There’s an old Italian proverb that goes something like this: “It takes four men to dress a salad. A generous man for the olive oil, a miser for the vinegar, a wise man for the salt, and a patient man to toss the leaves.”
Wise words indeed, and they came to mind as I was lunching with friends at a hip Hampstead eatery recently. Basking in the current warm weather, I opted for the “Chicken, spiced prawn and mango salad with rocket, avocado, radishes and walnuts in a tequila-lime dressing.” All very pleasant, if a tad convoluted, but it brought up one of my pet peeves when it comes to salad; the tequila-lime concoction was less of a dressing than it was a deluge. So heavily dressed was this salad that the rocket had wilted and the avocado turned to mush. What should have been a bright, fresh combination of flavours and textures was dangerously close to being described as a slurry.
Now I must forthrightly state that when it comes to salads, I am more than a little particular, and opinionated. Not because I dislike them, not at all, but rather because I love them so much. From childhood I have always preferred sharp and salty flavours, and I am metabolically fortunate in that salad for me has never been a dietetic necessity, so I have always been free to confront a plateful of fresh raw leaves and veg (with or without a protein component) with unalloyed enthusiasm. Never for me that that wistful perusal of a menu followed by a forlorn “I’ll just have the salad.”
No, I adore them. From a green side salad (there is no better partner for a good steak or piece of fish, or in fact any grilled piece of flesh in my estimation) to a formally composed salad (like a Salade Nicoise) or even one thrown together for a solitary supper using the contents of my fridge, I happily subsist on salad a great deal of the time. Indeed my fridge is never without a couple of heads of Sweetheart Gem lettuce, some spring onions, and a jar of vinaigrette, so a simple green salad is always within easy reach for me. Hard-boil a couple of eggs and add them to the salad, and that’s a very pleasing dinner. I will also happily fry up mushrooms and chicken livers in a pan, drop them on some leaves, and then add a knife point of dijon mustard and a few drops of balsamic vinegar to the leftover oil and detritus in the pan to whisk together a warm dressing, and be even more thrilled with my dinner.
But when it comes to dressings for salads, I firmly believe that they should be what one would call “scant.” Let me be clear: whatever Julia Child may say in “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking”, a salad dressing is not a sauce, and nor does a salad require a sauce. A good fresh salad of leaves-or vegetables- or leaves and vegetables and meat- requires no more than a seasoning of dressing, something to lubricate slightly, and to point up the fresh flavours within the salad itself. If there are essential ingredients to dressing a salad well (and I’ll come to the rest of them), perhaps the most important ingredient is air.
A salad is by far best served by having a small amount of dressing applied, them patiently tossed through. And this is best done by clean hands. Lifting and turning the mix of salad components by hand once you’ve added a bit of the dressing ensures not only that said dressing is evenly distributed, but also that each component has room to breathe, and retain its own identity , it’s texture and taste. No bit of the salad should be left to wallow at the bottom of the bowl, drowning under the weight of oil and pickling in the acid hit of vinegar. The uber-reliable Delia Smith once noted that if you bring the salad leaves up the side of the bowl, there should not be a pool of dressing left at the bottom.
And Delia and I are by no means the first people to take this view. Not only is this a matter proverbial (see above), but Courtly tradition in Medieval France held that during banquets, the woman at the feast with the most beautiful hands should be the one to toss the salad. This at a time when salads were a relatively small component in a series of frequently grandiose dishes. Now, when salads can be an entire course, if not the entire meal, such delicacy is even more important.
The old adage of “less is more”, whether you attribute it to the poet Robert Browning or the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is rarely more apt than when it comes to the dressing of a salad. And this remains true even if you’re preparing a “composed” salad, by which I mean a salad that is not going to be served out of a big wooden bowl with matching wooden serving utensils, but rather one that is delicately arranged on a plate. Even then I firmly believe the various components should be dressed separately before that intricate arrangement takes place. I’d make a possible exception for, say, a salad of endives, pecans and pears with a blue cheese dressing, but that’s because the strong thick blue cheese dressing should be spooned in tiny dollops about the plate. The principle of sparsity still applies. Otherwise you’d only be able to taste the dressing, and the crisp bitterness of the endive against the the sweetness of the pears and the nuttiness of the pecans would be drowned in lactic goo.
Of course it’s not always the dressing that’s the problem. For someone who generally far prefers simple light vinaigrettes in a salad, I actually quite like a good blue cheese dressing. But please, add that dressing to the salad mentioned above, or use it on a salad with equally strong components like spinach or rocket, mushrooms, cauliflower, or cold rare roast beef. Give the dressing something to actually dress. Don’t pour it over a whacking great chunk of watery and flavourless iceberg lettuce and call it a salad. History doesn’t record who actually invented the inexplicably popular “Wedge” salad, but I strongly suspect that whichever nefarious individual was indeed responsible for that sham of a salad later went on to make a fortune selling property in the Everglades.
Blue Cheese dressing is about the only thick and “creamy” dressing I can usually bear on a salad. For the life of me I cannot understand the American love of drenching fresh crisp salad leaves and veg under a sloppy mountain of mayonnaise-based sludge, but then I’m usually horrified by the addition of mayonnaise to just about anything (excepting of course the “protein salads”, such as tuna, egg or chicken, or perhaps even a potato salad, but even then I have my reservations) in the salad realm. Mayonnaise, for me, adds a cloying sweetness to any salad, probably because it’s usually of the commercially produced variety. Yes, dressings should be flavoursome and interesting, and can even have a note of richness, but the dressing shouldn’t be the point of the salad. How anyone could take a lovely light salad and drown it under the particularly horrific Thousand Island Dressing is completely beyond me.
