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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a hundred thousand people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Easy, Perfect Popcorn

Movie Theater Quality Without Expensive Poppers And Questionable Ingredients

To say that I love popcorn would be a tremendous understatement. Statistics show that the average American consumes approximately sixty-eight quarts – or seventeen gallons – of popcorn annually. Boy, am I above average! Think I exaggerate? I was once given a bushel bag of popcorn as a gift. That's thirty-two quarts. It lasted me about two weeks.

Not only do I know a good bit about eating popcorn, I'm pretty proficient at popping it, too. In fact, my first paid employment was popping popcorn in a small town movie theater. But I had been burning Jiffy Pop at home long before that gig. (Seriously, did anybody ever get that stuff to completely pop without burning at least half of it?) Fortunately, Jiffy Pop was just a fad in my house. My mother had a special pot she reserved for popping popcorn when I was a kid and she instructed me in the finer points of its use when I was barely tall enough to stand at the stove without a stool. So popcorn and I go way back.

Over the decades I've utilized every popping gadget that ever came down the pike. Besides the aforementioned failed Jiffy Pop, I've popped corn in a regular kettle on the stove top, I've used one of those wire mesh poppers over a campfire, and I've had a couple of “Whirly Pop” poppers, which weren't too bad except for the ones with plastic gears that quickly wore out. I burned myself severely with an old-fashioned electric popper back in the late '60s. A defective handle on the kettle caused it to overturn and spill smoking hot oil all over my hand, arm, and down my leg. Not fun. I've had limited success with various versions of microwave popping devices and I've gone through a couple of hot air poppers over the years. The most reliable of those is an Orville Redenbacher-branded popper made by Presto. I spent a little over twenty bucks on it about ten years ago and it's still going strong. And, of course, I've used the heavy-duty theater units. I'd install one of those suckers in my kitchen in a heartbeat if I had the space and the money, but I don't, so I make do with the household models. (Sigh)

And then there's microwave popcorn, an entity unto itself. Technically, microwave popcorn was “invented” back around 1946 as a whole-cob-in-a-bag affair, but the popular form that we know now has its roots in the early '70s when General Mills developed the first practical popping bag for individual kernels. Pillsbury sold microwave popcorn out vending machines in the mid-to-late '70s. I know, because I worked just down the road from Pillsbury's test kitchen in Minneapolis back then and we had some of their very first microwave popcorn in our cafeteria.

Microwave popcorn quality is an “iffy” proposition at best. Some varieties are really good and some are absolutely awful. Add to that the fact that the good stuff can be a little pricey. Then factor in recent health concerns: A report from the FDA indicates that a chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags breaks down when heated into a substance called perfluorooctanoic (PFOA). The Environmental Protection Agency has identified PFOA as a “likely carcinogen.” Besides the “likely carcinogen” part, there's what's actually in the bag to consider. Like nearly everything else on the market, microwave popcorn is loaded with additives and preservatives. Tertiary Butylhydroquinone? I've never seen that one offered as a movie theater topping. And several popular microwave brands still contain trans-fat, which is a proven no-no when it comes to heart disease.

But don't despair, fellow popcorn lovers; I've got some good news for you. There is a way you can have delicious, light, fluffy perfect popcorn that is on a par with movie theater product in your own home without expensive poppers and without questionable ingredients. And it is super fast and stupid simple.

I wish I could take credit for this method, but I can't: I stumbled on it quite by accident. It's not a “new” idea by any means, but it's one that for whatever reason has never gotten a lot of traction. The version I came across is credited to Alton Brown. Somebody needs to nominate Alton Brown for sainthood or knighthood or some kind of hood because the man is frickin' brilliant. I modified Alton's simple microwave method just an eensy-weensy bit and produced a batch of popcorn that left me gasping for breath and grasping for superlatives. I told my wife, “Try this,” and then had to wrestle her to get the bowl back.

Here's what you need:

Popcorn (duh!)

From the “did you know” department, did you know there are actually two types of popcorn? Yep. Mushroom and butterfly. Butterfly popcorn is the more common variety. It is irregular in shape with multiple “wings” protruding from each kernel. Butterfly is judged to be more tender and fluffy and has fewer hulls. Mushroom popcorn is more compact and ball-shaped and pops up looking like.....a mushroom, and is the type used for caramel corn and kettle corn and such because it's tougher and can handle the handling needed to apply the coatings. The choice is yours. You'll want ¼ cup.

Salt

Alton uses plain ol' table salt. This is one area in which we differ: I like popcorn salt. It's a super fine salt specifically designed to adhere to popcorn. It comes in flavors, with butter flavor being the most common, but the plain unflavored variety is fine. Again, your choice. You'll want ¼ teaspoon.

Alton stops there. I go one tiny step further and recommend oil.

Most popcorn popping pros use some form of coconut oil. Yeah, that's why movie theater popcorn always tastes better than the stuff you make at home using Wesson. While I prefer coconut oil, I had some Orville Redenbacher's Buttery Flavor Popping & Topping Popcorn Oil on hand. It's made of soybean oil but it's an acceptable substitute since you'll only need a few drops.

Finally, a paper lunch bag. A plain brown (or white) flat bottom, gusset side, self standing lunch bag.

And here's what you do:

Scoop or pour your popcorn into a ¼ cup measuring cup. Pour on the salt and dribble on a few drops of oil. Drops, mind you, not a stream or even a drizzle. If the oil reaches the bottom of the cup and you have to wipe it out, you've probably used too much.

Dump the prepared popcorn into the bag, shake it up a little, and tightly fold over the top of the bag two or three times. Alton used to recommend a staple to close the bag, but some people got all freaky and thought it would blow up the microwave, so just make sure you have a good, tight fold at the top.

When popping popcorn, timing is way more important than time. You have to pop by ear. (Sorry.) If your set your timer to 1:45 and walk away, you'll come back to an ugly mess because the popcorn finished popping and start burning at 1:30. And don't use the “popcorn” button. Most microwaves, especially older models, lack humidity sensors and just rely on a preset time. Your ear is your best indicator. The popping will start out slow, then it will increase and get really vigorous for a few seconds and then it will trail off until you only hear a “pop” every few seconds. That's when you want to pull your bag out of the microwave. Three or four unpopped kernels in the bottom is a lot better than a whole bunch of burned ones.

That's it. When you unfold the top of the bag, you'll be amazed at what's inside.

I was skeptical at first. “Oh, this is too easy,” I thought. “There's got to be a catch.” Nope. It really is that simple. And OM-freakin'-G, is it good! Like I said, popcorn and I go way back and this was easily some of the best stuff I ever ate, regardless of popping method.

So I'm going to make my wife happy and toss one kitchen unitasker: goodbye, microwave popper! My pots and pans will now only be used for cooking, not popping, and my venerable hot air popper will just gather dust. Better still, we will never again waste money on microwave popcorn or worry about any possible related health considerations.

