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Marie Antoinette-ing Rural Food

August 2, 2009

I was just reading old posts over on Civil Eats, and found this one from back in January defending Alice Waters and her criticism of the inaugural dinners of the Obama family/administration. I must confess that I don’t much care for Ms. Waters. Sure, she has done great work in advancing the cause of fresh, seasonal, and local food, but she’s got a pretty elitist, pretentious tinge to her.

In reading the article, I came across this quote (defending the hoity-toity Waters pre-inaugural dinners):

It is easy to dismiss these green apple gelee and celery root remoulade glorified meals as oh so rococo and, to some cynics, a bit Marie Antoinette-ish, but at their heart (sunchoked if you will) there is substance to these dinners that can’t be blithely washed away with a decent bottle of ‘93 Hermitage.

I like that, “Marie Antoinette-ish.” Maybe I am a cynic, but after living for 23 years in the center of the North American continent and now living on the east coast only 60 or so miles from New York City, I can see the difference.

I wrote earlier about my distaste for the more elitist versions of “gourmets” and “gourmands.” A.k.a. “fancy” stuff.

To be fair, these people have been largely responsible for the revitalized interest in old-fashioned vegetables (kale, sunchokes, turnips, rutabagas, dandelion greens, parsnips, etc.) and in offal (hearts, kidneys, brains, various other “inedible” parts of animals), both of which are VERY rural in their origins.

But I also think that by glorifying these foods, they are kind of missing the point. Yes, shaved truffle and pink sea salt and turbinado sugar sometimes make things taste better, but by mixing truffle oil and, say, turnips, you’re not really honoring the heritage of either food. And really, are the turnips complimented and improved by the truffle oil? Or do you really just love the truffle oil?

Haute cuisine is to food very much like haute couture is to fashion: impossibly stylish, and sometimes very, very good, but more usually pretentious, outrageous, totally impractical, and more often than not, very, very bad.

Instead of “playing” at rural, local, and seasonal food – much like Marie Antoinette with her little “peasant” village played at being a dairy maid/shepherdess – Haute cuisine chefs and critics should focus on actually making a difference, instead of trying to make a name for themselves by jumping on the sustainable bandwagon.

Granted, there are some chefs, who mostly keep to themselves and their towns/regions, who truly love the simplicity and deliciousness of fresh, seasonal, locally and sustainably produced food. But they are not the ones you hear about.

Instead, you hear about Alice Waters, whose cookbooks contain “recipes” that read like this:

1 lb. washed organic baby spinach from the Sunnybrook Farm
6 brown and green speckled pasture-fed free range eggs from Chicks Dig Agricultural Laboratory
1 tablespoon imported truffle oil from the Chateau region of central France
1 teaspoon flaked pink sea salt from the Salton Sea
1 teaspoon freshly ground white peppercorns
1 tablespoon spring-produced free-range Jersey butter from the Cow-ton Organic Dairy

Place butter in a $500 vintage cast iron skillet from Northern Italy over medium heat until melted, but not browned. Add baby spinach and stir with a sustainably harvested bamboo spoon until wilted. Whisk eggs, salt, and pepper in a vintage yellowware mixing bowl until combined, pour into skillet. When eggs are half-cooked, drizzle with truffle oil then expertly fold/flip eggs in half to form an omlette.

Okay, maybe I got a teensy bit sarcastic there, but she really is a name dropper when it comes to her food (a good habit because it gets the names of those farms out there, a bad one because unless you live within 30 miles of Ms. Waters, who gives a flying f***?) and many of her recipes are ridiculously simplistic. I’m of the opinion that if you need a recipe to wilt some spinach (baby spinach, even!) and toss in some scrambled eggs, you probably shouldn’t be cooking without supervision.

And while I like cast iron and I love vintage stuff, that’s just me. If someone wants to use the enameled fry pan they’ve had since the ’70s or a brand new Rachel Ray (god help us) skillet and a plastic mixing bowl and a fork to whisk it, that’s up to them. And I think emphasizing certain unattainable things in her recipes, Ms. Waters makes ordinary people feel inadequate about their ingredients and kitchen tools.

“Oh my god! We don’t have any truffle oil! Bob! How can I make this omlette without the truffle oil?!”

“Well Doris, can’t we just go buy some truffle oil?”

“Good idea, honey! Let’s go!”


“Yes! The Joneses will be over in a half an hour!!!”

*drive to local Whole Foods*

“Oooh! Look Bob! Here it is!”

“Dear Lord, Doris! It’s $40 for that tiny little bottle?! That’s $5 an ounce!”

