Jump to content

John Whiting

participating member
  • Posts

  • Joined

  • Last visited

Posts posted by John Whiting

  1. Along with Jay, I don’t begrudge the masters of their craft the opportunity to earn a fraction of what they would rake in as star athletes. But I deeply resent the economic structure that makes it necessary for them to transmogrify into culinary viruses in order to do so.

    A quarter century ago John and Karen Hess wrote in The Taste of America:

    The dirty secret of American luxury dining is precooked frozen food. It will remain a secret, because the industry has no intention of allowing the public to know that it is getting vending-machine food at luxury prices.
    If you replace frozen with sous vide, how long will it be before the signature dishes of these gastronomic empires are produced in some central kitchen in which sub-chefs turn out identical specialities from identical ingredients flown in from all over the world? Over the barred entrance will be a wrought-iron sign reading, KUCHEN MACHT FREI.

    Jay, would it be illegal/unethical for you to post your article on eGullet as it existed before it was hacked to bits? (That’s a genuinely innocent question.)

  2. There's a noticable difference between potato, semolina and wheat flour gnocchi. Potato, with a varying amount of wheat flour added according to the texture of the potato, is widely considered to be the least stodgy. I've had gnocchi in Italy that I thought were delicious, and gnocchi made by me that were inedible. :sad:

  3. The national cuisines that we sophisticated Western Europeans find most laughable are those that have stayed closest to their peasant origins, in which diet was determined by grinding poverty. The tasty rural cuisine du terroir of modern France had to be invented. From my paper on Authenticity for the Oxford Food Symposium:

    Coming up with a cuisine du terroir…was problematical: to bourgeois taste, peasant food was repugnant. Jean Pierre Poulin, in Manger aujourd’hui, reiterates that

    The peasants ate mainly bread….Meals mainly consisted of soups, where a fundamental feature was a piece of stale bread left to soften in the stock….Sometimes a little meat or, even better, fat or oil, was added for taste.

    It was counterproductive to strive for an authenticity that prospective consumers would find distasteful, and so tourist-motivated traditions were invented which gave familiar bourgeois dishes some semblance of local colour. Hermann Bausinger, quoted by Denis Chevalier in Vives Campagnes, Autrement, states unequivocally that

    From the 19th century onwards, there were a great many typical villages in the Alps or around the Mediterranean which were devoted to reconstructing and even inventing examples of the past.

    The fruits of this Orwellian revision might have been titled The 1984 Cookbook. Rachel Laudan summarizes its ingenious machinations:

    It made no sense as history. But the French Terroir Strategy was a brilliant marketing device that satisfied modern yearnings for a romanticized past by advertising tradition and exploiting modern methods of production and distribution….The strategy did wonders for big wine growers, restaurant owners, and those producers who could upgrade their products to appeal to sophisticated urban tastes.

  4. Even if the world’s most famous chefs actually succeed in cloning themselves to infinity, is this really our idea of a great meal at a premium price? Do we want fine dining to take on the international anonymity of the fast food chains? Five years ago Russ Parsons in another eGullet thread wrote of

    …the growing uniformity I find in restaurants around the world. It gets to the point that I sometimes can't tell which city I'm in – Paris, London, Alba, LA? Roughly the same ingredients prepared in roughly the same way.

    And that was before the Michelin-starred establishments began reproducing like Campbell’s soup cans from the brush of Andy Warhol. Any given country’s most hyped restaurants are becoming as ethnically ambiguous as its airline terminals.

  5. Any list should be regarded with caution. Again and again I've had "reliable" information about summer closings, only to discover that one restaurant or another had chosen to close earlier. After Bastille Day, in my experience, it gets a bit quixotic (or cyranic?).

  6. A dozen years ago I toured Germany regularly in a VW Transporter with a false floor, under which I would pack cases of wine I'd picked up from the best wineries along the major rivers. They were so cheap that I bought what I liked, paying no attention to the little figues in the right-hand column. At the end of the trip, the average cost per bottle was usually well under five pounds. If I had behaved similarly in Bordeaux or Burgundy, a single journey would have required a second mortgage.

    With the World Cup looming on the horizon, London's "quality" papers have suddenly discovered that Germany actually exists. The Guardians G2 recently devoted an entire issue to ironic columns by eminent German journalists.

  7. It isn't just the food that's sous-vide-- it's the restaurants themselves.

    Nice line. Wish I'd put it in the piece. In case anybody notices and wonders, some curious coding problems have turned up in the on-line version. I have no idea why Robuchon's first name has the apostrophe in it but it's not there on the old-fashioned printed page.

    You disappoint me--I thought you were in on Joel's real spelling! :biggrin:

    EDIT: Happiness is praise from a master stylist!

    FURTHER EDIT: Jay, what's your gut reaction to all this (if you feel like stating it)?

  8. My horse-race metaphor had to do, not with making money, but with boring predictability. If *everybody* could tell who was going to win, there'd be no point.

    There's a parallel discussion going on in another website in which the suggestion has been gloriously put forth that it would be wonderful if top chefs could set up factories turning out their sous-vide specialties by the thousands to boil-in-a-bag at home. I can think of an apt comparison or two that could get me suspended from eGullet. :laugh:

  9. It's a point often expressed, but one that can't be expressed often enough: a good restaurant is universally agreed to be one that delivers good food in a pleasant atmosphere at a fair price. Yet we've all come to accept that such qualities are neither sufficient nor essential to win the favour of Michelin, which somehow remains the industry's own benchmark.