With a new stock of corn and paper bags laid in, I'm ready to start popping. Let's see......1/4 cup of unpopped popcorn is equal to two ounces and that yields about two quarts popped. I just bought five pounds of popping corn......that's eighty ounces.......wow! I'm really gonna be above average!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Confessions Of A Recovered Processed Food Eater

Wandering In The Processed Food Wasteland

If you are a regular reader of my scribblings – and I hope you are – you'll know that I frequently pontificate on the evils of processed food. In a simpler day and time, you could go to the food market and come home with.....food. Nowadays you come home with chemical-laden food-like substances that your forebears would not have even recognized as edible. In order to really understand what passes as “food” today, you need a degree in chemical engineering. Or do you actually know what azodicarbonamide, butylated hydroxyanisole, and butylated hydroxytoluene are and what they do? My oft-expressed opinion is that I'd prefer to be embalmed after I'm dead rather than before. I love farmers markets, butcher shops, and produce stands and I am constantly on the stump for cooking with fresh, natural ingredients. And yet, for all my holier-than-thou elitist food snobbery, I must confess to being a recovered processed food eater.

Oh yes, there was a time when I was a Wonder Bread warrior. Little Debbie was my bestie. After I swore off Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs, Hostess promptly went bankrupt. I talk a lot about learning to cook at a very young age, but in truth much of that “cooking” involved Kraft, Campbell's, and Ore-Ida. Mario Batali is my favorite Italian chef today, but back then I was all about Chef Boyardee. And it was all my mother's fault.

It wasn't that my mother couldn't cook; she was amazingly accomplished in the kitchen. Ask her any question about almost anything cooking-related and she could answer. She could do everything imaginable with chicken, beef, pork, or turkey. We had a garden out back and she could cook any vegetable you pulled from the soil. She made delicious sauces from scratch. She baked heavenly breads and rolls and her homemade cookies, brownies, cakes, and pies were legendary. No, it wasn't that my mother didn't know her way around a kitchen. Rather it was that she was part of a generation of women browbeaten by Madison Avenue marketing into believing that “old fashioned” cooking was antiquated drudgery and that “modern” methods were the wave of the future. Women were encouraged to “escape” from the kitchen as if it were emblematic of a master and slave relationship. “Convenience” was the new culinary religion and the twin gods “Quick” and “Easy” were worshiped through holy scripture printed on the backs of boxes and cans. And Mom gradually became an ardent acolyte.

Mom could make macaroni and cheese from scratch, but why bother when Kraft put everything she needed in a bright blue box? Sure she could boil potatoes and mash them up with milk and butter, but Hungry Jack made it so much faster. Why waste fifteen minutes on “long-cooking” rice when Minute Rice made it happen in five? Two minutes and a can of Campbell's tomato soup was sure easier than fooling with all those tomatoes and onions and butter and herbs and spices for an hour or more. And why go through the hassle of stocks and broths when Campbell's put chicken soup in a can?

Dishes like tuna noodle casserole were the haute cuisine of the day. Combine packaged egg noodles, canned tuna, canned soup, mayonnaise from a jar, maybe a bag of frozen peas and a topping out of a box of crackers or cornflakes and you were practically a master chef.

If all the boxes and cans inhabiting the pantry were the seraphim and cherubim of the new culinary creed, surely the freezer was the realm of the archangels: beings named Swanson and Birdseye. Adherents to this frozen form of the faith didn't even have to mix and measure. All they had to do was open a box and peel back the foil. And, alas, although my mother could cook and did cook once upon a time, by the time I made my first forays into the kitchen, she was singing in the “convenience” choir.

In later years, I could ask her for help – “Mom, what's the flour-to-fat ratio for a bechamel?” – and she'd have the answer. She never forgot how to cook; she, like millions of other American women, just chose to spend the '60s and '70s wandering in the processed food wasteland.

I frequently cook when visiting friends and relatives and I often find myself puzzled by a general lack of “stuff” in most of their kitchens. I have a ridiculously well-equipped kitchen, replete with racks of gleaming stainless steel pots and pans hanging along with a variety of non-stick aluminum and cast iron cookware. Stock pots and Dutch ovens live in a lower cabinet. Knives glisten on magnetic strips mounted on the wall above an assortment of cutting boards. I have a microwave, of course, but I also have an induction burner at the ready and a countertop oven with a rotisserie feature. Besides my heavy duty KitchenAid mixer and it's attachments, there's a food processor, a blender, and an immersion blender near at hand. A ricer? Yep. Second drawer. A slow cooker? Two of them over on the open wire shelving. Glass and metal mixing bowls of all sizes line upper cabinet shelves. You want a whisk? There are six of them in a canister on the counter. How about a microplane grater? It's hanging above the drawer where I keep my mandolin slicer. The sea salt is next to the Kosher salt which is near the Maldon flake salt, the Himalayan pink salt, and the French grey salt, all of which are on a Lazy Susan with the grinders containing the black peppercorns and the white peppercorns. And don't get me started on the bakeware. So I am completely nonplussed when I visit a kitchen and can't find a rolling pin. (I have three.) What do you mean you don't have a measuring cup? Or a wooden spoon? How do you cook? Oh. You don't. The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that it's a symptom of the same condition: one doesn't need kitchen equipment to open a box or a can or to pop something in the microwave. “Quick” and “Easy” still have a lot of disciples.

An examination of my pantry and fridge demonstrates my evolution. Where once there were cans of Franco-American spaghetti there are now packages of dried pasta and cans of San Marzano tomatoes with which to make sauce. I used to love Rice a Roni and always had a few boxes of the chicken variety on hand. Years ago, I replicated the recipe in my kitchen and while I still enjoy the dish, I now make it from scratch. You know those handy little packets of sauce mixes you find in the grocery store? You won't find them in my pantry. What you will find are the real, honest-to-goodness, preservative-free ingredients to make them from scratch. And to make them better than the packaged stuff. I used to use the execrable cheese-flavored crap in a green cardboard or plastic can to flavor my Italian dishes until I discovered real Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. There's no comparison. And there's no wood fiber filler in the real thing. My larder is not completely barren of cans and boxes: besides the aforementioned tomatoes, I have cans and boxes of broth that I use for soups and sauces when I don't have homemade broth or stock on hand.

Frozen pizza? Once upon a time, but not in a very long time. Not when I can turn out fresh pizza dough and homemade sauce better than DiGiorno and faster than Dominos.

I haven't bought “sandwich” bread in years. No store-bought, gummy, nutrition-less bread-like substances live in my breadbox. And you won't find rolls of “dinner rolls” in my fridge, either. Not when real bread and rolls are so delicious and so easy to make. And you won't find rolls of pre-made cookie dough in my refrigerator. Unless you count the dough my wife made using real ingredients that she then rolled and wrapped and stuck in the freezer so we can enjoy real, fresh cookies whenever we want them. In fact, there are no boxes of cake mix, brownie mix, or frosting mix anywhere in our kitchen. That's why we have flour and eggs and cocoa and sugar and milk and butter. You know, real ingredients for real food.

My idea of cooking breakfast involves cracking eggs, frying bacon, and dicing up potatoes, not pulling a waffle-like disc or a “breakfast sandwich” out of the freezer.

I'm not gonna lie: there are a few cans of ready-to-eat soup in the pantry. I've got a couple of little tubs of microwavable macaroni and cheese, too. And there are usually two or three frozen entrees around for quick lunches when need be. Some canned veg to throw in homemade soups and sauces. But that's really about it. I don't live on the preservative-laden products that will ultimately kill me. I did for many years, but now I just don't. And it's liberating as hell to be able to walk past all that garbage in the grocery store knowing I can do better, tastier, and healthier myself. And so can you.

