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Posts Tagged ‘eat pray love’

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Help me out here. Something’s not making sense to me, it hasn’t for a while, and I want to pick your collective brains to try to get back on the trail.

I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and ordered ‘carrot cake in a jar.’ It was a charming presentation, cake layered with icing, but the cake was dried out and the icing tasted like really sweet chemicals.

Last week I met a specialty foods store owner who apologized for the way some of his multi-grain loaves looked. The oven was acting up lately, he said, and was turning out loaves that were browning unevenly. None were burnt. He was just worried that I’d be upset that some parts of the loaf I’d bought were mahogany while others were tan.

Many local, hardworking farmers I know don’t set out produce that has so much as one flaw—a nick, natural russeting, a lopsided bottom—because they say the public won’t touch it. Some stores wax their organic apples to make them look more buy-worthy.

My favorite ice cream shop sells artificially dyed green chocolate chip mint ice cream. I asked the owner why he didn’t seek out a variety that didn’t, since I know they’re out there. He said he did, and set it out, ‘but no one wanted it. They won’t buy it if it’s not green.’

The affluent parents of the nursery schoolers I used to teach chose Go-Gurt—those brazenly colored tubes of chemicals—instead of pure yogurt for their kids’ lunches.

My local bakery makes luscious, three-layer chocolate cakes with Jamaican rum. But if one comes out of the oven with a crack across the top, no matter how slight, the proprietor doesn’t put it in the display case because she says it won’t sell.

Yet.

We pay top dollar for low-quality supermarket-made cakes, and we feed them to appreciative partygoers who gasp over the design but don’t pay attention to the flavor or to the fact that they are poking forkfuls of powdered head fake into their mouths.

We buy massive, brand new houses in developments in the middle of farmland, bells and whistles from the sun room to the butler’s pantry, but the basement floods as soon as it rains because when the mason was given instructions to make sure the foundation was tightly sealed, he just shrugged.

We spend $45 for a shower curtain at a big box store, so enamored with the cute embroidery at the base that we don’t actually FEEL the fabric to be sure it’s good quality, and it begins to fray after a month.

We pay six men to haul out the vintage cast iron clawfoot tub that came with the house, consistently holds its toasty water temperature for the length of time it takes to read Eat, Pray, Love, and has never leaked in all of its 80 years, then we install a five-figure plastic Jacuzzi (in ‘Creme Brulee’) whose finish begins to peel by the end of September. And after each use we see little pools of water at the corners.

So it goes.

What is UP with us? Why are we so preoccupied with perfection, even if it’s—absurdly clearly—just the look of perfection, a solar system’s throw from the real thing? Why don’t we see the manipulation that’s going on here?

And a more insidious thought comes to mind: If we DO see it, why don’t we give a flying Wallenda?

We used to care, I know we did. I have cookbooks that prove that people wanted, and ate, honest, delicious food made from real ingredients. I’ve seen old-time ads touting goods made with care and attention, with ‘family-owned’ splashed across them. But when I wrote for radio (18-35 demographic) a few years back I was told not to include ‘family-owned’ in my spots. ‘This generation doesn’t care about that,’ the head sales rep told me.

But I can’t shake the image—and the flavor—of farm-fresh chard so full of rainwater that it snaps apart when bent…of a funkily shaped Sugar Baby melon that’s so ripe that at the gentlest prick with the top of a chef’s knife it cracks and splits open in two on my counter top. Real tastes better than perfect.

I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for convenience; I’m not saying every restaurant serves chemicals for dessert (and to be fair, the carrot cake was at a chain restaurant, so I wasn’t exactly surprised); and I’m not saying there aren’t notable exceptions to what I’ve outlined here.

I’m saying there seems to me to be a dismaying prevalence of choosing fancied-up crap over quality, and it’s a behavior that does not seem to be changing. There have been staggeringly positive advances in the food industry; maybe we all just need time to appreciate foods grown and made with integrity over ‘perfection’, or eating locally and in season, or what have you. And there will always be those who don’t care what they buy or eat. I get that.