Not that I’m just bashing the US with my wooden salad spoon. The British approach to salad dressings is even more egregious. As a nation that inherently distrusts non-boiled green vegetables, their sole contribution to the panoply of salad dressing is the deeply sinister Salad Cream, which doesn’t even have a traditional provenance. It was created by Heinz in 1914, in their Harlesden laboratories, and if you’ve ever been to Harlesden you know that nothing good comes out of there. If you’ haven’t sampled Salad Cream on a salad, I urge you not to. Instead, imagine a thin, slimy, somewhat rancid mayonnaise, and then go reach for some virgin olive oil and and a good balsamic vinegar to restore you to your senses. And try not to buy a commercially made bottle of salad dressing ever again.
It’s those commercially produced dressings that really toss up the rage in my salad-loving heart. To me they always taste strange, if not downright repellently plastic. What on earth is the point of them? A longer shelf-life, thanks to added preservatives? Why, when oil, vinegar and salt are all completely natural preservatives themselves, and have been successfully used as such for thousands of years? Convenience? What exactly is inconvenient about making a salad dressing yourself? It’s not as if whipping up even a blue cheese dressing takes more than mere moments, or involves actually cooking. And making your basic vinaigrette is not even remotely complicated. It’s simply a matter of one part vinegar to three or four parts oil(depending on your taste), a healthy dash of salt, and perhaps a touch of mustard for warmth and to help it emulsify. You don’t even need fancy equipment. Just whisk it together in a bowl with a fork, or shake it together in the seal-able jar that will then happily contain it in your fridge (not that anything with a vinegar base actually requires refrigeration) for weeks to come. That is really all you need, and need do, for a delicious and appropriate dressing for almost any salad. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at a bottle of “premium” vinaigrette from a major supermarket. The third and fourth ingredients listed are water and sugar, neither of which have any place in a reputable vinaigrette.
As for those essential ingredients for that reputable vinaigrette, they’re pretty simple too, and needn’t be wildly expensive. Virgin ( or extra virgin) olive oil, or even rapeseed oil, and a decent vinegar are your basics. Now extra virgin olive, or the currently en vogue cold-pressed rapeseed oil ain’t cheap, but consider that you can make a vinaigrette in any size batch that you wish or require, and it lasts brilliantly. In addition, if you are making a large batch- or are feeling the budgetary pinch- the olive or rapeseed oil needn’t make up all of the oil content in your dressing. Just add enough so that the green peppery hit of olive oil comes through, and then bulk it out with a light, unflavoured vegetable oil. For example, if your batch requires a cup of oil, use a quarter cup of the expensive stuff, and for the other three quarters use a sunflower oil, or your basic rapeseed oil. In fact, here in the UK your generic “vegetable oil” is actually rapeseed. This little trick really comes in handy once you’ve branched out with your vinaigrette flavours and are using more expensive “novelty” oils, such as sesame, walnut, or hazelnut. In any event, that careful tossing of the salad means you use less of the dressing at any one time than you might think.
Your vinegar- or really, your acid- gives you even more room to manoeuvre. A red or white wine,cider or balsamic vinegar all work wonderfully in salad dressings. This just isn’t the time or place for white or malt vinegars,both of which are far too harsh and astringent. Balsamic vinegar in particular has been very popular, in fact ubiquitous, here in the UK ever since the not only uber-reliable but also uber-influential Delia Smith first began touting it on her cookery shows in the 90′s. Personally, I’m not that big a fan of balsamic vinaigrette on a green salad, but that’s just me. I find the underlying syrupy sweetness of the balsamic vinegar a bit invasive there, particularly when it’s used to dress the equally ubiquitous rocket. Where I do think balsamic vinegar comes into its own is when it’s dressing a salad that contains fruit, meat, or cheese. It partners beautifully with mozzarella, as well as peaches. It also is my vinegar of choice when I’m making a warm vinaigrette, such as the one I mentioned in my chicken liver and mushroom salad. The flavour of balsamic vinegar rounds out beautifully in response to heat.
And you don’t even need to rely solely on vinegars for that necessary acidity in a vinaigrette. Lemon juice- so long as it comes from lemons of the non-plastic variety, works equally well. Sometimes it even works better. A salad that has shrimp, or any seafood, or even chicken, actually tastes better when you replace the vinegar in the dressing with lemon juice. And a lemon vinaigrette on a simple green salad to partner a steak is simply divine.
I’ve mentioned potato salads only briefly, and pasta salads not all, because they’re a different kettle of, well, salad, from the raw and/or leafy variety. All I will say about dressing them well here is that the key to each is when you dress them, by which I mean whether their base ingredients are still hot. Now they may both be inherently starchy, but they should not be treated the same way. Dress potato salads when the potatoes are still warm, and some of the dressing will seep into the potatoes themselves, rendering the potatoes more flavoursome, and pleasantly softening their edges. But dress a pasta salad while it’s still hot, and it will turn the pasta mealy and slimy. Always, always rinse your pasta well under cold water and then drain completely dry before you dress it. This will also help the pasta salad keep longer in your fridge.