I know I'm like a former smoker or a reformed alcoholic. I realize I can be incredibly annoying up there on my soapbox. I was getting some butter at the grocery store the other day. My wife was over by the milk and a lady said to her, “They've moved everything around. Do you know where the butter is?” My wife pointed toward where I was standing. The lady thanked her, came over my way.......and grabbed a package of Blue Bonnet! It was all I could do not to scream, “That's not butter!! Why are you trying to kill yourself?!” I know. I'm horrible.

But, dammit, there's a reason ex-smokers and ex-drinkers and ex-fake food eaters all crusade the way we do: we know better. We've all been through the valley and now we dwell on the mountaintop. And we just want everybody to join us up here to experience the freedom we enjoy. Freedom from harmful, life-threatening substances.

Okay, I'm gonna shut up now before I go all Sylvester Graham on you. (If you don't know, look it up.) Just do this for me: make the route from your mouth to your stomach pass through your brain. Read labels, do research, figure out what all that stuff is and what it does. Think about what you're putting into your body before you put it in there. Even if you can't make all the right decisions all the time, how about at least making fewer of the wrong ones? Big Food is not your friend, my friends. ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft, et al don't have an altruistic bone in their entire greedy corporate bodies. They are not out to make you happy and healthy; they are out to make a buck at any cost and the cost is usually your health and happiness.

Think, question, and think some more. I'll save you a soapbox on my mountaintop.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Villa Tronco, Columbia, South Carolina

I Expected More

Villa Tronco is a historic restaurant in the heart of South Carolina's historic capital city. Situated behind an unprepossessing facade on Blanding Street between Main and Sumter, the eatery boasts of being the oldest continuously operating restaurant in South Carolina, the first Italian restaurant in Columbia, and it claims to be responsible for introducing pizza to the capital city's curious denizens. Beginning as a fruit store in 1930, Villa Tronco is the legacy of James and Sadie (Carnaggio) Tronco, now owned and operated by the third generation of the Tronco family and still employing, it is said, “Mama” Tronco's original recipes for dishes that delighted homesick Northern soldiers of Italian descent stationed at nearby Fort Jackson during WWII.

It was based upon this amazing heritage and upon mostly positive online reviews that I chose Villa Tronco as our family vacation dining destination on a sultry Saturday evening in June. Frankly, I expected more.

Anybody who has read anything I've published in the last dozen or so years will recognize that my wife and I have something more than a passing knowledge of and appreciation for Italian food. My son and daughter-in-law, both world-traveled military veterans, were our dining companions on this evening. My son recently spent several years living in Italy, so perhaps, taken as a whole, we were a bit of a tough crowd.

Starting on a positive note, everything I read about the ambiance of Villa Tronco was dead on. With lots of dark wood, exposed brick, and subtle lighting there was a definite “old world” vibe to the place that, along with tasteful décor and substantial but comfortable furnishings made for an interesting and pleasant dining atmosphere. A lot of modern restaurants try very hard to achieve what this charming and venerable old spot generates easily and naturally. Kudos to the current generation of Troncos for beautifully balancing old and new.

The service was prompt, friendly, and efficient. Our hostess seated us quickly, our waitress was attentive without being obtrusive, and my water glass never got below half-full. Villa Tronco has a full bar and an expansive wine list from which both my wife and my “Italian wine snob” son partook.

Alas, though, the food was not on the same level as the atmosphere and the wine. Right from the start, temperature seemed to be a problem.

We ordered antipasti of fried calamari and fried mozzarella. The mozzarella arrived on a nice warm plate, but was itself barely above room temperature. Unless served piping hot, mozzarella fritta tends to be rather dense and chewy, as was the case here. And the thin red sauce in which it was served was a harbinger of things to come.

My daughter-in-law's entree of cheese ravioli was stone cold upon arrival. Again, the plate was warm as was the sauce, but the ripieno, the rich filling of ricotta and Parmesan, had obviously spent too much time in the freezer or the walk in and not enough time in the pot. We sent the dish back. I don't know if Chef Mike (restaurant-speak for a microwave) fixed it or what, but it came back a few minutes later at the proper temp.

My wife had no real complaints about her linguine in meat sauce other than the fact that the sauce lacked what she called “zing,” something I found to be true about all the tomato-based sauces we were served. They weren't bad per se, they were just.......unremarkable.

My son soldiered through his “combo piatto,” an oddly named sampling of lasagna, cheese ravioli, and Fettuccine Tronco (which looked suspiciously like Alfredo) all on one plate. He finished with neither complaint nor compliment, but I got the general impression of his being politely unimpressed.

I figured to try the famous pizza which “Mama” Tronco introduced to Columbia. “The crust is still rolled by hand,” the literature proclaims, “and cut into squares so that you know it's handmade.” Again the temperature bug bit. The serving pan was toasty warm but the pizza was barely so.

Okay, I used to rag on my cooks about warming plates. Warm food is better on a warm serving plate. But I swear I never had to instruct them to make sure the food was at least as warm as the plate on which it was served. I don't know what was happening here, but it certainly marred the experience.

Anyway, the pizza was.......unremarkable. You can tell the crust was “rolled” rather than tossed or stretched by hand because it was dense and lifeless. Rolling and compressing pizza dough does that. That's why vero pizzaioli always toss or stretch the dough by hand. The sauce was thin, rather sweet, and, as my wife said, lacking in “zing.” The cheese was the typical “pizza cheese” sold by Sysco, US Foods, and other restaurant industry food purveyors. Granted, I've had worse pizza out of convenience store microwaves, but I've also had far better at places with far less vaunted reputations. In the restaurant's history it is recorded that “Mama” Tronco had to give pizza away at first because people didn't know what it was. Bless her sainted memory, if what I was served was an example, I can relate.

Look, I seldom bash a restaurant because I've been in the business and I know how hard it can be. I generally allow acres for benefit of the doubt. And despite my apparent negativity here, I'm not really trying to bash Tronco's. As a very typical, very average, very Italian-AMERICAN restaurant, it stands as an adequate representative of the genre. I'm just reiterating that, based on the build up, I expected more. The online “reviewers” who trumpet things like “highly recommended for anyone looking for a great Italian meal” and “one of the best Italian restaurants I have dined at in years” obviously don't know diddly squat about Italian food or Italian restaurants. Everything on the menu is the type of food I would expect to find anywhere in Rome. Georgia, that is. It is decent enough Italian-American fare, but there is very little by way of anything outstandingly Italian. Chicken Parm? A butter, cream, and cheese sauced fettuccine dish? Linguine with meatballs? Maryland Crab Cakes? Uffa! Mi dispiace, mama. Un stella o due per l'atmosfera, ma no stelle per il cibo.

Bottom line: Villa Tronco is a good, if somewhat pedestrian, Italian-American red-sauce joint. If you're looking for a nice Italian-ish place for a date night or for a family gathering and you're not really particular about authentic or high-end Italian food, it's perfect. It's not super-cheap but also not super-expensive. We had an app, two entrees, and a glass of wine on our ticket for fifty bucks. I mean, go soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. That said, I doubt we'll make it a regular stop on our occasional trips through the area. Which is probably good since I'm sure the locals and the faithful are already plucking chickens and heating up tar in anticipation of my return. But it is what it is. And what it is is just Olive Garden in classier digs.