    Your definition of a good restaurant is that which most people apply pragmatically in choosing where to eat. Those who go regularly to McDonald are doing exactly that in their own eyes; so is the millionaire who hops on a jet (his own) for lunch at l'Arpege. Those who are most concerned with the new Michelin ratings are ambitious chefs and dedicated followers of fashion. (Of course there are also travellers who use the Big Red Book to get a decent meal in a strange place.)

    Then there's us. Many who post here are simply fascinated with what's going on--it would not be unfair to call us trainspotters. But our category can further be broken down into those who actually eat at Michelin's latest stars and those who are content to read about them--and that's not necessarily a division between the super-rich and the just scraping by..

    If Michelin were predictably rational in choosing restaurants to be honored, it would take away much of the fun. Who would watch a horse race if they could figure out with certainty who would be first past the post?

  10. True enough, Boston baked beans isn't a million miles from cassoulet.

    You may be even closer than you think. As Ptipois correctly observed, the essential minimum for a cassoulet is beans and fatty pork with skin. This is also the case with Boston baked beans, with the added distinguishing ingredient of molasses. Like the Jewish cholent, the slow-cooked Boston baked beans were used as a means of avoiding work on the sabbath; and, like the cassoulet, the pot was often baked in the communal oven and delivered by the baker on Saturday evening or Sunday morning along with some brown bread. (Source: The American Heritage Cookbook)
  11. So the basic ingredients and a lot of the technique is similar, it seems that the major differences are in the details.

    Ingredients that go naturally together are likely to show up similarly juxtaposed in different cuisines. For instance the difference between a ratatouille and a caponata is similarly one of detail.
  12. ... what part have restaurants/taverns/eating houses historically played in giving the dish a regional identity, in contrast to 'yet another bean and meat stew' made in private homes?

    Those who live in the area can answer with more knowledge than I have, but it's highly relevant that both bouillabaisse (which you also mention) and cassoulet have websites set up by "official" guardians of their integrity, who just happen to be running restaurants serving the One True Version.
  13. One other family (Carcassonne) requires partridge.

    If partridge were compulsory, Carcassonne cassoulets could only be made from October through January. Unless of course there's a confit de perdrix I haven't heard of. :biggrin:

    EDIT: “Schools” of cuisine, like those of art, music and other social activities, are attempts to describe random activity after it has already taken place. They are versions of naïve set theory minus the intersections; i.e. they look for concentrations of similarities within a broad spectrum and ignore the borderline examples between their chosen categories that it would be impossible to place definitively in one school or another.

    Prosper Montagne, his tongue firmly in his cheek, posited a cassoulet Holy Trinity of Father (Castelnaudary), Son (Carcassonne), and Holy Spirit (Toulouse). Once established, it has perpetuated contraversies as politically, economically and egotistically inspired as those of the Nicene Council. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, cassoulet is whatever you can get away with.

  14. My sympathies are with those who are prepared to expend a certain amount of time, energy and money in making what goes into their mouths as pleasing as possible, without devoting their entire lives to it.

    There are reputable food scholars who suggest that the cassoulet evolved from the Jewish cholent. In most of Europe, geese were in short supply, so perhaps they may be forgiven for having used brisket. :biggrin:


    The Larousse gastronomique (1997) cites other versions [of cassoulet] from Montauban and Comminges and quotes a gastronomic ‘decree’ of the 1960s, stating that a true cassoulet must contain at least 30% pork (which can include sausage), mutton, or [sic] confit d’oie (goose). However, the same work acknowledges the existence of a fish cassoulet made with salt cod.
    Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food

    There are two recipes for Cassoulet de morue in Pierre Koffmann's Memories of Gascony. The first and simpler of these is on line here.

  15. I agree about the depth of pot being important.

    As I mentioned in connection with using my lasagne dish, I found it to be important only in regard to checking and maintaining the fluid level. The cassoulets I made in it were as good as the later ones in cassoles (with the bonus of more crust), but required a bit of extra care and attention. (Obviously a very shallow dish wouldn't work at all.)
  16. You cannot make cassoulet with any type of white beans. You should fine-textured legumes with thin skin. In the Southwest, three main types are recommended, apart from the very local varieties that can't be found outside of the region: lingots de Vendée, lingots de Soissons, and tarbais. Avoid the cocos (Navy beans), which are all skin. Soissons are tops.

    The problem with tarbais is that, when they are too young, they melt to a cream and don't hold their shape. In this case, indeed, it is advisable not to soak them but briefly boil them before the actual cooking takes place.

    All this is fine in theory; in fact, most of the beans served in cassoulets in Languedoc restaurants come from Argentina.

    Cassoulet was born as a what-can-we-do-with-what-we've-got recipe. Even the three principal cassoulet-producing areas can't agree among themselves as to the basic ingredients, and if you go into a Languedoc village with fifty housewives, you'll find at least fifty-one recipes.

    EDIT: Cassoulet is too useful a dish to be monopolized by gourmets. I once made a cassoulet in one day from ingredients available in a rural north-of-Scotland supermarket. Chicken had to substitute for goose or duck, green fatty bacon for pork belly. Even dried haricot beans were unobtainable, only broad butter beans. (These are in fact closer to what was traditional in cassoulet's early years. According to Alan Davidson, haricot beans arrived in France from the New World by way of Spain in the 16th century, and only gradually replaced the broad beans in cassoulet.) There was plenty of good lean pork, lamb and decent sausage. A large bread bowl from a local shop sufficed as a cassole, and chicken fat did for goose. My French Languedoc-conditioned diners thought it about as good as most of the cassoulets they’d eaten.

  • Create New...