Well. I think I’ve tossed off enough opinions about dressing a salad here, and perhaps I’ve gone on at somewhat wilting length. But salads are important to me, not just because they are -or can be- delicious, but because they are- or can be- healthy too. Not only for those looking to “reduce”, but just as a fresh way to get those nutrient-packed raw vegetables into our diets. And though they didn’t invent the vinaigrette (oil and vinegar and salt have been dressing salads since at least Ancient Greece), the Italians with their proverbs and the French with their courtly traditions have been showing us how to properly dress these yummy and life-enhancing dishes ever since. Not that I can envision Marie Antoinette dispensing vinaigrette recipes to the French peasantry. In point of fact, she never advised them to eat cake either, but ruminations as to whether that lady got her just desserts are for another time.
I don’t know about you but I love chocolate mousse and there is no way to really do justice to it in a single day. So – if it’s all the same to you, I’ll be pondering it for a few days – long after this post is written and published.
But first – something I just found out. From the Culinary Institute of America (Associated Press 2003):
“Chocolate mousse, besides being delectable, also has a fascinating history. It was first known as “mayonnaise de chocolat” and, even more interesting, was invented by French post-Impressionist painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in the late 19th century.“
Who knew? Well, obviously the CIA and possible a few of the ‘steel trap minds of trivia’ among you. But I did not.
Other notable chocolate mousse facts and figures – apparently Julia Child had strong views on chocolate mousse as well. She made what has been described as “the perfect chocolate mousse” and points out in the “Mousse au Chocolat” episode of The French Chef – making mousse doesn’t just produce a great dessert – it is a gateway to key cooking techniques that form the basis of french cooking. That’s as may be, Julia but I’m just looking for dessert.
Julia Child’s Mousse au Chocolat
6 ounces (170g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 ounces (170g) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup (60ml) dark-brewed coffee
4 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup (170g), plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) dark rum
1 tablespoon (15ml) water
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat a saucepan one-third full with hot water, and in a bowl set on top, melt together the chocolate, butter and coffee, stirring over the barely simmering water, until smooth. Remove from heat.
Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside.
In a bowl large enough to nest securely on the saucepan of simmering water, whisk the yolks of the eggs with the 2/3 cup of sugar, rum, and water for about 3 minutes until the mixture is thick, like runny mayonnaise. (You can also use a handheld electric mixer.)
Remove from heat and place the bowl of whipped egg yolks within the bowl of ice water and beat until cool and thick, as shown in the photo above. Then fold the chocolate mixture into the egg yolks.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until frothy. Continue to beat until they start to hold their shape. Whip in the tablespoon of sugar and continue to beat until thick and shiny, but not completely stiff, then the vanilla.
Fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remainder of the whites just until incorporated, but don’t overdo it or the mousse will lose volume.
Transfer the mousse to a serving bowl or divide into serving dishes, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until firm.
Now, perfect chocolate mousse is all well and good but sometimes fast is better (because let’s face it – when we want chocolate, we generally want it NOW) and for fast, we turn to Nigella and her instant chocolate mousse.
Nigella’s Instant Chocolate Mousse
150 grams mini marshmallows (1 ½ cups)
50 grams soft butter (½ stick)
250 grams good dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids) chopped into small pieces (9 oz)
60 ml hot water (from a recently boiled kettle) (¼ cup)
284 ml double cream (1 cup heavy cream)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Put the marshmallows, butter, chocolate and water in a heavy-based saucepan.
Put the saucepan on the hob, over heat, though keep it fairly gentle, to melt the contents, stirring every now and again. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, whip the cream with the vanilla extract until thick, and then fold into the cooling chocolate mixture until you have a smooth, cohesive mixture.
Pour or scrape into 4 glasses or ramekins, about 175ml / ¾ cup each in capacity, or 6 smaller (125ml / ½ cup) ones, and chill until you want to eat. The sooner the better!
I have a vague recollection of trying to make chocolate mousse when I was in grade school but I swear all it was – was melted chocolate stirred into whipped cream spooned into cups and left in a fridge for a while. Does anyone still go such a basic route? I don’t think I was following a recipe – I might have been mimicking something I’d seen. I don’t recall it being HORRIBLE but then as long as it was chocolate, I’d have been happy.
I’m a firm believer that it’s important to appreciate the culinary tools and traits you inherit from your mother. You never know when they will come in handy. When it comes to tools, for example, I inherited from my mother some lovely serving ware, an excellent set of steak knives, and a hostess trolley. Though they have been well used by me in the past, the serving ware and steak knives are currently residing in storage. The hostess trolley, on the other hand, is currently serving as the desk on which I write this.
Now my mother was not the enthusiastic cook I am; that trait I inherited from my father, to whom I am also most grateful. It’s not that my mother was not a good cook, but she was not one who was happy to potter or experiment in the kitchen. She saved her culinary energies for the big events; for homecoming dinners when whichever one of us kids who had been away was back in the fold and expecting their favourite dinner. Her lasagne, the recipe of which came from an Italian friend she’d made in Nigeria of all places; her “Poor Man’s Stroganoff”, which was basically a beef stew with sour cream, bore little relation to the original flambeed Russian dish, and was all the better for it; or her chicken roasted in honey and butter, its skin rendered sweet and crisp and a dark burnished brown, hence its terribly un-PC nomenclature of “Chicken Othello“. She had her recipes for each of these and she stuck religiously to them, but if she was not an adventurous cook, she was a wonderfully reliable one. When she made your favourite dinner, it was always just as delicious and mothering as you’d needed it to be. Every time.