Located at 1213 Blanding Street, Villa Tronco is open 11 to 3 and 5 to 10 Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 only on Saturday. They're closed on Sunday. Dress is casual, reservations are accepted but not required, and parking is metered on-street that is free after 6 pm. Call them at 803.256.7677 or find them online at villatronco.com.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Deplorable Demise of Table Manners

People Today Are Rude, Ignorant Pigs

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He's fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don't care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig

– “Swinging on a Star” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke –

The word “deplorable” got tossed around a good bit in the recent election cycle. Like so many words made up of more than one syllable, a lot of people don't even know what the word means, but bandy it about nonetheless. In a nutshell, it can mean either deserving of strong condemnation or shockingly bad in quality. Political considerations aside, I think both apply to the demise in twenty-first century life of basic table manners. This passing has come about due largely to the fact that very few people actually sit around a table to partake of a meal anymore. TV tables, coffee tables, desks, car seats, laps – these are the places where the majority of eating occurs these days and rather than being presented on plates, food is often served from a bag. Who needs manners? Just unwrap the comestibles and shove 'em down your throat. It's only food.

I was raised differently. My mother insisted on proper manners in all things. I was taught from a young age to open doors for women. I was instructed to offer assistance to elderly people or to the disabled. When walking down the street with my mom, I was told to always walk to the outside, and a half-century later I can't refrain from doing so. I always leap ahead of my wife to open doors and I simply cannot be comfortable walking with her if I am not on her streetside side. (In case you're curious, this custom evolved as a means of protecting a lady from passing traffic, mud splashing, and such.) Basic manners are so infused into my psyche that I am constitutionally incapable of behaving otherwise. I have to try to be ill-mannered, and that's why it bothers me to observe others doing it so naturally.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the dining table. By the quaint, archaic standards of yesteryear, people today are rude, ignorant pigs.

Now, it must be noted that different cultures observe different customs regarding manners at the table. Some things thought to be disgusting among one ethic group are completely acceptable to another. I was raised to observe essential American and Western European customs, hence it is on those criteria that I will, in no particular order, offer comment. I'm not aiming for high etiquette here. Matters of which fork to use when and what particular items of cutlery should be placed where and which plate is appropriate for what course are all valid points of proper conduct, but I'm more concerned here with the basics.

Like, for instance, chewing with your mouth closed. I am horrified by the number of people who no longer think it necessary to adhere to this most rudimentary point of behavior. The last appetite inhibiting thing I, or anyone with an ounce of civilization, want to see is the contents of your mouth being masticated to mush. I have as little desire to watch the beginning of your digestive process as I have to observe the end of it.

If you've stuffed your pie hole so full of food that you can't help but chew it open-mouthed, you have violated another basic precept. My dog frequently dives in face first and ingests all his food in a few bites. If you aspire to be like my dog, by all means, continue to use your fork like a shovel. Humans may consider you vile, but you'll be king among canines.

Regardless of whether or not you overfill your mouth, empty it before attempting to speak. Speech involves utilizing your jaws, tongue, and teeth in certain patterns to emit intelligible sounds. These are the same parts employed by the task of eating and they are not designed to multitask. Watching the half-chewed components of your meal rolling around on your tongue and either dripping or spewing from between your lips as you attempt to form words is absolutely disgusting. And for pity's sake, swallow your food completely before you take a drink. Nothing repulses your dining companions like watching food particles backwash into your beverage.

Having spent some time on a farm, I can assure you that pigs, cows, horses and other assorted livestock make a great deal of unpleasant noise when they consume their feed. They slurp, they snort, they smack, they grunt, they drool, they dribble, they belch, and they pass gas while eating– very much like some people I have observed. All without so much as an “excuse me.” Ignorant, unsophisticated animals can't help such behavior, I suppose. Neither can pigs, cows, horses, and assorted livestock.

Sometimes Mother Nature will sneak up on you with a sneeze or a cough or a hiccup. There's not much you can do to predict or control such occurrences. A well-mannered person says, “excuse me” after a sneeze or a cough or whatever. If the sneezing, coughing, hiccuping, etc. becomes prolonged, one should more literally excuse oneself and leave the table until the spell has passed. Only an ill bred imbecile forces his extended hacking, gagging, snorting, and spewing on his fellow diners.

Let's pause for a moment and consider the term “fellow diners.” To whom should manners and the rules of etiquette apply? Some people seem to think that such things are reserved for “company” or for formal occasions. Others assume that manners are to be observed when dining out but are unimportant at home with friends or family. Wrong on all counts. The Queen of England, your boss, your best friend, your parents or siblings, and total strangers all deserve the same level of respect. I don't know about you, but it doesn't matter to me if it's an unknown person at a restaurant or my brother-in-law at the family table, I don't like having anybody belch in my face. Such behavior is classless and crude whenever or wherever it is exhibited.

Back to the rules. Napkins are provided as a means of keeping your hands and your mouth clean and presentable. They are not there to use for blowing your nose, wiping your face, or polishing your teeth. A napkin should be placed in your lap at the beginning of a meal. In very informal circumstances, it may be tucked into your collar or shirtfront and used as a bib. Either way, it is to be used discreetly to wipe your fingers or dab at the corners of your mouth. Wiping or dabbing other parts of your anatomy with it is gross beyond description. It is proper, indeed, essential, to use a napkin to cover your mouth and/or nose if you sneeze, cough, or inadvertently burp. A napkin dropped on the floor should be replaced with a clean one. A napkin should not be placed in the seat of your chair if you leave the table. Some people say it's okay to do so if you're only taking a temporary leave. But, seriously, think about the body parts that have occupied that seat and then tell me you're okay with wiping your mouth with an article that has shared the same space. When you've finished with a napkin, it should be placed loosely beside your plate. On the left, if you wish to be exceedingly correct. It should never be wadded up and deposited on your plate or anywhere else.

Opposable thumbs set mankind apart from other animals, but this fact does not permit the unrestrained use of fingers when eating. Certainly, some foods – hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, pizza, crisp bacon – are intended to be “finger foods.” But steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, etc. are not. If you're not sure, err on the side of caution. If you have difficulty getting that last morsel onto your fork, it is perfectly acceptable to use a small piece of bread to help accomplish the task. It is never acceptable to push food onto a fork or spoon with your fingers.

The proper handling of bread is another area in which table manners have long since been forsaken. Breads and rolls should be torn or broken at the table, never cut. Some attribute this custom to seventeenth-century French cultural affectations while others assign religious connotations to the practice. (Bread represents the body of Christ, so you don't take after it with a knife.) You should never slather butter on an entire slice of bread or a whole roll while at the table. Break off a bite-size piece of bread and butter it just prior to eating it. Almost nobody does this anymore, but the rule still stands.

