Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Rape of Flavor

The bubbles surround me like a stiff meringue. Their frothy foam sizzles and snaps in my ears and massages my pores as they release tiny molecules of coriander and mandarin orange essences. A friend once acutely observed, after visiting my bathroom, that all of my bath products are food-scented. Vanilla lotions, orange crème shampoo, cinnamon candles, and even coconut soap. Tonight, it smells like the Roger’s Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago - full of Indian spices and rosewater desserts. I am in the bathtub (as I have been for two previous hours) reading Ruth Reichl’s, Garlic and Sapphires. As I struggle through each page – telling myself that it’s not sweat dripping down my forehead – it is sheer excitement in every sentence.

Garlic and Sapphires is a memoir comprising the years of Reichl’s reign as restaurant critic for the New York Times. It begins with her rocky start, continues to her rise to acceptance, and includes all of the recipes and delicious memories to go with her visits to some of Manhattan’s finest dining establishments – and some of the worst.

Reichl brings up an interesting point – or perhaps I bring it up for her. What is the deal with all this frou-frou food? You know what I mean. Frou-frou food is food that supposedly showcases a chef’s abilities to juxtapose flavor into a complex kaleidoscope. It is food that generally carries with it a past-tense verb in its menu description (i.e. crusted, scented, and my favorite, truffled.) Ruth (I think that my sojourn through her culinary memoir has earned my right to call her that) mentions an asparagus-raisin sorbet at a place called Shin’s in Manhattan that even she (at the time, the food critic for the New York Times – possibly the most powerful food-related position in America – sorry Ducasse) wouldn’t order. Is anyone really ordering asparagus-raisin sorbet because ”ohmigod, it sounds soooo amazing”? No. We order it out of sick curiosity or pretentious faux-foodieism. Then we pray we didn’t just waste $15 on four pieces of that ubiquitous seared tuna and a generous (but calorie-less, and therefore worthless) helping of ginger foam.

What are these maple-ginger-crusted-citrus-marinated-rum-mascerated people trying to do? Who are they trying to impress? Does pushing the envelope in haute cuisine mean that you have to eliminate all inherent flavor from food? What happened to enhancing flavor instead of mish-mashing them? Why must we rape our food of its truth – drizzling it with soy reductions and annatto oil? What happened to honest food? Who wouldn’t rather pay for a perfect bourguignon instead of a slab of some mediocre sesame-crusted bullshit? And isn’t annatto what cheddar-makers use to dye their heinously-boring-fermented-cow-curd yellow?

Most unfortunately, vegetables are particularly prone to this kind of mastication. In recent years, vegetables have been transmogrified into unrecognizable chimaeras of their former selves. They have been foamed and pureed and even made into veggie-scented air. Virtually unknown vegetables have been made to look like (and taste like, most grievously) their better known (and therefore more highly marketable) cousins. Lightly perfumed and intoxicating celeriac is boiled into starchy molecules and then whipped into a pasty mess to resemble celery-flavored mashed potatoes. Tomatoes have been smoked flavorless and pureed into soups, garnished with something else that has been ravished of its true delicacy and honesty – vanilla foam.

Of course there is room for invention and innovation when it comes to the culinary arts. The ability of master chefs to mélange certain flavors into labyrinthine experiences with free-flowing flavors that emerge one after the other on the palate is a testament to the technical knowledge and fluency of a chef. However, undoing the flavor profile of a food to make it taste like something completely different than the truth of the food is an egregious mistake and robs credit from the food itself. Salmon should not taste like sake. Lobster should not be infused with chocolate. Avocados should not be foamed. And in no time or place, should asparagus and raisins be a sorbet.

Draft 1 of a longer article.

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