If my mother was not an adventurous cook, she was most certainly an adventurous eater. Like any of us she had her likes and dislikes , but she was always willing to at least try something new- unless of course it involved chocolate, her loathing of which was legendary. She was a bloomingly gorgeous teenager in Britain during WWII, and however arduous the food rationing may have been, it amuses me greatly now to know that no American GI brandishing a bar of Hershey’s finest ever got anywhere with her. And while I don’t loathe chocolate myself, something must have rubbed off on me because neither does it hold any actual appeal for me. A box of chocolates is not the way to my heart either.
As opposed to dis-likes, one fondness she did instill in me was for offal, most particularly kidneys and liver. She had the good sense to introduce them to me at an age when I was still too young to understand what biological purpose these organs served, or even that they were organs. I have a memory of being six years old and having a lunch of fried kidneys at home with my mother. I was probably ill again (I was a somewhat anemic child) and she thought they’d do me good. What I remember is finding them delicious, a strong taste for a young child, but delicious. She went on to introduce me to liver, and certainly on that score I’ve never looked back.
I simply adore liver. In a pate certainly, but even more so in its own right. It’s my go-to protein of choice when I’m recovering from a heavy night or just feeling run down. That sense of all that iron running through me after a good liver dinner makes me palpably stronger and more myself. Like Popeye and his spinach, I suppose.. But appreciate it though I do for its heartening qualities, I really just love it for its taste and texture. I am lucky in that I’ve been spared a childhood of hideously over-cooked liver in school lunchrooms, and I have the common sense to order it in a restaurant only where I am confident of the quality of the cooking, but I love it. I love the soft, mousse-like texture, and I adore the sweet ferrous tang of it.
One of the other advantages of liver is that, being offal, it’s cheap. Having often been in rather penurious circumstances I cook liver a lot, most particularly chicken livers. Just under a pound of chicken livers cost less than a pound at my local supermarket, and because liver does have a strong taste, you don’t need to have a great deal of it at any one sitting, so that pound (whichever way you calculate it) makes for up to three very satisfying suppers. By which I mean:
WARM CHICKEN LIVER AND MUSHROOM SALAD
This salad is perfect for winter months, and even more so for this time of year, when spring has not yet quite sprung, and yet you’re already yearning for lighter, leafier meals. It takes less than thirty minutes to prepare, and has the inherent airiness of a summer salad combined with the earthy strength of a winter stew. The ingredients are very few, and it also makes excellent use of that frequently abused condiment, balsamic vinegar.
You will need:
1 quarter of a medium red onion, sliced as thinly as you can manage
3-4 medium chestnut mushrooms, cut into quarters
4-5 chicken livers
1 small head of sweetheart gem lettuce, or heart of romaine ( or just leaves torn from a romaine) lettuce. (Spinach if you desire it, but I feel it takes the iron content into dangerously Hemingway-esque territory)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
croutons (totally optional, unless necessary if you just can’t go a meal without some sort of carb injection)
Salt and pepper to season.
First, place your sliced red onion in a small bowl (like a finger bowl) and sprinkle with the salt and sugar. Work them in with your fingers a bit to make sure the onion is evenly coated, then set aside. (You don’t have to do this step, but macerating the onion in this manner does take the acrid edge off even this mild alium, and also softens it texturally.)
Then heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a frying pan (of suitable size for your mushrooms and livers) to a medium heat and toss in the mushrooms. Give them an occasional stir and flip to make sure they fry on all sides.
While the mushrooms are frying, it’s time to deal with those chicken livers. Now depending on where you’ve purchased them, they may already be trimmed and denuded of excess blood. This is not usually the case for me as I get them in a little blood-soaked container that looks not unlike what I imagine Jeffrey Dahmer’s bathtub to have been. If you are less sanguine about this than I, then I can only suggest you consider the sexiness of Michael C. Hall as Dexter and unleash your own “dark passenger”. Or pretend that you’re Anthony Hopkins, and this next stage will net you an Oscar and several lucrative sequels. Because you do need to trim the bits of fat that cling to the livers. But I promise you that even if your reaction to viscera is, well, visceral, this takes mere moments.
Once the livers have been trimmed, pat them dry on kitchen towels. this is important, as otherwise once they hit the pan, there will be much spitting and a kitchen that will resemble a crime scene.
Now push the mushrooms to the side of the pan, add a bit more olive oil if necessary (mushrooms can soak it up), and lay the chicken livers in the pan. They’ll need about 3 minutes a side, and you’ll know when they’re ready to flip because you’ll either see little beads of blood popping up, or they will in fact flip up themselves. Don’t worry about this. Although the livers may appear to be victims desperately attempting to escape their fate, the relevant chickens are already dead. Once you’ve flipped the chicken livers, season them (and the mushrooms) with salt and pepper
While the chicken livers are frying, tear up your lettuce and scatter it on a plate. You can now scoop the mushrooms from the pan as the livers finish off, and scatter them over the lettuce. Then check your chicken livers. 3 minutes a side for each should be fine, but if you want to cut into one go right ahead. It should be decidedly pink in the middle. If this seems daunting, remember that they will continue to cook in the minute it takes to make the dressing, and then the further minute to carry the salad to the table. And you most certainly do not want your livers over-cooked and leathery.
