Damned at the Table

In The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess refer to an article by Harriet Van Horne, “Edunt et Vomant” (“They have eaten and let them vomit.”), commenting on a 1975 fluff piece in the New York Times describing a dinner Craig Claiborne and his partner Pierre Franey had in Paris, a $4000 meal for two that featured 31 dishes and 9 wines. Meanwhile, as Claiborne and Franey were licking their decadent fingers, the rest of America was stewing in an economic recession.

Van Horne wrote, “No journalistic caprice has, in my memory, set off such a shudder of distaste. This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way.” The Hesses included Van Horne’s quote to further elaborate on the gourmet absurdities of the time which elevated overpriced, tasteless food, (canned foie gras, canned truffles, cottony chicken breasts in a floury velouté sauce) that were championed by those like Claiborne who lauded expense as a barometer of taste. The Vatican newspaper echoed, deploring the display while millions were starving. Paul VI “as a humble servant for a suffering humanity” demanded significant changes of the rich in America and Europe in favor of the poor, a plea the affluent either ignored or atoned with in pittances.

In the most general terms gluttony involves an over-indulgence and/or over-consumption of food, drink or intoxicants to the point of waste, particularly in terms of a misplaced desire of food or its withholding from the needy, an excess that’s damned by every spiritual path in the world in every quarter of the globe. European theologists from the Middle Ages took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it also consists of an anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies and costly foods, seeking after sauces and seasonings, and eating too eagerly. Gregory the Great described five ways by which one can commit the sin of gluttony, and corresponding biblical examples for each of them:

  1. Eating before the time of meals in order to satisfy the palate. Example: Jonathan eating a little honey when his father Saul commanded no food to be taken before the evening. [1Sa 14:29]
  2. Seeking delicacies and better quality of food to gratify the “vile sense of taste.” Example: When Israelites escaping from Egypt complained, “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,” God rained fowls for them to eat but punished them 500 years later. [Num 11:4]
  3. Seeking after sauces and seasonings for the enjoyment of the palate. Example: Two sons of Eli the high priest made the sacrificial meat to be cooked in one manner rather than another. They were met with death. [1Sa 4:11]
  4. Exceeding the necessary amount of food. Example: One of the sins of Sodom was “fullness of bread.” [Eze 16:49]
  5. Taking food with too much eagerness, even when eating the proper amount and even if the food is not luxurious. Example: Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that the “profane person . . . who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright,” we learn that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears.” [Gen 25:30]

In his Summa Theologica (Part 2-2, Question 148, Article 4), Thomas Aquinas revised the list of five ways to commit gluttony:

* Laute – eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
* Nimis – eating food that is excessive in quantity
* Studiose – eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
* Praepropere – eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
* Ardenter – eating too eagerly.

Aquinas notes that the first three ways are related to the nature of the food itself, while the last two have to do with the time or manner in which it is consumed. Even to the exclusion of these examples, which are admittedly rather fastidious themselves, we are all guilty of gluttony in our complacency as citizens of one of the most affluent nations in the history of human civilization.  We quaff fine wines, stuff ourselves with costly foods, watch celebrity chefs preparing dishes in a gladiatorial setting and sinners of an advanced degree sneer at those who eat off-cut chops, misshapen homegrown vegetables or don’t use Zanzibar cinnamon. Hunger itself has come to be seen as a sin, almost as an illness that needs treatment, but perhaps hunger might be more of a cure, a discipline for we who have grown too indulgent with ourselves.

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Potato Candy

“And now for something completely different!” This confection isn’t Irish, but comes from those clever people in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) where the traditional appearance of this candy on St. Patrick’s Day is considered a sign that spring is coming to the city, and given the latitude, I’m sure everyone there welcomes their appearance. These sweets do not contain potatoes, no cooking is involved, and they’re simple and fun to make. Get the kids to help. I added pecans to the mixture and used chopped almonds for the eyes, though slivered is better and pine nuts are perfect.

Soften three tablespoons of butter and four ounces of cream cheese (I found it politic to use Philadelphia brand, and don’t use the low-fat), mix with a teaspoon pure vanilla extract, four cups confectioner’s sugar, two and a half cups of grated coconut and a cup of chopped pecans. You don’t really have to mix this very well; it won’t matter if they’re lumpy, since they’re potatoes, for Pete’s sake.

Chill mixture for about an hour or until very firm and form into irregularly-shaped balls. Trust me, dust your hands with powdered sugar to make it easier. Place these on a plate or a sheet pan in the refrigerator to firm up again, and roll in cinnamon (or cocoa if you want darker spuds). Stud the surface with the nuts and store in a cool, dry place until serving or freeze them for later.

Tiki Tale

When William Styron was a low-level, poorly-paid reader at McGraw-Hill in 1950, he rejected a book written by a Norwegian explorer who in 1947 set out in a hand-built raft on an 8000 mile voyage from Peru to French Polynesia to prove that primitive peoples could navigate great distances. The book, Kon Tiki, later became an international best-seller and made Thor Heyerdahl a legend.

Had Styron not been such a scribbler he might have realized that Heyerdahl’s book would catch the tiki wave that had been cresting in popular culture since U.S. troops came home from the Pacific after World War II. In 1947, James Michener won a Pulitzer for his Tales of the South Pacific, which were based on his service as a lieutenant commander in the New Hebrides Islands. The book was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the musical South Pacific that premiered in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 1,925 performances.

It was a Cajun, Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt,Trader who kicked off the mid-century tiki craze. Raymond, sailed the South Pacific, changed his name to Don Beach and in 1934 opened a Polynesian-themed bar called ‘Don the Beachcomber’ in Palm Springs. Three years later, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, adopted a tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland, and tiki got surf. During the 50s and well into the 60s tiki parties were a popular spin on patio barbecues. These events usually included tiki torches, flimsy furniture, neon paper leis and loathsome drinks with teeny-tiny umbrellas. The mai tai is the quintessential tiki cocktail, and the quintessential tiki appetizer is rumaki. Raymond is credited with its invention since it first appeared on the menu at Don’s, as “mock Polynesian”, chicken livers and water chestnuts marinated in soy sauce with ginger and brown sugar skewered in bacon and broiled. Rumaki are a cliché cocktail appetizer, inspiring parodist references in dozens of television serials and films.

Rumaki are easy to make, but instead of using raw ginger root or (worse) ginger powder, I urge you to use ginger oil for a marinade with the soy, which should be lite soy. To make ginger oil, grate about a half cup of raw ginger, place in a cup of vegetable oil, and heat until the ginger just begins to bubble. Heat for about five minutes, cool thoroughly, drain and save the oil and discard the ginger. Use the oil, mixed with soy 1:2 and brown sugar to taste for the marinade. Slice the livers, depending on size, into thirds; remember that the livers will have a tough connective membrane that must be removed. Slice small whole water chestnuts into halves add them to the marinade. Marinate both for at least an hour. Skewer livers and chestnuts in bacon sliced to size and place in a hot oven (425) until bacon has crisped.