by John Ryan
After a recent food show I concluded that we're definitely headed towards culinary greatness.
If the idea of a food show makes your mouth water, hold on to your napkin. One part of the convention center was dominated by restaurant equipment; another was given over to new food products. Now just imagine a convention center filled with the kind of crap served at airports. Granted, the samples are free at these shows, but so what, it still costs twice as much and tastes half as good as the food it's pretending to be.
One of the "new" products was a line of hole-less bagels stuffed with cream cheese in various flavors. Each stuffed bagel was individually wrapped. The "inventor" was touting the fact that without a hole cream cheese didn't squish out the middle. However, as with most convenience food, it was deeply flawed. The bagel had the jaw-tiring tug of day-old, plastic-wrapped bagels. And despite the green and orange flecks, the cream cheese didn't have any flavor.
If you wonder where these individually wrapped units end up, you obviously haven't been stuck in a government building for jury duty and been at the mercy of their vending machines. The only thing worse than choking down pizza-flavored bread sticks with a heartburn-inducing tomato dipping sauce is the idea that somewhere someone is saying "Hey Bob, they must like 'em, we've got an order for another 50,000 units."
So where do I see greatness in this? To explain, I need to digress a minute.
The only country I'm familiar with that has an impeccable culinary pedigree is France. I spent a couple years there as a student. I wish I could say that I had incredible wine and unforgettable culinary experiences, but I can't. To this day, France is responsible for the worst wine I've ever tasted. And food? It was nothing to write home about because I didn't have enough money to eat at the charming bistros recommended in food magazines.
I vividly remember my first chocolate mousse. The restaurant was thoroughly French, not a tourist in sight. And the meal was fine, but the mousse au chocolat came in a plastic cup with a peel-off lid, like the cups yogurt comes in. It tasted as you might expect, kind of waxy and neutrally chocolate.
I respect the point of view that says if you want French food, you have to go to France. But I was in France. I've no doubt that a French chef developed the recipe and that every day a legion of French people commute to a factory where they make thousands and thousands of mousse au chocolate units.
(My stay in Paris also opened my eyes to the truth about foreign films. I went to France expecting a never-ending banquet of great movies. But I quickly discovered that the French make as many shallow and stupid movies as we do. They just don't export the dumb ones.)
So where do I see our culinary greatness in hole-less bagels?
I believe in the law of extremes. Few new products are actually new, most of them are individually wrapped knock-offs of something really good. So when I see something as colossally ridiculous as dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets with the shelf life of a fossil, I have to believe that somewhere someone must be making fried chicken that's as good as those nuggets are bad.
I chose these recipes because whipped cream and strawberries are great examples of how the food titans can take foods that are simple and utterly delicious and screw them up. Whipped cream is a matter of beating cream with a little sugar and a touch of flavoring. But it's practically impossible to get real whipped cream unless you go to a great restaurant. And strawberries! What can be said? 90% of berries look and taste like plastic fruit.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created May 2000
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