So now the chicken livers are ready. Scoop them from the pan with a slotted spoon and scatter them also over the leaves. If you’re adding croutons. try to make sure the livers make contact. As they bleed their juices, the croutons will absorb and be scrumptious.
Lower the heat under the pan, a bit, add a bit more oil if necessary, then sprinkle a generous swig of the balsamic vinegar. Immediately add the dijon mustard and either swirl the pan, or use a whisk to make a quick sizzling emulsion. As soon as it’s combined, pour the dressing over the salad and then scatter over the red onion slices.
And enjoy. Your salad will be rich and unctuous to a degree, but also surprisingly light.
On a final note: If I appear to have taken undue delight in the gorier aspects of dealing with chicken livers, then that’s another trait I inherited from my mother. She was no sentimentalist, instead a lifelong devotee of “true crime”, and never one to, shall I say, rue the grue.
So here’s to you, Mom. I had this very salad for supper tonight, and I thought of you while I ate it, as I always do. Because amongst the many gifts you gave me, and beyond serving ware and hostess trollies and an appreciation of a good crime scene, you instilled in me a sense of adventure, both culinary and otherwise. And while I miss you, deeply, every day, I also thank you. Every day.
It’s Oscar time! And as I was deciding what snacks to lay in for the graveyard shift that is watching the Oscars live here in the UK, I got to pondering over the food movies I really love. Which slice of epicurean cinema has left me feeling the most pleasantly sated and lingered on the palate of my imagination the longest? What film would win my personal Food Movie Oscar?
Before I get to my nominees and winner, let me first make clear what the term “food movie” means to me. I define it as a film wherein food-how it’s prepared, how it’s eaten, and/or how it affects the characters- is a driving force in the film, both narratively and thematically. So that unfortunately excludes movies where food is featured heavily but rather tangentially really, hunger-inducing though they may be. Otherwise a lot of these movies would have made my list, movies like Woody Allen’s “Hannah And Her Sisters”, which features a series of delicious-looking Thanksgiving feasts, not to mention the efforts of the Stanislavski Catering Company. Or “The Big Chill”, which features the “throw it at a wall” method of testing the readiness of spaghetti alongside a lot more cooking and eating. Joan Crawford spends a lot of time in the kitchen in the fabulous noir “Mildred Pierce”, but this is a mother-daughter thriller. There are lots of delicious food moments in “Heartburn”, especially Carbonara in bed. I’m not always a fan of Martin Scorcese, but I do enjoy his evident appreciation for food in his films, most notably all the cooking that goes on throughout “Goodfellas”, from the hilariously delicious prison catering,to the absolutely yummy meal being prepared just as Ray Liotta is about to be get nabbed by the cops once and for all. Scorcese’s interminable “Ages And Ages Of Innocence”s is enlivened for me only by the incredibly elaborate banquets that pepper the film.
Now I realize that the definition of food movie that I’ve offered still leaves room for a very wide range of films, not least those involving cannibalism. After all, from “Soylent Green” to “Eating Raoul” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover”, man eating man has played quite a varied role in cinema. (It occurs to me as I mention “Soylent Green” that Charlton Heston spent a great deal of his career in the 60′s and 70′s receiving some nasty cultural shocks at the ends of his films.) But don’t get overly distressed; I have no intention of passing off either “Alive” or “C.H.U.D.” as food movies, whatever their relative merits.
So I suppose I’ve narrowed my definition a bit further: The five films that make my list of nominees, that truly moved me, are all about characters who cook, who express themselves sometimes entirely through food, whether they are home cooks or professionals, man or beast. Food- and the perils and sacrifices of its preparation- is the heart not only of these characters, but also of these films. So regretfully “Julie & Julia” doesn’t make my list. However much food and cooking appears in the film, it’s essentially a story about the writing of a book and the writing of a blog; food is really more of a means than the end. “Chocolat”, however beautifully made, also fails to make the cut. because although most of the film’s characters are transformed by chocolate, it’s really a story about a witch of sorts facing up to her nomadic nature. Plus I must admit to something of a bias: I personally don’t really care for chocolate. I wanted to edge “Sweeney Todd” on to my list of nominees, but although I adore the treacle-black satire inherent in the piece, that’s the gift of the far superior stage version. So no cannibalistic films make the cut. Likewise, I considered Morgan Spurlock’s fascinating documentary”Supersize Me”, but eventually rejected it. As scary and illuminating as his experiment with fast food was, I still think it was a fundamentally stupid thing to do.
So here, without further ado, are my nominees and personal winner for the Food Movie Oscar:
Big Night. (1996) Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s sad and tangy tortellino of a film about two brothers trying to keep their restaurant afloat in 1950′s New Jersey. Cooking is their life and their ambition, and the cooking on display is simply spectacular. The timpano at the film’s climax is an astounding culinary feat that reflects the layers of hope and artistry and determination that resound throughout the film, and the simple little omelet the brothers share at the end is simply heartbreaking. (Plus Stanley Tucci is briefly nude, which is pretty scrummy too. )
Like Water For Chocolate. (1992) Food is sex and love and desire and grief in this Mexican feast of magical realism. Her thwarted love for a man causes family cook Tita to season chicken with rose petals, causing insatiable lust, and a wedding cake with her tears, driving an entire wedding party to ruin. Beautifully sensuous and odd, this is one delectable melodrama wherein food is both a gift and a weapon.