But barring those who don’t know better or don’t care, I’m wondering where our predilection for mindfully choosing crap over quality comes from, and when and how the change took place. Thoughts?

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Strong flavors, those that make the eyes water and taste buds go ker-POW—it’s rare that one appreciates them until adulthood. Some still don’t, even then. But for those of us who do, we crave them like we do oxygen.

Horseradish. Fresh lemon zest. Dark, bitter chocolate. Thick, Grade B maple syrup. Raw garlic. Mazi, the NJ-made piri piri pepper hot sauce I adore that’s powered by 175,000 Scoville heat units. A little goes a long way, but what a way, baby.

What we eat can hold up a mirror to our private selves and reveal secrets we may or may not want others to see. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, was drinking black espresso in Italy when a passerby commented that her life must be very sweet if she likes her coffee so inky black. And it was true that her life was beginning to become very sweet indeed. Pair Liz up against a guest I saw on a talk show who, over the course of a few weeks, ate spoonfuls of sugar out of five pound bags until she emptied them. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, she wasn’t a sweet tooth. Not in the usual sense, anyway. No, she was working much too hard, doing much too much (sound familiar?). She was missing sweetness in her life. Once she made time for the things, and people, she had been neglecting, she lost the compulsion to snack on plain sugar.

What about the person who craves strong flavors? Maybe she grew up eating them in India or South America or Thailand, and they transport her back to home and family. Maybe enjoying them came later, as was the case for my uncle. Stationed in Texas years ago, he grew to adore that region’s cuisine. When he came back to NJ and made chili for his family, it was so spicy that my mom called it inedible. But he sure was happy with it.

Sometimes the love for those flavors goes deeper. I have a friend who was taught to distance himself from his feelings. But when he ate raw garlic or hot sauce it made him feel again; it was less the flavors than the hidden feelings he craved. And spicy food turned out to be one of the paths that brought him back to his emotions for good.

As for me, I had an ulcer about 10 years ago. While I never was crazy about strong flavors, I liked a little taste here and there. But when I was sick it was all off limits: no garlic or hot pepper flakes, no chocolate or citrus of any kind. A sad year or two went by like this, and I was surprised at how much I missed those awesome little bright spots in my food, how much I had taken them for granted.

Once I was healthy again, I embraced everything I had enjoyed in small amounts. But now I ate them in bigger amounts. Never one for Southeast Asian food or horseradish or anchovy, now I made a point to try them again…and loved them all. I’m not saying I’m glad I had the ulcer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t be eating Japanese-style wasabi with my salmon now if I hadn’t been denied it before.

I found the below recipe long ago. It’s often called Gentlemen’s Spread, but I like the original name: Scotch Woodcock. I love homey food from the UK, and this is currently my favorite.

When I first made this and took a bite, I actually started to laugh out loud at just how ridiculously luxurious it was. This serves one, but can easily be multiplied for more. Here we go.

Take out an egg and a small bowl and beat the egg with a fork. Then add a couple of tablespoons of milk (or cream, if you want to go nuts).

Toast a slice of bread and smear on some softened unsalted butter.

On top of that, spread three tablespoons of anchovy paste, either from a tube or from whole anchovies that you’ve blitzed in a little food processor. (Last time I made this I used too many anchovies and when I took a bite it felt like I had been hit in the face by several pounds of fish that had been saturated in salt and thrown at point-blank range out of a pickle bucket. I won’t do it again, but if you dig that sort of thing, by all means, enjoy.)

If you’re multiplying this recipe for a crowd and you have a warming oven, stick the buttered, anchovied toast in there now to keep it hot while you keep cooking.

Heat up a small pan with another pat of butter, and add your egg mixture. Stay with it and stir very, very gently with a fork. Actually, don’t stir it so much as push it around a little; the goal is to get it just barely cooked through.

Spread the eggs on top of the anchovy toast. You can get all fancy and add a couple of whole anchovies on top as I did above, or just get right in there.

Take a nice greedy bite. Just for a few seconds, let your whole world become that surprising, addictive combination of crunchy and creamy and rich and salty and fishy. Laugh if you’re compelled.

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