“Third things are essential …, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a common place of ecstasy or contentment.”
-Donald Hall, “The Third Thing”
Food is often seen as simply a means to sustain one’s life, to give it the energy it needs to face the day. In contrast to this traditional way of thinking, there is much more power behind the kitchen than is commonly attributed to it. Food has the ability to tell stories of emotion, history, culture, language and above all beauty.
First, let’s discuss the emotional qualities of food. Again, most people don’t often recognize these powers in meals. However, food is significantly more expressive than this misconception. A simple example of this quality can be seen in the 2007 animated classic, Ratatouille. In the film, Anton Ego is a stern critic who is more skeptical of Linguini’s meal than Remy. Upon tasting, however, Ego is transported into his past, remembering his mother’s comforting love. The food evoked emotions of love, passion and comfort, reminding Ego of a fond memory he had lost in his he years of writing food.
This feature of food is not limited to fictional media; in fact, a three-star Michelin restaurant and a staple in the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, Alinea has harnessed this power in some of its best dishes. From a final course of caramelized corn to a puree of fries alongside wagyu A5 to the signature edible helium balloon, Alinea captures nostalgia and emotion in their dishes to formulate an expressive story. All three of these dishes take the customer back to a point in her life. Caramelized corn takes you back to a beloved childhood snack; the wagyu course evokes feelings of familiarity as well as elegance and perfection; the balloon is a physical and edible embodiment of playfulness, execution and a mysterious childish wonder. Food itself created these emotions.
However, it’s not just fine dining with these powers. So-called “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants are equally effective in utilizing the capabilities of the food. In fact, this food, when done right, is likely to be of the same quality as many fine restaurants; there is simply a different environment and culture surrounding them. Great food can come from anywhere, a truth made especially evident by Gusteau’s slogan, “Anyone Can Cook”.
With this background, we can now examine how the Vietnamese bánh mì. Taking the bánh mì sandwich as an example, it is particularly evident that food can tell stories of history and culture. In fact, bánh mì derives from French cuisine, adapted from French ingredients during and after the fall of French colonialism and Catholic missionaries throughout the 19th century. In this way, the evolution of the dish provides an examination of a general historical context. Food is, therefore, an excellent tool to tell these stories of history and culture, whether it is modernist fine dining or traditional presentations of humble but powerful ingredients.
All of this is undoubtedly beautiful. Food has an untold number of capacities. As an art form, it dismantles the language barrier and brings people together. Sharing meals connects people: it gives them a shared experience, a “third thing” as Donald Hall describes it in his essay of the same name. The food is elegant, graceful, binding, powerful, compelling, informative, dynamic and most of all beautiful. Food is art.