"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 22, 2019

Food, Fads, And Sous Vide–How Cooking Has Gone Way, Way Beyond Baroque

A colleague of my cousin Alfred recently bought a Garth X50-500 Outdoor Grill, light years from the rolled newspaper and briquette operation Uncle Harry used to grill the flank steak on Saturday afternoons.  The trick in those days was to soak the briquettes with just enough lighter fluid for them to light and then to let them burn to an ashy ember-like grey until the smell of gasoline and linotype was gone and the coals were red hot; then to dampen the flames that flared from the fat that dripped into the fire, to turn the steak every so often, eyeballing the doneness with a thought to thickness and spread; and never, ever to overcook it.

It was a guessing game at best.  Since the winds off the Farmington River could pick up unexpectedly; the steak might have a higher or lower percentage of fat; the amount of lighter fluid squeezed on the charcoal would vary with the steadiness, patience, and of course attentiveness of Uncle Harry who sometimes paid more attention to the Red Sox game on the radio than to the fire, no one knew exactly how the steak would turn out.

 Precision was never an issue nor was it ever expected.  Firing up the grill on Saturday afternoons was what one did in New Brighton summers and was as routine and predictable as the aphids on the tomato plants, the Japanese beetles on the roses, the sprinklers on the front lawn, the Sox game, and Uncle Harry’s flank steak.  Approval was measured not in the tenderness and succulence of the meat, the freshness of the corn on the cob, or the size of the tomatoes from Lavinia’s, but whether the familiar, indispensable elements of time, family, bushes, flowers, and trees and food were in place.

Image result for images 50s boys listening to radio sporetrs

When it was time to eat, the sprinklers turned off, the smaller children called, dried off and dressed; when the table was set, grace said, and the potato salad and corn passed around; and when Uncle Harry’s flank steak, sliced into perfect 4” slices, some medium but most well-done, looking delicious covered with gravy and garnished with sides of horseradish and mustard, was served, no one fussed about cuisson, architecture, or presentation.  There was milk for the children, Bud for the grown ups, nothing for Aunt Mary and Uncle Dave, and some Chianti for Harry, Leona, and Uncle Max.

So when Bill Mavis bought the Garth X50-500, Alfred wondered how this space-age, Star Wars-looking grill could possibly outdo Uncle Harry’s steaks; and even if it could, how would its user-friendly, plug-and-play operation ever replace the fond inaccuracies of Uncle Harry’s fire up, fire down, flip, baste, and serve London Broil? Or the Red Sox games? Or the distractions of the youngest cousins under the sprinklers?

Image result for images star wars space ship console

Nothing doing, said Bill, igniting his 500, calibrating it for meat thickness, porosity, salinity, weight, fat and water content, and desired doneness all of which were assessed by a battery of electronic sensors which, without jabbing the meat with thermometers or hygrometers, could determine to a hundredth degree of accuracy the relative importance of over 25 variables.  ‘Medium rare’ took on a whole new meaning with the 500.

There is an excellent steak house in Columbus, Mississippi not far out of town on the highway to Tupelo which serves only steak, baked potato, and salad.  The only choice is the doneness of the meat and the type of dressing on the salad.  ‘Rare’ has three options – warm on the inside; cool on the inside; or blackened on the outside and raw in the middle; and after tens of thousands of steaks cooked over hot wood fires summer and winter, there is no fuss, no bother, no pairings, and no sending back.  No one leaves Henry’s dissatisfied.

Image result for images steaks on a grill

So what has happened between Henry’s Steak House, Uncle Harry’s London Broil, and the Garth 500?

Bill Mavis said that steak was no test of the 500, but duck and especially ostrich was.  Anyone could cook a steak, and after enough martinis, no one would care much about cuisson and pairings; but duck was another story.  How many amateur chefs have overcooked duck breast, trusting an oven - even a modern, circulating, heat-distributing, convection oven – to produce the classic, rare, pinkish, succulent, tender meat, only to find a greyish, flaccid, insipid, fish-looking something come out of the oven?

Lamb was another case in point.  Most people of Alfred's generation grew up on leg of lamb baked to a shrivel, fatty, and served with green mint jelly; and no matter how they might revile this ‘Fifties’ roast, when they cooked it themselves, they could still not manage anything less than well-done.  However those who had moved beyond their mothers’ pot roasts and desiccated Sunday dinners, said Bill, appreciated the delicate precision of the 500 – lamb done exactly and precisely to an internal temperature of 142F, allowed to sit, managed by the 500 for no more than 12 minutes, sliced to a thinness of 1/4 inch, and served on a warming dish heated to 125F.

The 500 costs $8200, retail, next day delivery with a special sous vide accessory, and wi-fi enabled ‘cuisine curation’ monitor.  ‘Perfect meat every time’ is the company motto, and thousands of consumers have attested to the claim.  Cooking with the 500 is truly ‘not your father’s BBQ’.

