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

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

What’s Wrong With A Good Pot Roast?–Diary Of A Foodie Who Finally Called It Quits

Billy Harkins grew up in a solidly American Midwestern, middle class home.  He grew up on a farm, milked the cows, mended fences, fed the chickens, said grace over every meal, and knew nothing much of the outside world.  Blanton, their town had a general store, fuel pump, hardware store, farm machinery outlet, and a luncheonette.  The Firsts Presbyterian Church  in New Philadelphia, not far from home, was  founded by a Pennsylvania minister who had a calling and built a small church no bigger than a tractor shed to serve families who had for too long been without close pastoral care.  Thanks to his friendly, sincere concern and unfeigned hospitality he attracted more and more farm families, and soon he was able to raise enough money to build a proper church with a parsonage, Bible study room, and steeple.  

Image result for Images Norman Rockwell Painting Thanksgiving Dinner. Size: 148 x 204. Source: artsandfacts.blogspot.com

A cousin Billy, an instructor at a small private school in Vermont, said on a recent visit home that Blanton resembled Grover’s Corners, the fictional town of Wilder’s Our Town; and indeed the comparison was right.  Blanton’s residents were just as friendly, respectful, hard-working, and congenial, but without the regrets and sadness of Grover’s Corners families who never realized the humanity and value of their lives until it was too late.  No, the people of Blanton were profoundly religious, patriotic, and very American and had no doubts whatsoever about the rightness and goodness of their lives.

Life in the Harkins household was as simple, congenial, and conservative as any in Blanton.  Breakfast was served at sunup, dinner at noon, and supper in the early evening.  Mrs. Harkins culled vegetables from her kitchen garden, gathered eggs from the roost, potatoes from the back forty, and game from the storage locker.  Every year her husband slaughtered a pig, and it was butchered, trimmed and frozen in the commercial freezer the Harkins shared with their neighbors.  She was an excellent cook and an even better baker, and Billy and his brothers looked forward to her cakes, brownies, and molasses cookies.

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The noontime meal was the principal meal of the day, but there was no lingering over it.  The pot roast, mashed potatoes, lima beans and snap peas, milk, and pudding were eaten quickly, for there was always work to do in the long afternoons ahead.  Supper was more leisurely, a real family time, time to talk about the crops, school, the new family in Slow Falls, and the weather.  Suppers were leftovers – warmed pot roast, steamed mashed potatoes, buttered vegetables and biscuits.  The meals never varied, and although there was some variety – chicken, pork, or beef; lima beans instead of snap peas; white bread instead of biscuits, and honey instead of butter – they were the same in proportion, category, and balance.  Billy’s mother was a big believer in The Basic Food Groups, and was sure to serve at least something from each one at every meal.

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It is hard to explain how a farm boy like Billy Harkins got a taste for gourmet food.  Most of this classmates trundled on to adulthood eating the same, predictable meals, never complaining or curious about the new cuisine.  Billy on the other hand, sensed that there was more to meat than pot roast, that vegetables did not have to be cooked until soft, that bread and gravy were not staples, and that canned soups were salty, gluey, pasty, and tasteless; or that canned peaches had no taste and thawed broccoli was limp, watery, and worthless.  Call it instinct – taste for and understanding of food is no different than artistic talent, an innate appreciation for form, movement, or color – or some random exposure to cuisine (a magazine in the dentist’s office, for example); but it was there.  By the time Billy was a young teenager, he not only found his mother’s cooking irritating, but his desire for a serious palate awakening insistent.

Billy was a good student, and as much as his parents would be unhappy at his remove, they knew that a good eastern school would be an opportunity not to be missed.  Thanks to an Ohio Scholarship set up by a wealthy alumni, one Ohioan per year was sent east, all expenses paid.

The cafeteria at his college was by no means gourmet but it wasn’t Ohio either; and Billy was exposed to new foods prepared in different ways.  Sauces, for example, were a novelty.  His mother’s meat-and-potatoes dinners were unadorned and ungarnished, simple affairs which, she said, ‘showed off’ the farm freshness of poultry, meat, and vegetables.  And most revealing of all were ethnic nights – Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food.  Compared to the real thing as Billy later found out, they were gloppy,  fatty concoctions, laden with sauce, salt, and garlic.  Spaghetti and meatballs was heavy, thick, and overpowering.  Sweet-and-Sour Pork was deep fried, laden with unused oil, sweetly gooey and treacly, and inedible.  Yet, at the same time, these dishes suggested what they could be.  The spices, all new to Billy, intimated some future use – some combination which complemented, added to, or enhanced.   He ate all that the cafeteria had to offer, ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining hall, tasted everything, wasted nothing, and took mental notes.

