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Ingredients, Preparation, and Enjoyment

August 1, 2018

Usually, I’m pretty consistent when it comes to my feelings on food. That said, there are some issues where I’ve changed course over time. Kraft macaroni and cheese is a notable one. At the beginning of the blog, I was all for it. Now, not so much.

Even after the brand had seemingly cleaned up its act a bit, they lost me and my children—who would have been the subsequent generation of potential consumers—with their shenanigans.

But yesterday, based on the picture of corn from Field Notes, an old issue raised its mangy head. And I can’t say for certain what side of the issue I’m on these days. Part of me wants to say both. But that feels like a cop out.

This is an old argument. I can’t find the original post, but I’m sure I wrote of the debates that Raf and I would have in our youth. I would claim that the very best fish was plucked from the water, cooked immediately, and served simply. Maybe even on the dock of a dingy marina. Raf insisted that was crap compared to something that was flown from halfway around the world, and cooked by some celebrated chef with a complex preparation, and presented in a fine dining room.

The debate is really about which factor is more critical, the integrity of the ingredients or the skill of the chef.

When it comes to fish, I think I would still rather have something plucked from the water, grilled over wood, and drizzled with fragrant olive oil, fresh lemon, and flaky salt, than anything fancier. But that is also gorgeous to look at. You have the contrast of the char, the cooked flesh, and the golden oil.

Beyond fish, at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters and her crew would famously serve for dessert one perfect peach on a literal pedestal. I never ordered it, opting for some other choice that was a bit more composed. But I always admired the gumption.

For the record though, I’ve always struggled to pick out perfect peaches. There was a real added value to having an expert make the selection for me. Because eating a ripe, juicy, peach is one of life’s great pleasures.

Oddly, when Raf and I debated, we never seemed to land on the compromise of a chef who did both. You know, someone who used the very best ingredients and still fussed over them with a more complicated preparation. Perhaps this can be written off to the exuberance of youth, and its way of seeing the world in black and white. As we get older, it’s clear how many shade of gray shape our life’s experiences.

In the past, I might have argued that manipulating superior ingredients was unnecessary, but for a spell I was also against using super premium spirits to make incredible mixed drinks. That was, until I started enjoying cocktails that called for spirits like the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. And these days, we can go through bottles of Green Chartreuse are Luxardo Maraschino in short order.

Let me tell you, drinks made from better spirits make for better cocktails. At least up to a point. Just don’t ask me where that point is unless you want another few hundred words on the matter.

The bottom line is that this is a false dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between incredible ingredients and skilled preparation. You can have both. And it’s not an insult to great ingredients to do things that make them even tastier. Because when you start with something better, you end with something better.

Slowly, but surely, I seem to be diverging from the path of the purist. But I think I’m okay with that.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 1, 2018 11:31 am

    This is the first time I have disagreed with Raf. A hallmark of a good chef is that she/he is able to work with what is available.

    As to the Frog Hollow peaches on the table at Chez Panisse, I’visited the farm and it really is like the Kobe beef of stone fruit… Farmer Al hand-massages every tree, so to speak. But you can get the same effect cheaper by asking him to pick you out a specimen in his stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. He’s the old guy in the bib overalls.

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