Eat Drink Man Woman. (1994) Food is the what keeps families together and the expression of paternal love in this beautiful early film from Ang Lee. The story of a widowed senior chef who is losing his sense of taste as ha and his three increasingly wayward daughters navigate life in a changing Taiwan is like a perfect Chinese broth: light and clear, but surprisingly and warmingly complex and just a touch spicy.
Ratatouille. (2007) Disney does food deliciously in this utterly charming tale of a rat who dreams of being a great chef. Not only does the film take the care to get the food details right and nail the hectic atmosphere of a busy restaurant kitchen, but that climactic dish of the titular ratatouille is surprisingly moving. The message that anyone can be a great cook is delivered sweetly enough to get kids into the kitchen themselves.
And drum roll please for the final nominee, and my personal Food Movie Oscar Winner:
Babette’s Feast. (1987) Far and away the best film about the transformative power of cookery ever made, this Danish film is the slightest but most nourishing of tales. Two elderly sisters living in a remote and devoutly religious coastal community in 19th Century Denmark take in a Parisian refugee as their new housekeeper. She cooks for them for 14 quiet years, then one day learns she has won the french lottery. Instead of using her winnings to escape back to France, she uses the money to create an astounding feast for the sisters and their guests in thanks for them having taken her in so long ago. The resulting meal, exquisitely portrayed in both its preparation and consumption, brings love and light and life back to everyone who eats it. Simply and truly divine.
So there are my picks for the Food movie Oscar. Agree? Disagree? Think I may have made some egregious omissions or errors? We at Fabulous Foodie would love to hear your views.
by Patrick on February 22nd, 2014 3 Comments ·
While pondering what to have for lunch a while back, I chanced upon a discovery that has changed my life.
Faced with a loaf of homemade banana bread that needed to be eaten before it went stale, and some bacon that was also perilously close to expiry, I decided to combine the two for a sandwich. The result, a lightly toasted sweet, fruity and nutty sandwich with salty bacon cooked until just before crispness, was so mind-bogglingly delicious that I immediately made another. I had to be sure, you see, that my senses hadn’t been boggled along with my mind. I am more than happy to report that I was right the first time. So devoted am I now to the banana bread bacon sandwich that both items will appear in my kitchen with much greater frequency.
But here’s what got me thinking: While I was trying to decide whether or not to chance the sandwich, I decided to solicit opinions about it from my friends on a certain well-known social media website. My friends on this site are a fairly even split between Europeans and Americans.The results of my informal poll were very interesting, if not altogether surprising. My American friends voted unanimously for the sandwich combo, while most of my European friends were either aghast, or wondered if I had somehow become pregnant.
Now you could easily surmise that this is because banana bread is much more familiar to Americans, and because Americans have an almost unholy fascination with bacon that is unmatched across the pond. Of course Europeans also love bacon- they’re not insane- but the recognized social phenomenon of “Bacon Mania” that has been sweeping the US and Canada since the 1980s, wherein conventions are held and bacon is added to everything imaginable from chocolate to ice cream to whiskey, is regarded with raised eyebrows and slightly pursed lips at least here in the UK, where a more likely gastronomic credo would be “If it can’t outrun you, butter it.”
The American enthusiasm for bacon is unbridled, but so is the American enthusiasm for unlikely culinary combinations. And it’s an enthusiasm that goes beyond the merely personal and reaches out to the social, and, more importantly, commercial culinary realms. After all, we are each of us, regardless of our nationality, individuals with very specific personal tastes. And we have all happened upon our own delightful taste combinations. Driven by late night hunger, or perhaps a period of penury, we have all rummaged through our fridges and cupboards and come up with unexpectedly delicious concoctions of, say, eggs and Marmite, or maybe fish sticks and custard.
For the most part, however, we treat them as our own, to be jealously guarded or even perhaps kept shamefully hidden from public view. My impression is that this is more true here in Europe. Here, I find myself gauging the crowd for disapproval before I announce that I personally adore salt on mangoes, while in the US, such a comment would immediately elicit a stream of similar pronouncements regarding personal tastes from my friends, followed by a lively conversation about what other fruits might benefit from being salted. (It would also inevitably lead to an informal forum on whether or not mangoes would be improved by bacon. No doubt they would.)
Now of course in this day and age, when ordering a pizza here in the UK you can have whatever topping you like. From chorizo to tandoori chicken, all sorts of toppings that bear no cultural relation whatsoever to the traditional Italian pizza are on offer. But bear in mind that these “non-trad” toppings are brought to you by American pizza chains such as Domino’s or Pizza Hut. No traditional Italian pizzeria would deign to sully their product with such widely divergent flavours. The majority of Italians may be Catholic, but their culinary tastes are not. Instead it’s Americans who have, in their conjoined quests for new taste sensations and pleasing as many customers as possible, thrown cultural propriety out the kitchen window and begun stuffing pizza crusts with hot dogs.
But where does this American taste for unexpected flavour combinations and wildly mixed culinary references stem from? And is it always a good thing?