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Perhaps it was because of his artistic nature, his sensitivity, and his innate flamboyance, Billy became a foodie.  What had started at college matured at an exponential rate.  Before long he was nibbling at the outer fringes of the food culture, sampling wild sea oats, prairie grasses, and New Zealand periwinkles.  He took his inspiration from Rene Redzepi, five-star Danish chef known for his foraged cuisine.  Redzepi wandered the inlets, bays, and nooks of the Danish coast for unusual sea fare; culled and gathered much of the fauna that grew in seawater or in the brackish ponds nearby.  His presentation was equally unique and ‘foraged’.  He had an instinct for matching the food prepared with the design that surrounded it, combined with a flair for the unexpected bit of color, strands, or filaments that gave fancy to serious dishes.

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Billy spent a month at the California Culinary Institute in Napa to study with Bruno Felipe, a native Californian who learned from Alice Waters but who branched out creatively to innovate and enliven her delicious but often overly simple offerings.   Felipe was known for his food architecture – high, fanciful, delicately balanced creations that were reminiscent of Dale Chihuly’s blown glass creations.   His most famous was sea urchin roe secreted in a nest of crisped, marinated barley stems, hidden by a fragrance of fairy dust, wild mini-grains and peach morsels marinated in blackberry wine. The diner had to imagine what was underneath the spiraling, delicate tower, investigating, selecting, sampling until he got to the roe, nestled and secure well within.

Billy learned the art of ‘Culinary Fancy’, the trademark of Bruno Felipe, and although he had no intention of becoming a chef or restaurateur, he would simply delight in the joy of his own successes and the fanfare of presentation to his friends.

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Of course, he had overshot the fairway.  His friends, no matter how sophisticated were not up to the chase of hidden uni.  There were plenty of oohs and ahs at the presentation, but most guests were frustrated looking for what there was to eat.  The story of an American expatriate in India many years ago came to the mind of one guest.  After much searching and a lot of good luck, he had found artichokes in the Bombay market, and quickly told the cook to prepare them for lunch.   When he and his wife returned from swimming at Breach Candy hungry, and ready for the delightful delicacy of artichokes; but there in the kitchen, surrounded by artichoke leaves, hearts, and choke was the cook.  “Very sorry, Sahib, apologies, but cannot find what to eat”.  He smothered a laugh at the thought and at the delicately balanced ‘culinary tower’ of Billy Harkins.

Billy, disappointed and discouraged at the lack of awe and interest at his California Nouvelle Cuisine and Rene Redzepi foraging, turned to French haute cuisine. which had recently come under assault by the new generation of American chefs – like Billy - who wanted to dismantle the old, carefully blended, reduced, curated, subtlety of sauces.  He vowed to return to the cathedral of European cuisine – France – and learn the art of process, reduction, and reformation.  This style of cooking was nothing like he had done in California.  Whereas Redzepi and Bruno created by addition, the French created by assimilation and combination.  This classic French style, he found, was tedious in the extreme – reducing, adding, reducing, combining, reducing until the sauce was complete.  No one ingredient could ever be discerned, and this was the point.  It never should.

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So Billy went back home and tried out some of his new classic dishes on his friends; but they had become accustomed to the sharp edges of new American cuisine – the bite of pepper, the pungency of fermented sauces, the clear, unique taste of one thing, clams, sirloin, grouper, or leeks.

After forays into Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, and Dominican cooking; and experimental sallies of his own mixing and combining them, he woke up one day and longed for his mother’s pot roast.   Where had it gone?  Why wasn’t it on the menu of the five star restaurants he frequented?  How had it become the icon of bad Midwestern, tasteless farm cooking?  It was so tender, running with juices simmered for hours in the slow cooker and redolent of the carrots, turnips, and onions that went in the pot with it.  And why were buttered mashed potatoes so absurd? Or cobblers? Or biscuits and honey?

He found himself at his mother’s farm table, eating her famous pot roast, loving it, but making mental notes how he would ‘invigorate it’ – a bit of sage perhaps, a coulis of raspberries.  The damage had been done.  You can’t go home any more.  His palate had been irrevocably changed.  He was more at home with snipe and foraged edible bluebells than he was with home cooking.  So, because he was so convinced that further culinary adventures would only lead him into Rococo excesses, he decided to return, to move back through culinary time until he was back at his mother’s table as a child, eating pot roast, mashed potatoes and lima beans.  It was not regression, he convinced himself, but rediscovery – a culinary and mnemonic journey back home, worth the effort and the trip. 

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