Sunday, November 15, 2020

From rags to riches – culinarily speaking


[Emperor with two servants*]

[Roasted chicken]
Apparently, life is dynamic not only for people but also for food, i.e., the status of given dish can radically change over time. For example, in a recent episode of Les Carnets de Julie, my favorite French culture and cooking show, the subject was poulet rôti, roasted chicken to the more proletariat among us. She recounted how the dish went from being a peasant dish to a royal delicacy through serendipity when the French king Henry IV (late 16th century) chanced to eat it at a peasant’s hut during a hunting expedition. He then insisted that his royal chefs prepare it for him. This led me to consider other foods that have risen in the world and now appear in the menus of the world’s fanciest restaurant (at equally fancy prices).

For starters, we will order some soup. The elegant diner has a delicious choice of French onion soup, Mexican tripe soup, bouillabaisse and gazpacho. Le soupe à l’oignon
uses the simplest of ingredients, specifically beef bone, onions, dry bread and a little cheese, items that even the poorest French peasant could attain, to create the tastiest and most satisfying of rainy-day soups, almost a meal in itself. The aunt of Louis XV supposedly prepared it for the King after a long day of hunting. Tripe soup, menudo in Mexico, is a folk recipe for dealing with hangovers and is eaten for breakfast by many Mexican-Americans. However, the long time required to prepare it and its exoticness make it a special dish on a restaurant menu. Bouillabaisse was originally a fish soup prepared by fishermen from whatever fish was not sold but today is a delicacy prepared from the finest fish and priced accordingly. Finally, gazpacho, a cold tomato and pepper soup, has long been a Spanish favorite, especially on those hot summer days. Today, it is served and relished in restaurants in much colder climates.

For the main course, many delicious items from the sea are available at a price of course. Scallops, known by the French as coquilles St. Jacques, were not considered a prime source of food for early New English settlers, whose descendants are now paying through the nose for that insult. Likewise, the Irish viewed oysters as food for the poor but were willing to walk long distances to attain them during the Great Potato Famine. Now they must work very hard to afford them. I must add that I had the extreme pleasure of eating two types of oysters at a Dublin restaurant, among the best I have ever eaten. I wish to thank my Irish colleague, Mr. Michael McCann, for treating me to them. He had no idea how much I enjoyed them. Shrimps, the stable of any respectable fish restaurant, was once used for fish bait. Calamari, a.k.a. squid, was once an inexpensive fish dish but, alas, but its price has increased with its adoption of an Italian name. Any of these working-class soups would be served at a fancy restaurant.

For those that prefer meat, our revolutionary menu features choucroute, frogs, snails, haggis and blood pudding, admittedly items not to everybody’s taste. The Alsatian highly valued plate of fermented cabbage and various preserved meats began its journey far away in China when some cabbages were simply forgotten.  Frogs were last resort of monks that were forbidden to eat meat because they were thought to be too fat but now are a rather pricy dish beyond the pocketbook of most churchmen. Snails was a high protein, low fat and easy access food commonly used eaten since prehistoric times. Now, they are a rarely eaten gourmet dish. Based on the principle of waste not, want not, Scottish haggis are a mixture of various internal organs, the taste of which can bring some Scottish to tears, whether out of pleasure or not. Those into extreme meat are willing to pay an arm and a leg to get their teeth into it. Likewise, why waste the blood when you use it produce a blood sausage or black pudding? The English seem to get great pleasure from it. I am not sure if it is available outside of the UK, however. These local meat dishes have acquired a world reputation.

To accompany our main course, why serve rice or potatoes when Jerusalem artichokes, polenta, quinoa, ratatouille or even truffles are available? Sun roots, as these special artichokes are called, originally came from North America (as did tobacco and syphilis) but was basically ignored there as they can cause extreme stomach distress. Curiously, European chefs love this vegetable and often offer it as an alternative to potato puree. Chacun à son gout. Polenta, a paste made originally from local grains and then from cornmeal when corn arrived in Europe, is considered an exotic side although its origins are very peasant. Quinoa is a more modern gold digger, beginning as a basic staple grain in the South America and becoming a star performer, especially among vegetarians due to its high protein levels. Ratatouille began its career as a course vegetable stew but became a Hollywood star. However, the crėme de la crėme of accompaniments, to the point of being a main dish in itself, is truffles, that incredibly expensive fungus, some 4000 EUR per kilo, that began as a seasonal gathering food among peasants. Money talks. These side dishes have much reason to feel proud.

To end the meal on a sweet note, the social riser restaurant can offer flan, bread pudding or chocolate. Flan, a crème caramel, appropriate in the finest restaurants, is the result of Roman attempts to find something to do with surplus eggs. Clearly, necessity is the mother of invention. By contrast, bread pudding combines old bread, milk and a fat to create a tasty sweet. Apparently, the sum is often greater than the individual parts. In a riches to rags to riches story, chocolate began as a tribute to the Aztec kings, was thrown away by European traders and again rose to the top of the chart among pâtissiers with a secure position for the foreseeable future. It deserves a sweet life after such an up and down life. Regardless of their journey, these deserts are finally enjoying the sweet life.

To paraphrase a well-known saying, one era’s staple is another era’s gourmet. These are just a short list of foods that have experienced an upward change in status. It would be only fair to discuss those that have fallen from favor (or is that flavor?) but that is the subject of another post. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed the menu.

* Always caption pictures to allow access to the blind. All pictures via Pixabay.

No comments:

Post a Comment