Well that American love for wacky and innovative taste sensations stems from two things: tradition, and a somewhat irreverent disposition toward taste, by which I mean taste with a capital “T”. The accusation is all too often leveled at Americans (and at Canadians too, but then they have a somewhat lower gastronomic world profile), that they have no sense of tradition. In fact the opposite is true. They have an abundance of traditions, all tumbled in the melting pot ( or as the historian Carl Neumann Degler more accurately put it, the salad bowl) of a country whose sense of identity is borne entirely out of exploration and the crashing together of often very culturally divergent immigrant populations. Americans from different national origins have held onto their traditions over the generations, but in living together for so long, and for the most part at such close quarters, they have been forced to encounter, to taste, and to season their own culinary traditions with others that run alongside them.
Consider the millions of immigrants pouring into the country through New York City over the last two hundred years, and the different smells and tastes that would have greeted them in the packed streets. The sheer imperative of hunger, combined with cost, would have driven them to try foods they’d never considered, or even encountered before. That experience has not so much trickled as gushed down through generations, so it’s easy to see why now at most mid-level restaurants, from chains like TGI Fridays and Hard Rock Cafe through to urban eateries, it’s not at all uncommon to see Chinese potstickers on the starters menu right next to Tex Mex nachos and Italian meatballs, and fettuccine Alfredo next to teriyaki salmon with bok choi on the mains. Your average American diner can go ’round the world in just three courses. That magpie approach to gastronomic cultural appropriation in turn frees a larger society to play with flavors and textures on a more basic level. If you can have sushi to start and follow it up with schnitzel, what’s to stop you playing with what constitutes savory and sweet, and when to have them? Why not have breakfast for dinner?
Therein lies a clear example of the difference in culinary approaches between the US and Europe. In the US, when you think of a “traditional” breakfast, you visualize pancakes and bacon doused with maple syrup. That’s a carb-loaded sweet meal with just a little salty hit. To flip the day and serve that meal for supper is something out of the ordinary. It’s a treat for kids of all ages because it’s fun. It’s a playful approach to dinner. The traditional British breakfast fry-up of eggs, beans, sausages (or bacon, of course), is a decidedly protein rich and savoury affair. Eggs aside, substitute any of those ingredients with chips, and you already have a very normal British dinner. Having breakfast for dinner here in the UK is not about flipping the day, but rather about raiding the fridge. It seems the French, Italians, and Spanish barely eat breakfast at all as they consider lunch to be more important, so a cup of coffee and a small pastry would hardly constitute dinner. They would also view that sweet and heavy American meal as being in rather poor taste, regardless of what time of day it was served.
And here’s where that “Taste” comes in (or goes out, depending on which side of the pond you’re eating from). Taste, as in matching suitable ingredients and cooking them the right way to make a meal that is both delicious and culturally correct, is born of tradition. Italian cuisine may be all about the ingredients and French cuisine may be all about the process, but they share that tradition, those generations of cooks preparing and perfecting the same meals over and over through the years until they become representative of each nation’s culture and food philosophy. Even the regional variations within those traditions are themselves micro-cosmically representative. Other European countries may not have the same global influence as France and Italy, but they all have their gastronomic signatures, from the British roast to the Spanish paella and the many and wondrous things the Germans do with sausages, and each of these dishes are also born out of jealously guarded traditions and have their rules and procedures. In Britain, for example, a Yorkshire pudding should only really be served with roast beef, and there had better be horseradish on the side. In Italy you mustn’t serve cheese with seafood. In both France and Italy, the salad comes after the main course, not before.
These rules don’t hold true in the US. There, Yorkshire puddings have evolved into popovers, which can be served with anything from a stew to a piece of baked chicken, shrimps are added to fettuccine Alfredo, and often the salad is the main course. The US after all, is the country that gave the world the salad bar, which, in giving diners the choice and ability to create the perfect salad of their choice, is the antithesis of the carefully composed classic salads of French and Italian cuisine. And that’s because serving the customer’s taste, rather than taste as a philosophy, is deeply ingrained in American commercial food culture. In the US, going to a restaurant and then ordering off-menu is completely acceptable, from “having it your way” at Burger King, up to the highest of high end eateries. While it must happen here in Europe, it’s not really a part of the restaurant culture. Why on earth would you go to a particular restaurant, and then not order any of the food they’re serving? It’s not that the dining customer isn’t respected in Europe, rather it’s that respecting the taste, the philosophy, of that given restaurant, is perhaps respected that little bit more.
Make no mistake. This American devotion to the customer’s tastes is by no means altruistic. It’s purely commercially driven in a country whose massive food industry feeds off the uniquely American avidity for food in all its forms. The business that wins in that environment, whether it be a restaurant or a snack food brand, or even a fruit supplier ,is not necessarily the business that offers the best, but rather the business that offers the most. For if there is a tradition that Americans can claim as their own, it is that of the hard cross-sell. A food industry that in 2012 was worth$1.3 trillion creates an extremely competitive environment, and Americans are constantly bombarded with pitches for new and wonderful flavors, and, more importantly, the many and varied uses for these new and wonderful flavours. And while we’re seeing this more and more on social media, it’s by no means something new. Think of Baskin Robbins’ 31 Flavors, around since 1945.
