Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hell in a Handbasket, Part II

Are we not going to hell in a handbasket? Is the internet not facilitating our decline? In this thoughtful article, we read of the cooking revolution taking place via sites like allrecipes.com and epicurious.com. And here the hoi polloi, the terrifying inexpert masses, indeed converge.

"Cheryl Lore of Asheville, N.C., an active member of Recipezaar for six years and now a leader of its beverages forum, said the Web site has encouraged her to explore ingredients and cuisines far beyond the Southern cooking she grew up with.

“A lot of people wouldn’t try something if other posters didn’t say, try this! It’s great!” Ms. Lore said of the site, known for its tightly knit international cooking communities. “You’ve got all their suggestions on what they added to make it even better. It’s like cooking with a friend.”

'I made grilled octopus not long ago,” she added, “and I had no idea how much I liked Lebanese food.'"

Such a comment warms the organic hearts of food snobs (full disclosure: me) everywhere. But Zanne Stewart, of Gourmet, laments the freewheeling attitude home cooks take toward recipes the Gourmet staff have extensively tested. “You see Emeril, the most genial guy in the world, making a U-turn in the middle of a recipe, and people think they should cook like that, too,” said Ms. Stewart of Gourmet. “They forget that he’s a highly trained chef.”

Well, they might forget until serving the altered dish and discovering it, far from the Bam! of television, inedible.

Then we have Debbie Wilemon:

"... an active member of Allrecipes, grew up in Virginia, and spent time in Arkansas and Texas before moving to Larkspur, Colo. Her cooking bears strong traces of her childhood.

'I like lots of flavor,' she said. 'If I’m going to take the time to cook something, it’s going to be good.' Her arsenal of favorite ingredients includes Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, Bolner’s Fiesta Fajita Seasoning and garlic powder. Ms. Wilemon said, 'When we grill a steak, we smear it with liquid smoke, unsalted Cavender’s, Fiesta Fajita, then a little garlic powder.'

Not surprisingly, perhaps, her recipe for chicken and dumplings also includes Cavender’s, Fiesta Fajita Seasoning and garlic powder."

Ouch. Ms. Wilemon is the sort of cook who, were she a reader, would upset Daniel Mendelsohn. Equally dismaying to the snobbish amongst us are the lovers of cheese, who plop it upon asparagus, caviar(!), and pan-fried romaine But the article's author, Celia Barbour, generously notes tastes are not quick to change, and that recipe tinkering existed long before the internet.

A century ago, people cooked badly. They read bad books, and made uneducated observations about them. Many lived without toilet paper. There was no penicillin. They could not opine broadly on a computerized forum.

Annie Dillard writes:

"There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it always has been..." (88)

______________________________

Last Friday the April issue of Gourmet arrived in the mail. April being a holy month, the magazine offers dinners for both Easter and Passover. All I know about Easter is that ham is traditional. But the Passover menu had me shrieking loudly enough to scare Kitty.

My objection, specifically, is to the gefilte fish recipe, tinkered with by New York-by-way-of-India chef Floyd Cardoz. Mr. Cardoz is something of a celebrity chef, owner of restaurant Tabla and author, with Gourmet writer Jane Daniels Lear, of cookbook One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors.

Let us digress a moment with a discussion of gefllte fish. Gefilte fish is like a quenelle--sort of a whitefish dumpling, bound with matzoh meal, poached in chicken broth. The classic recipe, taken here from Jennie Grossinger's The Art of Jewish Cooking, calls for whitefish, pike, carp, onion, water, carrot, ice water, sugar, and matzoh meal. You chop everything finely, add the carrots, then, with wet hand, form the mixture into balls. Over-handling produces hockey pucks. Jennie poached her gefilte fish in broth made from the heads and frames of her fish; my grandmother used chicken stock. Serve with horseradish.

That's about all the variation I've ever seen with gefilte fish. Maybe somebody bought red horseradish if the white was sold out--a common occurrence during Passover.

Today almost nobody makes real gefilte fish anymore. It can be purchased in glass jars. This should be avoided, as those who have never tasted the real thing will think the jarred stuff the real deal, and not very good. Or, for those who have tasted the real deal, jarred gefilte fish will make them recall the preparer, most likely dead, and then the person will suffer both the longing for the remembered dish and its maker.

It's a no-win proposition.

Enter Mr. Cardoz. His recipe for this traditional food calls for a fish stock using cloves, rosemary, and cilantro. The gefilte fish calls for scrod or hake, rather than whitefish or carp, lime zest, chives, more cilantro, egg, and black pepper. As if this weren't enough, the dish is set in a tomato base comprised of cumin, coriander, tumeric, cayenne, onion, ginger, garlic, and a plum tomato.

I'm certain the dish is excellent. But serving it under the auspices of "gefilte fish" is right up there with piling Boursin on caviar.

Hockeyman objected to my shrieks. What right had I to object to the above? Was I not a pork-eating, Catholic-marrying Jew? A staunch advocate of the new and improved? How could I defend my right to opine on the internet and then yell about an old recipe?

He's right. We all have our biases; some cannot endure the rise of critics everywhere. Others, the deracination of an ancient recipe already in danger of dying out. We all have our sticking points.

I engaged in a little daydreaming about who might prepare this strange gefilte fish. Surely not the handful of observant Jews who will slave over stoves this Passover. No gefilte fish with weird spices, no chipotle or coriander in the brisket. As for the mango chutney suggested as side dish, well, my grandmother is spinning. Mango chutney is great. Just not for the Passover seder. (The traditional meal and reading of the Haggadah, held during the first two nights of the weeklong holiday.)

What came to mind was a Ruth Reichl (Gourmet's editor) sort of person. A Jewish New Yorker, sophisticated, well traveled, a food snob extraordinaire, assimilated. A person who grew up with the old ways, who could tell you what the charoseth and hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water represented at the Passover table, a person who sat through the endless reading of the Haggadah, growing increasingly famished as the night wore on. A person who experienced his or her first moments of drunkenness quaffing the Manischiewitz when it was time to drink the wine. On an empty stomach.

But those days are gone, and the person who prepares this menu is unlikely to read through the entire Haggadah. Instead he or she invites some fellow urbane Jews to dinner, Jews who bring their goyishe spouses, perhaps an adopted child or two, people who won't miss the traditional, for they have transcended it. During the meal their blackberries will beep at them; a cell phone might ring. A lively discussion of the worst matzoh balls might ensue, for everyone has an ancient Aunt Minnie or Ida whose rubber matzoh balls became family lore.

Are we worse off, or better? We are both. Many of us--me, Mr. Mendelsohn, Zanne Stewart--have difficulty with this reality. We want certain things to remain untouched--our personal definitions of what is good, right, necessary. Yet we are pleased with the evolution of things less inimical to our existences. Or, worse, our relationships are mixed. I both loathe this computer and appreciate it deeply. I would vastly prefer to be writing books, spinning 20 lb paper through my mother's IBM Selectric II. But those days are gone, so I write here, and, amazingly, am read. For which I am grateful. The internet brings us too much information. We must sift, and rely upon ourselves to determine what is worthy of sustained attention. Liquid smoke or freshly ground coriander?

In the end, does it matter?

Annie Dillard: For the Time Being. New York: Knopf. 1999.

The Gourmet recipes appear on pages 130-131 of the April 2007 issue.

Jennie Grossinger: The Art of Jewish Cooking. New York: Bantam Books. 1958: page 38.

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