On the topic of utensils, I know I said I wasn't going to go into the arcane details of what to use when, but there is one very basic area that needs to be discussed. Gone are the days when men ate at the table using the same tools with which they slaughtered their food. Therefore, it is not necessary to hold your knife and fork like weapons. Assuming right-handedness, hold the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right. Grip them loosely with your index finger extended along the top edge of each utensil. Don't grip them in your fist as if you are about to stab something. With the tines of the fork curving downward, hold the food in place and employ the knife in a gentle sawing motion to cut off a bite-size piece. You should not have to saw violently enough to shake the entire table. After you have cut your morsel, lay your knife down along the edge of your plate and transfer your fork to your right hand. (This is the American method. In the Continental method, the fork never leaves the left hand.) Never allow your knife, fork, or spoon to touch the table once it has been used. When you set a utensil down, always place it on your plate or in your bowl, in the case of soup.

Speaking of soup, rule number one is no slurping! (Refer back to the paragraph regarding animal noises.) You should fill the bowl of your soup spoon a little more than half-full and, moving the spoon away from yourself rather than towards, raise the spoon to your lips and sip the soup from the side of the spoon. The “airplane” game may have been cute when you were two years old and your mother was trying to get you to open your mouth, but you should never put the whole spoon in your mouth from the front, or from any other direction, for that matter. It's permissible to tip your bowl away slightly to get the last drops of soup, but it is never proper to pick it up and drink from it. And when you return the spoon to the bowl, try to do so as quietly as possible. Loud clanking of cutlery is almost as annoying as animal noises.

Don't slouch at the table. Maintaining good posture is not only good etiquette but good for the digestion, as well. Keep your elbows off the table. Forearms are okay, elbows are not. And don't lean over your plate as you eat. Sit upright and gracefully use your fork or spoon to transport food to your mouth. Leaning in and shoveling up makes you look like a caveman.

One of my greatest pet peeves revolves around coming to the table when dinner is announced. I have witnessed gatherings where the host calls everybody to the table to dine and a few ignorant, lumpen clods, feeling that whatever conversation or pursuit they are involved in is of paramount importance, either dismiss the host with “Yeah, I'll be right there,” or ignore the summons completely. Not only is this base, rude, and insulting in and of itself, it also puts other diners in a quandary.

Acceptable behavior dictates that a meal should not commence before all are seated and the host has given the signal to begin. When you have ignoramuses who just have to watch that last play or that last scene or who feel compelled to speak that last sentence or puff that last puff or whatever else they consider more important than the meal at hand, everyone is discomfited because everyone has to wait on the convenience of a few ill-mannered trolls.

When someone has expended a great deal of effort in order to prepare and present food to you, it is minimally expected that you will have the good grace to come promptly to the table. And the practice of sending one's compliments to the chef is not merely an affectation reserved for people wishing to make good impressions at fancy restaurants. Thanking the person who prepared your meal and complimenting its quality is a mannerly thing to do. Keeping one's mouth shut about any flaws or deficiencies is also the well-mannered prerogative. “Gee, the turkey's a little dry” might be true, but pointing it out at the table is rude.

And I don't know about you, but I have never been present at a meal where starter's pistols, stopwatches, and checkered flags were involved. Eating is not a competitive event. Once a meal has begun, there is no need to race through it with knife and fork flying, because you won't be awarded a trophy for finishing first.

Even if you are Elastic Man and posses the ability to stretch your arm clear across the table, don't. The so called “boardinghouse reach” is inappropriate even in a boardinghouse. When a dish is passed to you, take a portion, and pass the dish to your right. If you would like to partake of a certain item or dish, ask that it be passed to you. When you have served yourself, either place the dish on the table in front of you or, if space is an issue, return it to whomever passed it to you so that it can be returned to its original place.

There are two schools of thought regarding the passing of salt and pepper. The older school advocates passing both the salt and the pepper, regardless of a request for only one of the items. A newer take promotes passing the salt and politely inquiring if the diner would also like the pepper. Personally, I'm old school.

“Please” and “thank you” are always appropriate.

Excuse yourself if you have to leave the table for some reason. And you don't have to inform your fellow diners as to the reason. We really don't care that you're going to the bathroom. A simple, “excuse me” will suffice. Don't make a production of it. Get up quietly, quietly push your chair back to the table, and quietly go on about your business.

If you are one who still clings to the adolescent belief that smoking makes you look “cool,” go look cool by yourself. Smoking has got to be the filthiest, nastiest, most offensive habit on the planet and it has absolutely no place at the dining table, whether before, during, or after a meal.

Dressing for dinner has sadly become a thing of the past. Nevertheless, I refuse to sit at a table in my underwear. While I may not always wear a coat and tie, I will at least wear a shirt. Especially for holidays and other special gatherings. Nothing says “festive” like your Uncle Joe coming to the table in his sweat shorts and a tank top. After all, nothing whets the appetite like chest and underarm hair. And, guys, regardless of how “stylin'” you might be, take your hat off at the table. Trust me, the sky will not fall if you remove your headgear for a few minutes.

Manners are the standards of conduct which demonstrate that a person is proper, polite, and refined. I have outlined just a very, very few basic rules that will help you look like a civilized human being at the table rather than a Neanderthal. If you want to be more excruciatingly correct, Emily Post and Miss Manners both have books that will enable you to do so.

But if you don't care a feather or a fig,
You may grow up to be a pig.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Reality Check, Please: There's No Such Thing As “Alfredo Sauce”

So Exactly How Did Poor Alfredo Get Sauced?

It was about a hundred years ago that a guy in Rome opened an eponymous little restaurant. He was doing a good business, raising a nice family. Then his place got discovered by American tourists and the next thing you know, he was sauced. Funny thing, though; after he got sauced, everybody in America knew his name, but he remains largely forgotten in his native country.

I'm talking, of course, about Alfredo di Lelio and the ubiquitous creation that bears his name, “Alfredo sauce.” It stares at you from restaurant menus all over the United States. And not just so-called “Italian” restaurants. Nearly everyplace that serves food serves something in “Alfredo sauce.” It lurks in jars on grocery store shelves and it lies in wait in frozen packages. There are hundreds of recipes for it in cookbooks and online resources.

In reality, it shouldn't even exist. And in Italy – the country of Alfredo's birth – it doesn't.

So how did Alfredo get sauced? In simple, “Clue”-like terms, the actor did it in Hollywood with a fork and a spoon.

Poor Alfredo. His wife was pregnant and having a hard time keeping anything on her stomach. All he wanted was for her to be able to eat something. And so he served her a simple dish bland enough for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. He made her a nice plate of pasta in bianco. White pasta. Pasta without any sauce, just some butter and cheese. Also called pasta al burro, it was a common dish for people in her condition. You gave it to your kids when they had upset tummies.

What do Americans feed pregnant women with morning sickness or kids with upset stomachs? Toast, right? With a little butter? Or maybe some saltine crackers. Something easy to digest that will sit lightly on the stomach. Well, they don't do toast or crackers in Italy. They do pasta al burro.

Does your favorite cookbook include a recipe for buttered toast? I didn't think so. And nobody in Italy had to come up with a recipe for pasta in bianco. It was just something you made by boiling up some pasta and putting a little butter and cheese on it.

Alfredo didn't have it on the menu. What restaurateur in his right mind would make a special out of the equivalent of buttered toast? Alfredo pumped up the butter and the cheese for his wife so the dish would have a little more flavor, but it was still just pasta al burro, only doppio burro (double butter), or maybe triplo burro (triple butter) if Alfredo was feeling generous. Nothing special, okay?

