Small Plates, Big Egos

We all have to eat, but do we have to obsess about it? Hell’s Kitchen is a top-ten, prime-time show, Ratatouille is teaching our kids to rhapsodize over crème brûlée, and the Food Network force-feeds us celebrity chefs 24/7. There’s a story going around about a teacher who asked her class to list words describing food and one young boy wrote, “Bam!” Supermarket delis boast bars dedicated to olives soaking in various seasoned brines and ultra-virgin oils. Don’t even get me started on Whole Foods’ organic hand-harvested herbs, artisanal gelato, and heritage livestock breeds. How did we scrape by in the days before avocado slicers and rainbow-colored peppercorns?

This food frenzy is affecting even sane people like my husband. Although he is generous with others, he’s a skinflint with himself, refusing to accept anything but a card for birthdays and holidays. The only loophole in his anti-consumption policy is cooking gadgetry. My last few presents to him have been a diamond-edged professional sharpener, a mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock, and an Italian espresso machine covered with enough gauges and dials and switches to make it look like a little cartoon atom smasher. Our kitchen layout is more elaborate than some of the greasy spoons where I used to waitress, with a knife drawer that would be the envy of surgeons from any of the local hospitals.

Of course, like so many others who collect gastronomical gadgetry, we’re usually too exhausted to cook dinner. So we’ll toss a pizza in our little specialized pizzeria oven—one of those suckers from Lunds, a “Chef Crafted!” morsel maybe twice the diameter of a hockey puck, dotted with baby artichokes and “rich, nutty Asiago.” It makes me feel a little rich and nutty myself.

It’s all so precious. Kind of a new-fangled eating disorder, you know? If you had told me ten years ago that I would be eating like a deranged fashionista, I would have put down my kielbasa, wiped my greasy maw with the back of my hand and said you were nuts. Obviously, I’m still not comfortable with it. If some guy at a party tells me the pinot grigio is awfully fruity, it’s hard not to snap, “Same back at ya, Alice.”

Nostalgia alert: reminiscences on How It Used To Be forthcoming. When I was a kid, growing up in a working-class neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side, having a spice rack with more than four little McCormick tins was hoity-toity. Gourmets lived in France. They ate crêpes, which was funny to say, and brie, a cheese that echoed their national character by being soft, pale, and runny. Here in America, if you wanted to get creative you’d find interesting things to do with a packet of onion soup mix. The East Side word for a guy who thought a lot about food was chowhound.

Mancini’s, on West Seventh Street in St. Paul, was the place to go for a fancy meal. It was a sprawling, bustling supper club that billed itself as a Char House and cooked your meal on giant, open charcoal grills. Anything other than beef or lobster on the menu was a misprint. This was the ’80s, but the food was unchanged from the days of tailfins and V-8 Oldsmobiles. Every neighborhood had its version of Mancini’s: Nye’s Polonaise Room, Jax Cafe, Little Jack’s, Murray’s, Caspers’ Cherokee Sirloin Rooms (“Steaks the Size of Idaho”), Lindey’s, the Manor, Kozlak’s, Jensen’s, the Hopkins House, the Carpenter’s Steak House. You’d go there for a big, burned piece of meat, demolish it, down a fishbowl of Johnny Walker, burp, and go home stuffed and content. These places were as honest and Midwestern as the Chicago stockyards.

The restaurants that get all the attention now are image-conscious temples of hipness, frequently raided by glamour vigilantes and given makeovers to keep them up-to-date. Which leads me to wonder if today a lot of us are using food to satisfy complicated emotional cravings. Plagued by economic insecurity and status anxiety? You could take a Prozac for that, but how about a twelve-dollar duck-breast spring roll instead? As you bite into it, your mouth tells your brain, “If we can afford to eat like this, we must have no money problems whatsoever.” It’s kind of like how wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt indicates you own polo ponies. Worried about your health and the ecosystem? You can save both with organic heirloom tomatoes.

But this behavior is placing demands on food that it can’t fulfill. Expecting a meal to cure alienation and boredom leads to mental malnutrition. Gourmets must be unhappy. They’re always on a quest for the next thrill. I’m content to remember the Embers.



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