Many of my generation, including myself, had mothers who cooked from the philosophy of “101 Dinners to make with Campbell’s Cream Of Mushroom Soup.” The “57 Varieties” slogan for Heinz Food products predates the 20th Century by four years. Just have a look at this collection of mid-century recipes, all of which are derived from pitches for branded products, and many of which feature appalling uses for Lime Jell-O. And that yummy banana bread that started me off on this train of culinary pondering? It’s not born out of homespun American kitchen traditions, but is instead a direct result of banana bread recipes published in the 1930s by banana supply companies desperate to widen the market (and extend the shelf life) for their wares by putting over-ripe bananas to use.
With all this exhortation to try new and exciting food products and tastes, and to combine them in an almost infinite variety of ways, it’s not surprising that Americans can be seen to have a somewhat undisciplined approach to how they eat. The American need for a sense of bounty at the table, born as it was out of immigrant hunger, has morphed not only into vast portion sizes at almost any eatery, but also into all-you-can-eat offers and on in to bizarre (and frankly dangerous) food consumption challenges along the lines of “eat the entire cow and you get it free.” The American sense of play with food is not always a good thing at all. TV shows like “Man Vs Food” are frighteningly commonplace in a country with the worst obesity problem in the First World. Even if it’s not about eating the most food, but rather about ingesting the hottest chili or enduring brain freeze from ice cream, it appears that in America we have lost sight of food as nourishment and sustenance, but instead have turned it into something to be quite literally played with. If it seems like Europeans (and Asians, for that matter) can be too serious about their culinary heritage and how that’s evolving, it also seems like, when it comes to food, Americans aren’t serious enough.
Now I realize I’m making sweeping generalizations here. Of course there are millions of Americans who eat healthily and millions of Americans who stick rigidly to the culinary traditions into which they were born, just as there are millions of Europeans who are more than happy to experiment wildly, will cross cultural borders at the dinner table, or who have lost respect for what and how they are eating. The obesity epidemic is growing swiftly here too. Both continents have been driven by commercial pressures into a situation where, for the first time in history, the poor are fatter than the rich. Poverty-based malnutrition has found a new form.
And as for experimentation, the wonderfully playful new philosophy of Molecular Gastronomy is born from astoundingly creative European chefs like Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain, Rene Redzepi in Denmark, and of course our own Heston Blumenthal here in the UK. (Though it’s worth noting that Blumenthal’s approach to experimentation was a direct response to what he saw as a culinary culture grown increasingly hidebound.) And they are finding willing audiences for this philosophy in their home countries, unlike Wolfgang Puck, the legendary Austrian chef who found a home – and a market- for his philosophy of fusion cooking (matching Asian ingredients with European techniques) in the US in the 1970s. Indeed, at least here in Britain the Spanish chorizo is enjoying a nationwide craze not dissimilar to Bacon Mania, appearing in bolognese sauces, shepherd’s pies, and even chocolate bars.
But just as that current chorizo craze is but a blip in the history of a people who will inevitably return to their traditional shepherd’s pie or spaghetti bolognese, it’s hard to see how any European people will allow their gastronomic national tastes and rules to slip very far, just as it’s hard to see that the American propulsion towards new, and more, will ever slow down. Their motivations in regard to food are so inherently different, tied together by history though they are. Boiling them down to their most basic levels, consider the example of the Irish diaspora born from the Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1852. The Irish people had two choices: either to stay, and hang bitterly on, making the most of what little they had; or to get as far away, both physically and psychically, from that hunger, and never to encounter it again. So fully one quarter of the Irish population fled to America (somewhat ironic, when you remember that potatoes came from the Americas in the first place) and became Irish-Americans, born out of an ancient culture, yes, but now part of- and bearing new generations into-a larger heterogeneous culture whose binding force was that determination not to allow that hunger, that want of food, back into their lives. Underneath all the wacky flavors, the salad bars, and the pie-eating contests, the American sense of play with food is deadly serious. And the three quarters of the Irish population who stayed? Well they hung on, and starved, and starved again, and survived, and so learned to not only respect but to revere what food they had, and what they made of it. And culturally, that’s an extremely difficult heritage to let go of, or to be seen to disrespect.
Neither side of the Atlantic is entirely wrong-or right-here. It’s a basic tenet of cookery to learn and respect the rules before you break the rules. And where would we be at the table without culinary exploration? But using our sense as well as our senses is no bad thing either. I’m all for, and in fact ravingly evangelical about, people experimenting with their cooking, not to mention being at least willing to try new flavor combinations. I’m far less enthusiastic about new snack food sensations, or commercially driven fads. When visiting the US as a child, the bewildering array of potato chip flavors, and soda flavors, and packet sauce mixes that do it all for you in American supermarkets would dazzle me. Now, when I see British supermarkets looking just the same, I find it depressing. And I don’t want to eat sushi in Naples. One of the joys of traveling in Europe is that, both culturally and gastronomically, wherever you get to, you’re there and nowhere else. I certainly don’t want Europe to become like the US and stuff pizza crusts with hot dogs just as I don’t want the US to lose its sense of adventure and generosity.
So when I posit that Americans have more playful palates than Europeans, it’s neither a compliment nor criticism of either place. When I consider the history behind it, I have great respect and affection for both. The Briton in me will now have a cup of tea to celebrate that. The American in me will have that cup of tea alongside a banana bread and bacon sandwich.
Fabulous Foodie is owned and managed by Modern Parlance. Other parts of the Parlance Blog Empire include Greater Gotham, about life in New York, and Personal Parlance, wherein I muse at length about communications, language and misc. media.