritten, self-indulgent, and in some cases, way, way off. If this reminds you of a tasting menu, go figure. What the piece really misses – and George Reynolds really hits – is that “Down With Worshipping People Who Are Bad At Their Job; Up With Worshipping People Who Are Good At Their Job” is a pretty healthy mantra; more pressingly for Magary’s piece, it’s the conversation buried within his searingly hot take. He even goes as far as to venerate the “the golden age of food”: a diffusion of cooking styles, techniques, and knowledge undoubtedly prompted – to an extent – by a greater attention to the art of the chef. Yes, there are bad chefs out there: you just won’t find them ruining your dinner surrounded by captive acolytes and HD cameras. Pair with our interview with Virgilio Martinez, one of those pesky chefs.

Over at 1843 Magazine we find Sybil Kapoor demystifying umami. Blending culinary history and chemistry with the fifth taste’s near ubiquity on modern menus, Kapoor surveys a broad terrain: Kikunae Ikeda, the scientist who first isolated the glutamate and aspartate which form the backbone of deep savouriness, sits alongside celebrated chef Shinobu Namae of L’Effervescence, Tokyo. Namae explains the Japanese approach to umami – layering of different types – as opposed to the European – intensification of flavour through reduction, exemplified by the “umami bomb”. Kapoor’s piece is sensitive to both the newcomer and the seasoned professional: an accessible, thoughtful survey. Pair with another: Deena Prichep looking at food’s relationship with medicine for NPR.

We continue with an enlightening snippet on the Po’Boy from The National Museum of African American History and Culture. The famous New Orleans sandwich – most commonly pairing fried seafood with a dressing, but sympathetic to variation – is an example of the foodways traced through African-American history. This particular sandwich stems from a bus conductors’ strike in 1929, created in solidarity with the streetcar workers; having developed into so many iterations since, its influence on the American cuisine of today evolves with every sandwich made.

Moving towards food on film, it’s fitting that we follow umami with soy sauce, with a documentary from Mile Nagaoka (found via Kottke). Its subject is Yuasa Town, in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan – the birthplace of soy sauce. Capturing the fine details of miso production in a series of beautifully framed shots with an informative – and soothing – voiceover, Nagaoka has interwoven the history of soy with that of Yuasa itself: a metropolitan angle on terroir. When we learn that production began here owing to a supply of crystal-clear spring water, this sense of place grows stronger: as the final shot tracks a delivery van leaving the factory overhead, it is irresistible.

Words and images collide to round off the week. Tom Seymour interviews Susan Bright for British Photography Journal, exploring the sociology behind food photography. Exploring photography as a means of combatting gender stereotypes in the kitchen, Bright articulates the political and personal resonances of what happens when we take pictures of our food – or someone else does it for us. Punctuated and bookended by numerous stunning archive images, from large-scale gatherings to the tiny details in a drop of milk, Bright is alive to the intersections of food, exploring how the traditions embedded in cookbooks of old still make themselves felt in the Instagram age.


  1. CAPS author’s own

Posted 19th May 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen
Photograph: Tony Coolidge

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