All well and good. Technological advances are a result of consumer demand, and American consumers with money to spend on trips to Greece, Porsche SUVs, remodeled living rooms and bumped out decks-turned-conservatories; and still not having drawn down on a fraction of earned income and well-invested capital  would naturally turn to items such as the 500.

Alfred’s mother many years ago, tempted by late-night television ads, bought an all-purpose food processor, a machine not unlike the low-end Veg-O-Matic of the early 50s, which was promised to do everything – chop, dice, grate, puree, blend, and combine, saving hours of housework.  Of course to make any kind of use of a new food processor, one had to know what to do with finely julienned fennel, blended turnips and anise, spiced pureed carrots with ginger once they came out of the device; and Alfred’s mother knew nothing beyond pot roast, meatloaf, frozen peas, and mashed potatoes.

Image result for images veg-o-matic tv ads 50sw

‘Nonsense’, replied Bill Mavis ‘We have all evolved since then’, and, he implied could all do with the 500 – a combination of newly refined good taste and modern technology.

Perhaps.  Who wouldn’t want a steak done to perfection and even, possibly, pheasant or peacock?

But what about the other revolutionary advances in cuisine?  The‘Grilled Grouper with Uni and Beluga Caviar’, the offering at La Rotonde, the newest restaurant on the Washington DC Wharf, was certainly more than a few steps up from Mama’s meatloaf and pineapple. Or her all-day pot roast. Or liver and onions.  We had come a long way, Bill insisted, and that technology was part of the food revolution.

At the same time it seems that American cuisine, happily evolved from meat-and-potatoes, fried fish, and hamburgers to something far more elegant and sophisticated, has entered a Baroque phase.  Look at the offerings of the best San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. An entry from the menu of La Barracuda, a trendy new restaurant in West Los Angeles, suggests pieces of New Zealand lamb centered and encircled by infusions of sea grass, puree of Iowa sorrel, and ‘Lazy Susan’ Frenesi (an Artie Shaw-inspired medley of Cajun herbs and Brooklyn roots), and a dollop of ‘playful’ black beans-and-coriander.

And pairings? A Napa blend with hints of blackberry, elder, Sonora sage, shiitake, and Golden Delicious apples to match the taste of free-range  goats and geese, slowly cooked sous vide sounds right.

Could anything be more Rococo? And more remote and farther from the tastes of the three-job, Walmart greeter, Target checkout clerk - collards, grits, ground meat, side of mashed or sweet, bacon and corn syrup – than ever?

Image result for Images Walmart greeters

Food which has been ethically sourced, environmentally grown, designed, developed, and presented as high art and high culture is a plaything, a Rubik’s cube, an algorithm, and a flight of disposable income fancy.  Food is after all,  nourishment, and if handled properly and correctly can be delightful.  The ancient Romans understood this and created the ‘cuisine matrice’  - the mother of all Western cooking, the finely balanced sense of combination, complementarity, and uniqueness.

American cooking could have been as great as the great cuisines of Rome and its subsequent European derivatives if chefs had stuck to basics – the essential complementarity and fascinating contrast of tastes, texture, color, and flavor.  Yet it went Baroque before it had even gone through the Renaissance, the cart before the culinary horse.

How does it taste?This nostrum has always been the byword of cuisine, and while the French have gone overboard on architecture and presentation ( French pastries  look far better than they taste); and while California chefs have outdone each other on architecture , array, and display, few  people care much for such needless excess. There have been some resistance movements.  Some California restaurants have 'gone back to their roots', eschewed post-modernism and returned to old favorites prepared with care and particular attention to quality.

Yet the culinary world remains as divided as anything else in America - fey Coastal chefs and their Tiepolo ceiling creations on one end; the meat-and-potatoes, cornmeal-and-fatback, and fast food thousands who can afford little more on the other; and in the vast middle, a mess made of 'haute cuisine' - a scattering of a few bits and pieces of under-cooked vegetables and tough meat on a large plate dusted with salsify.

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Should one criticize or even laugh at the new owner of the 500? Or at the tacky cupcake, supreme taco, surf-and-beach offerings of LA? Or the San Francisco, Alice Waters-inspired five-course Redzepi seaweed ‘n’ fishy things menu at her latest restaurant? No.  This is America where things don’t last, where imitation is the rule, and while innovation is part of today, few care to which graveyard new ideas are buried.

Leave Bill Mavis alone with his grill. He will soon tire of the effort, return to comfort food like the rest of us, stop photographing every chop, duck slice, and swordfish steak that comes off the fire, and slow down to the pace of institutional retirement.  No matter how much Spring Gardens advertises their high-quality, California-inspired kitchen, serving two hundred old folks at five o'clock means steam trays.

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