And then Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, honeymooning in Rome, happened upon Alfredo's little place. They saw what he was feeding his wife and they wanted some. “Okay,” Alfredo probably thought, scratching his head, “give the crazy Americans what they want!” And he slapped down a plate of pasta without sauce. Whatever makes i turisti happy.

Now, unless you're ninety years of age or more or maybe a film historian, the names “Douglas Fairbanks” and”Mary Pickford” are likely meaningless to you. But in the silent movie era, he was the “Thief of Baghdad,” he was “Zorro,” he was “Robin Hood,” he was the undisputed swashbuckling “King of Hollywood.” She was his new wife and “America's Sweetheart” in her own right. Along with Charlie Chaplin, they were the movie industry in America, founding members of United Artists studio and of the Motion Picture Academy. By comparison, they made Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look like relative unknowns.

So when this power couple lifted forkfuls of Alfredo's plain, simple pasta dish to their lips and pronounced it the most unique and delicious thing they had ever eaten.....well, what are you gonna do? They had photographs taken of themselves with Alfredo and they presented him with a golden fork and spoon to mount on his wall. Then they went back to Hollywood and sang the praises of “Fettuccine Alfredo” to everybody they knew – and they knew a lot of people.

Soon, the Hollywood elite were storming Italy in search of “Fettuccine Alfredo.” And unless they went to Alfredo's place – “Alfredo alla Scrofa” – in Rome, nobody knew what they were talking about. “Che cosa è questo 'fettuccine Alfredo?'” So they'd describe the dish. Mystified waiters and cooks would look at them strangely and say, “You want the Italian equivalent of buttered toast? What are you, sick or something?” Or words to that effect. Only Alfredo – who knew a cash cow when he saw it – had the good sense to put the dish on his menu. And that's pretty much the way it remains today.

But how did Alfredo get sauced?

Well, Americans have never been much for leaving well enough alone. No matter how good something is, Americans feel it can always be “improved” upon. And so it is with “Alfredo sauce.”

A properly made dish of what Alfredo actually served creates its own “sauce” by means of blending butter and cheese with hot pasta and a little of the water in which the pasta was cooked. The cheese and butter melt together and, when vigorously tossed with the hot pasta and water, coat the noodles in a rich, creamy “sauce.” But Alfredo, to his dying day, never made “Alfredo sauce.” It simply doesn't exist in the Italian culinary world.

So Americans had to improvise. They figured out a way to “improve” Alfredo's common preparation. They added cream. Why? Let me emphatically state something here and now: There is absolutely, positively, unequivocally no cream in an “authentic” preparation of what we know as “Fettuccine Alfredo.” So why the pollution? A lot of it has to do with the quality of butter Americans serve themselves.

Most commercially produced American butter contains no more than eighty percent butterfat and has a water content of between fifteen and twenty percent. European butter, on the other hand, generally contains more butterfat – up to eighty-three percent – and less water, making it richer and creamier.

And then there's the cheese. Alfredo probably never even thought of using anything but Parmigiano-Reggiano. Why would he? It's “the undisputed King of Cheeses.” There are cheaper alternatives being marketed under the “Parmesan cheese” label, but they are just that – cheap imitations of the real thing.

So, after the great discovery by Fairbanks and Pickford, American cooks started getting requests for “Fettuccine Alfredo.” They figured out how to make it – but somehow it didn't taste the same. It wasn't as rich and creamy. And what's the easiest way to make something creamy? Add cream to it, of course! So now, rather than let the rich flavor develop naturally from using high quality butter and superior cheese, American cooks threw together cheap butter and cheap cheese and made it “creamy” by adding cream.

Besides, you can't very well package the results of the intermingling of butter and cheese with hot pasta and a little water, now can you? But if you dump the butter and cheese in a pot, stir in a few glugs of cream and cook it all down, now you've got a “sauce;” something you can put in a jar with a label: “Alfredo Sauce.”

And that's how poor old Alfredo got sauced.

Nowadays, when you visit almost any restaurant in America and order something “Alfredo,” it's a pretty sure bet that the kitchen is going to be pouring “Alfredo” out of a jar or, at best, making it up from a recipe that includes cream. Some places further adulterate it by mixing in nutmeg, chives, and any other number of “flavor enhancers,” simply because Americans have an insatiable urge to complicate simple food in the name of “flavor.” But no matter what they add to it, it bears no reasonable resemblance to the wonderfully rich – and ridiculously simple – traditional dish that Alfredo served to his wife – and later to his patrons – at his ristorante on the via della Scrofa.

If you want the real deal, your best bet is to bypass the restaurants and skip the jarred, frozen, and packaged varieties of “sauce” found in your local megamarket and make it yourself. Here's a recipe, courtesy of Russell Bellanca, owner of Alfredo 100:

1 lb. of fresh, very thin fettuccine noodles
6 oz. butter, unsalted
6 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (aged 24 months), grated

Cook the fettuccine noodles in 1 gallon of salted boiling water for three minutes.

At the same time, cube or slice the butter into a warmed serving bowl. Drain the pasta, reserving a small amount of the cooking water. Pour the pasta into the serving bowl with the butter and immediately top with cheese. Using a large spoon and fork, toss and spin the noodles for two or three minutes, adding reserved pasta cooking water as required, until the noodles are thoroughly coated and a smooth, silky sauce has developed. Plate the preparation and serve immediately.

(Cheese lovers may want to sprinkle additional grated cheese on top.)

You can substitute dry pasta for fresh, of course, but don't cheap up on any of the ingredients. High quality pasta, like De Cecco or Barilla, will taste and perform better than generic store brands. European-style butter, like Plugra or Kerrygold, will impart a richer flavor than store brands or even national brands like Land 'o Lakes. And there is absolutely no substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Domestic “Parmesan” doesn't cut it, and the dry, grated, cheese-flavored sawdust abomination in the green cans shouldn't even be considered. The technical trick to perfect preparation is all in the wrist. The biggest part of the “show” that Alfredo used to put on tableside when serving his dish was the tossing of the pasta with the butter and cheese to form the silky, smooth, rich, creamy “sauce” for which he became famous. Anything less than vigorously tossing and spinning for two or three minutes will result in lumpy, clumpy bits of cheese in a pool of melted butter. If you don't have the time, the technique, or the ingredients to do it right, you're better off with the junk in a jar.

And if you find yourself in Italy don't ask for the culinary equivalent of buttered toast unless you're not feeling well. Or unless you're dining at Alfredo's in Rome. Anyplace else and they'll just look at you funny and say, “stai scherzando? Devi essere ubriaco!” To which you can reply, “I'm not kidding and I'm not drunk. I'd just like to be a little sauced. Like Alfredo.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Is Anybody Else Sick Of Kids On TV?

What's Next? CSI Junior?

You know the old adage that says, “Children should be seen and not heard?” It seems television these days has really taken the first part of that saying to heart and, at the risk of sounding like the crusty old curmudgeon I am, I'm frankly sick of it.

You can't turn on the blasted boob-tube these days without seeing passels of precocious little pollywogs parading around in some sort of competitive contest. Okay, so maybe the first couple of these programs were mildly entertaining when they hit the airwaves because they were unique. But in its classically derivative, brain-dead, creativity impaired way, television has turned the unique into the ubiquitous, thus destroying any entertainment value the concept might once have possessed. It's like the people who pitch ideas to the networks have decided that slapping the word “junior” on any and everything is a guaranteed sale. And, unfortunately, they appear to be right.