“But Bob, we HAVE to have it! Patty Jones was just RAVING about that cookbook she gave me! We have to do it like the recipe says! Or she’ll think I can’t cook!”

“Well Doris, you can’t cook.”

Lol. See what I mean? If Doris knew anything about food, she’d realize that the recipe was simply a spinach omlette, all gussied up to be something else. She’d also know that if she looked in her cupboard, she’d have a whole host of herbs and spices to jazz it up (I’m quite partial to dill weed and garlic myself) and probably a bit of cheese or leftover ham or sausage laying around, and maybe some zucchini exploding in her garden out back, or some ripe tomatoes sitting on the counter. And Patty Jones would be floored by the deliciousness of such a concoction that wasn’t in Ms. Waters’ cookbook.

Maybe this is what people mean when they talk about kitchen illiteracy. It’s not just for the lower-middle classes anymore, it’s for the upper classes, too (you know, the New Yorkers who store shoes or wineglasses in their ovens). Increasingly, it’s for everyone because since few people have the time, energy, or skills to cook anymore, their kids eat fast food, out of a box, and at restaurants. If no one teaches them (and people in my age group, too) how to cook, we’re going to have at least three generations of kitchen illiterate Americans. No one knows how to cook from scratch, creatively, and out of what you have anymore.

My beef with Alice is that rural cooks didn’t fuss about recipes for everyday cooking, just fancy holiday stuff and baking (which is where you really need to follow the recipe). They just worked with what they had on hand: the dry and canned goods in their pantries, the stored vegetables in the root cellar, the fresh stuff out of the garden, and the eggs and whole milk coming from the henhouse and the barn.

The most important thing about cooking is knowing what flavors work well together. For instance, truffle oil and sweet potatoes probably wouldn’t be so lovely together. But walnut oil and a few fresh pears might make a lovely salad. Or that a dish with tomatoes and raisins is going to be pretty gross (unless it’s a cake, then it might be lovely), but tomatoes and zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, onions, and/or green beans could be best buds.

There is something to be said for haute cuisine (and yes, I consider most of the New American movement to be “haute.” If you’re gonna charge $25 for a spinach omlette, that is.) in that it has trickled down into the households of ordinary people, encouraging them to try new things and think outside the box. But at a certain point, you have to stop following the “leaders” and come up with your own style, palate, and comfort level. It’s a lot like fashion actually, trying on lots of different things to see what styles and cuts you like, what colors work well on you (and what don’t), and what you’re comfortable in.

For instance, I have tried seafood, goat cheese, and spicy foods many times before and don’t like any of them (it helps that I am mildly allergic to shellfish and slightly more allergic to goat cheese), even though I would like to. Most people are shocked that I don’t like any of those things. But that’s just me. You have to find your own way in the kitchen.

There were several other back posts on Civil Eats about “eating down the fridge” and eating from your cupboards. I’ve been trying to do that lately: use up what I’ve got in the cupboards. It’s a good idea.

Tonight I’m going to take leftover chicken/zucchini/tomato bake and, with the help of a can of chickpeas and another can of tomatoes and a sliced onion or two, turn it into soup to serve with the crusty french bread I bought this morning. If I get ambitious this afternoon, I might make a blueberry/peach clafoutis with the local blueberries I bought (also this morning) and the southern peaches I got ($0.50/lb!) the other day. Or I might make local yellow plum clafoutis and do something else with the peaches and blueberries. We’ll see.

Another cool thing? I FINALLY found a source of non-ultra-pasteurized heavy cream!!! Adam’s sells an “old-fashioned” style. People out here are crazy for the ultra-pasteurization, which makes cream in particular more difficult to whip (it won’t stiffen correctly) and whole milk almost impossible to make yoghurt or cheese out of. If I weren’t out of sugar right now, I would try my hand at making homemade caramel or other recipes that call for heavy cream. I also need to use up the quart of buttermilk in my fridge. Eeek! Good thing that Joy the Baker insists it lasts weeks longer than the expiration date. 😀

But I digress. I think it’s time to go clean my kitchen, then read a book and listen to the rain.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. snapdragons permalink
    August 4, 2009 6:21 AM

    I particularly liked this entry from the Julie/Julia blog:

  2. vintagejenta permalink*
    August 5, 2009 6:32 AM

    Yay! Thanks, that was awesome! I actually picked up her book over a year ago on the cheap at B&N and loved it so much I read it three times, then gave it as a present to another foodie friend of mine.

    I will definitely have to read the rest of her blog!

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