It started with food shows. Somebody got the bright idea that pairing MasterChef's notoriously profane chef Gordon Ramsay, his dour partner Joe Bastianich, and jolly Graham Elliot with a bunch of callow kiddies was going to be “must watch” TV. Who knew? MasterChef Junior became a hit. Apparently there was an itch that just needed to be scratched among American viewers to see a trio of world-class chefs and restaurateurs take a pie in the kisser. And, of course, if Fox could have a hit with a cadre of culinarily clever kids, you know the reigning king of derivative drivel known as Food Network would have to give it a go. So up popped Chopped Junior, and Rachael Ray's Kids Cook-Off, and Kids Baking Championship. There was one entry I (thankfully) missed on FYI called Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown. And I can't quite tell if a You Tube offering called Little Chef, featuring a be-toqued blond moppet named “Tommy Little,” was a serious attempt to cash in on the genre or just a bad parody.

Now get ready, world, because the cooking competition you've all been breathlessly awaiting, Top Chef Junior, is coming to a television screen near you. Oh. Boy. More cute kids in chef coats. Pardon my general lack of enthusiasm. Somebody at Bravo must have a tight grip on poor Curtis Stone's tender parts to get him to host yet another Top Chef spinoff. I would like to say I can hardly wait to watch this one, but actually I can. Eternally, in fact.

And because it's been proven that kids can drive ratings in the kitchen, the next logical step would be to move them out into the ballroom, right? That's apparently what ABC believes as they foist off Dancing With the Stars Junior upon an undemanding world. The pastiche will feature celebrity kids and kids of celebrities paired up weekly with young professional dancers to perform those wonderfully choreographed routines we've all come to love on the original DWTS, or, as I sometimes call it, “Hoofing With The Has Beens.” Count me out from the get-go on this one.

I mean, really! What's next? “CSI Junior,” in which an elite team of underage forensic evidence investigators solve cases at their local high school? The venerable old Survivor series has been in something of a slump. Think of the fun CBS could have with “Survivor Junior!” How about “The Amazing Race Junior” in which teams of tots deduce clues, navigate city streets, interact with locals, and perform physical and mental challenges all while mounted on tricycles and scooters? And wouldn't “Hells Kitchen Junior” be a hoot? I might actually watch that one, if just to see Gordon Ramsay tell a ten-year-old to “piss off.” Or to see how many “bleeps” a prepubescent potty-mouth can fit into one sentence. That's entertainment!

It's gotta stop somewhere, right? No, it really doesn't. Take a look at the unending procession of prequels, sequels, and “reimaginings” being churned out for our consumption on screens both large and small and you'll understand that the people who produce this dreck don't consider derivativeness to be a bad thing. So look for them to keep pushing precocity in our faces until long after today's “junior” stars have become grandparents. I'm afraid we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The ice chips, as it were.

I guess part of the problem for me is that I don't get all soft and squishy over every little doe-eyed, dimpled darling I see, on TV or elsewhere. Admittedly, some of the kids on these shows are simply adorable, but at the same time, there are others that are simply deplorable. Their antics may be seen as “cute” by some, but all they do for me is set off my brat detector, making them very hard to watch. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a “kid-hater.” I raised two of my own and I now have a delightful bunch of grands to enjoy. But too much of even a good thing is still too much, and by forcing ever larger boluses of kid-centric programming down our throats, the TV execs are rapidly approaching satiety.

And then there's the creeping sense I get of being played. Producers would have you believe these wunderkinds are just average kids plucked off the streets and thrust into circumstances under which they perform like seasoned professionals. Come on! If this is “reality TV,” let's get real. When I was twelve years old I could make a mean meal for my family – as long as they liked grilled cheese sandwiches and frozen French fries. Or maybe Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Minute Rice. My eldest son could whip up a nice spice cake from scratch when he was ten. Both of us have since gone on to run food service operations but I doubt that either of us, even today, could construct some of the elaborate dishes these pint-size “home cooks” toss off with such effortless panache. What? You mean your eleven-year-old can't just whip up an almond-crusted Chilean sea bass with wilted spinach and baby eggplant and a curry yogurt sauce? You say they can barely manage fish sticks and tater tots? Where did you go wrong? If a pan seared filet mignon with sauteed shrimp, glazed carrots and mushroom cream sauce is out of your kid's wheelhouse, you've obviously got an underachiever on your hands.

What they don't show you – and I wish they would – is that these kids are getting massive amounts of off-screen instruction from teams of culinary experts who spend all the hours the child labor laws will allow covering ingredients and going over technique, safety practices, plating and everything else a person of any age would be taught in culinary school. Supposedly, the kids aren't actually coached on particular dishes, but they are given access to tons of cookbooks and resources to help them achieve those “restaurant quality” results. And what would be wrong with letting the viewers see some of this? I, for one, think a few “behind the scenes” vignettes would be much more entertaining and would show us more about the real kids than those dreadful interview segments. Sometimes these kids seem more like budding actors than future chefs. They're all too smooth, glib, and witty for my taste. In fact, one MasterChef Junior alum, Oona Yaffe, landed a continuing supporting role on Fox's Sleepy Hollow. How about taking some real kids from real circumstances, kids who can hardly string three words together in front of a camera and who can barely boil water, and letting us watch them grow and learn as people and as cooks? That would be “reality TV” worth watching.

Oh, well. The channel selector on my remote works very well and I'm a firm believer in voting with my eyes. For my part, when I want to watch kids on TV, I look at videos of my grandchildren. They can't make a perfect Beef Wellington and their paso doble leaves much to be desired, but they're all the kid-centric entertainment I need.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Margarine Is Dead! Long Live Butter!

Butter Me Up!

Recently, I wrote about a guy in Massachusetts who sued Dunkin' Donuts for “buttering” his bagels with margarine instead of real butter. (Spoiler: He won.) And that got me thinking: why are we even having this discussion? Margarine is dead. Long live butter!

Distributor US Foods says its butter sales jumped almost seven percent in 2016 and Americans are forecast to eat a projected 940,000 metric tons of butter in 2017, a substantial eight percent more than they did in the previous year. The Department of Agriculture says that's the highest consumption of butter in the US since about 1967, the time when margarine began its meteoric rise in popularity.

Margarine – or oleomargarine – has been around since the mid-nineteenth century when it was developed by a French chemist to serve Napoleon III's army as a cheap substitute for butter. But very few people in their right minds ate the stuff by choice. Butter was abundantly available and relatively affordable if you weren't feeding an army. It remained that way right up through most of the first half of the twentieth century. Then WWII and its rationing programs came along and butter took a real hit. People got used to margarine doing the war years and, fueled by copious advertising dollars, “oleo” sales took off in the 1950s. Margarine was “modern” and fit right in with the trends of the '50s; plastic furniture, plastic toys, and plastic butter. Even butter strongholds like Wisconsin, where margarine was actually illegal well into the 1960s, eventually caved in to the demand for margarine.

Let me ask you a simple question: Why would you buy margarine? Would you buy it because you are health conscious? Would you buy it because you are cost conscious? Or would you buy it because you are simply unconscious? By that I mean you buy it out of habit just because you always have, or because your mother did, or because that's just what somebody on TV told you to do. And if you try to tell me you buy it because you really and truly prefer the taste, I'll call a doctor to examine your single malfunctioning taste bud.

I mean, how many margarines have touted themselves over the years as being “buttery tasting?” How many of them blend themselves with butter so they taste more buttery? Conversely, how many times have you seen butter advertisements that say, “Mmmmm...tastes just like margarine!” Admittedly, somebody who has grown up on the chemical taste and texture of butter-flavored axle grease may believe they actually like it, not knowing any better way. But in general terms, flavor is not a factor in this discussion. So, let's go back to the other excuses … I mean, reasons … for buying margarine.

It's cheap. Okay, if cost is your prime motivator, though it pains me to admit it, you win. There is no doubt that margarine is cheaper than butter. Taste, quality, and cooking performance aside, if your budget is so slim that you have to feed yourself and your family a diet of low quality, cut-rate, processed imitation food products, then that's the way it is. There is no point in your reading any further. I've already lost you and nothing I can bring to the table will change your mind. And I weep for you.

Now, let's bring the health bandwagon to the front of the parade. Margarine is so-o-o-o much better for you than butter! Butter has cholesterol! Butter causes heart attacks! Butter is evil! The road to hell is greased with butter! Margarine is safer! Margarine is healthier! No saturated fat! Heart-healthy! Omega-3! Cholesterol free! It's all Madison Avenue, folks. None of it is Mayo Clinic. In fact, here's a fun quote from the Mayo Clinic; “not all margarines are created equal — and some may even be worse than butter.” To which you gargle, “Oh! Oh! How can anything be worse than butter? All that saturated fat! All that cholesterol!”

Let's have a word about fat. Specifically, trans fat. Again, from the Mayo Clinic; “Like saturated fat, trans fat increases blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat can lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or 'good,' cholesterol levels.” What's more, trans fats have been shown to make blood platelets stickier. Just what everybody needs, stickier platelets! They clump up and clot so much easier. And you know what? Margarine's loaded with the stuff! Especially the solid stick margarines that most people buy because they are cheap! One tablespoon of cheap stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams of saturated fat.

Now, there are “good” margarines out there. Mayo cites Benecol and Promise Activ. They are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, which can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol levels. But in the same paragraph, the docs at Mayo recommend using whipped or light butter or a butter blended with canola or olive oil “if you don't like the taste of margarine.” Hardly a medical mandate for margarine, eh? Some cardiologists today actually recommend butter over regular stick margarine.

Here's the scoop from Harvard Medical School: “The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intended guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats. Today the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one. From the standpoint of heart disease, butter is on the list of foods to use sparingly mostly because it is high in saturated fat, which aggressively increases levels of LDL. Margarines, though, aren’t so easy to classify. The older stick margarines that are still widely sold are high in trans fats, and are worse for you than butter. Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don’t use too much (they are still rich in calories).”

So, it boils down to a matter of picking your artery-clogging poison. Neither butter nor margarine are on anybody's list of health foods. Butter is better than some margarines and some margarines are better than butter. But there's one thing that butter brings to the table, and that's nutritional value. Butter is an excellent natural source of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Not so with margarine, which has very little nutritional value at all.

What caps the issue for me is the fact that butter has been around since the dawn of civilization while margarine was created from a chemistry set about a hundred-fifty years ago. So if I have to make a choice between a good-tasting, natural substance that's bad for me and a bad-tasting, artificial substance that's bad for me – well, just call me “Mr. Natural.”

From a culinary standpoint, there isn't a margarine on the planet that can beat butter's performance in cooking. I know, a lot of recipes call for “butter or margarine.” That's primarily because margarine was being promoted so heavily when most of them were written. But the difference in the results is remarkable. Butter has browning and flavoring characteristics that margarine can only dream about. Butter is more heat stable than margarine. My own education and experience aside, I can't find a single professional chef or baker who prefers any form of margarine over good old-fashioned unsalted butter.

In fact, other than misinformed health nuts, the only people who actively advocate the use of margarine are the people who make it. The food magazines and cookbooks that cop out with the “butter or margarine” option only do so as a result of the butter backlash that began among health freaks in the 1970s. Because the fats in margarine are partially hydrogenated (i.e., not fully saturated), margarine pushers can claim it is "polyunsaturated" and market it as a healthy food.

Hydrogenation became popular in the US because hydrogenated oil doesn't spoil or become rancid as quickly as regular oil and therefore has a longer shelf life. And when it comes to marketing strategy, shelf life is where it's at. You can leave a stick of margarine sitting out for years and neither molds, insects, nor rodents will touch it. Only humans are stupid enough to eat the stuff.

Here's the definition of “margarine” from the Kitchen Dictionary” section of food.com: “A butter substitute made from a variety of different vegetable and other oils. The process of hydrogenation (used to make the margarine hard and spreadable) causes the margarine to produce trans-fatty acids in the body. These acids are known to cause a slew of problems: elevated cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, even cancer. Some margarines contain whey, and thus, are not dairy-free or lactose-free.”And here's a thought from Dr. Dane A. Roubos, D.C., B.Sc., originally published in Nexus Magazine: “To maintain good health it is important that we have the correct intake of omega fatty acids in our diets. Hydrogenated fats like margarine are non-foods with toxic effects and should be avoided at any cost.”

“Non-foods with toxic effects.” Isn't that a ringing product endorsement? Funny, I've never seen that one on a commercial for Blue Bonnet.

From a nutritional standpoint, the '50s and '60s were not good to us. An entire generation of Americans, hornswoggled by unscrupulous, dollar-driven ad men and their pseudo-scientific puppets, grew up believing that it was perfectly okay to consume gallons of sugary, syrupy soft drinks because doing so was “refreshing” and would make them part of a new cool, hip “in” crowd. We were led down a garden path that actually led out of the garden and into a chemistry lab where our food was salted, sugared, processed, and preserved beyond anything our ancestors would have even recognized as food. This was all done in the name of “modern convenience,” of course. Old-fashioned cooking was so passe, after all. It was all about “minute” rice and “instant” potatoes and macaroni and cheese from a box. Worse still, we liked it, or at least deluded ourselves into thinking we did. We so coated our taste buds with chemicals and preservatives that we actually thought the stuff we were heating up from cans and boxes and plastic packages was not only good for us, it was good tasting, too. That's why a man I know, a man brainwashed from birth by Madison Avenue's claims of margarine's health benefits and superior taste, won't have what he calls “that butter crap” in his house.

And now here we sit, obese and ridden with allergies, diabetes, cancer, and all manner of cardiac diseases, wondering how we got here. Thank God butter consumption is up: maybe people are finally learning something.

Look, as I said before, I'm not trying to tell anybody that butter is a health food. It's not. It's purely a saturated fat and every legitimate health organization on the planet recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat. But it's a natural fat. It was created by a cow, not a chemist. And if I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather be killed by Mother Nature than by the bastard step-child of a French chemist whose Frankenstein-like creation was developed in order to win a contest.

So butter me up another biscuit, Betsy, and make sure it's real butter. I don't want any of that margarine crap in my house.