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markk

Why did we stop eating like this?

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I remember a heated debate in the Italy forum regarding "Traditional vs.Contemporary" food, and since there isn't a "France and French Food" topic, I put this here. There were some heated (albeit friendly) discussions between some stubborn oafs (me) and other members about the merits of "traditional" foods, versus the new "molecular" and "deconstructed" cuisines, though with this post I am also lumping "nouvelle" in there for what I'm going to ask in this thread...

So I got to thinking after eating this fabulously executed, not-modernized-in-any-way meal at Benoit in New York City:

It began when we split three starters...

Lucullus-Style Langue de Veau:

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(Sliced tongue stacked with a 'mortar' of delicious foie-gras mousse; what could be bad?)

Pâté en Croûte, Lucien Tendret recipe of 1892:

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and Duck Foie Gras confit:

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I don't know if the Lucullan-style tongue recipe actually dates from 65BC, but it's clearly a pre-nouvelle one.

The main course was "Côte de Bœuf 'Rossini' " for two: a rib steak (grilled to perfection, I might add, crusty on the outside and exactly as rare as we had ordered) topped with generous slabs of sauteed foie gras, and a rich sauce made with a veal reduction with Madiera and truffles.

The cooked steak was presented:

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then taken away and sliced and presented with the foie gras:

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and we asked to serve ourselves, as we started with small helpings:

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(Sliced steak topped with foie gras; what could be bad?)

Dessert was perhaps the best Tarte Tatin I've ever had (and extra-difficult to photograph):

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(Sorry, the accompanying pot of Crème fraîche is not shown.)

So we wondered, to ourselves, and out loud in a discussion with the manager, why people stopped eating, and why restaurants stopped serving "real food" like this. We decided that it all went downhill with the introduction of "nouvelle cuisine" in the 1970's.

But with the opening of Alain Ducasse's Benoit, and with the recent opening of Daniel Boulud's Bar Boulud (where we had very similar starters, and one of the most magnificent duck confit preparations I've ever had), it seems like what I call "real" food has come back into vogue, and if the various chefs' "first" restaurants aren't yet returned to this, but they're opening "bistros" to serve it, will it be long before their namesake upscale-French restaurants swing back to this cuisine again? Granted, duck confit is a bistro item, but Steak Rossini is certainly not.

I understand that one can't eat this food every night. But why did we we stop eating, and why did restaurants stop serving "real food" in the first place??

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I don't think that I agree with the premise that "we" stopped eating and that "restaurants stop serving 'real food.'" The best meal I've ever had was at Alinea, but here in Providence we enjoy excellent food that qualifies as real every day. Even in NYC I don't think that the sort of hearty fare you are championing is gone. As for home, I certainly don't think that molecular gastronomy has transformed even fraction of the meals served there.

Perhaps I'm missing your point?

PS: that tarte tatin looks fantastic.

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Perhaps I'm missing your point?

Well, I think that in a lot of ways, fine dining changed for the worse with the introduction of "nouvelle cuisine", and "fusion cuisine", and the latest trends whose names I cannot speak.

And in many of the top French restaurants in New York, everything now has Asian flavors and/or aspects to the food that "real" (traditional) French food didn't used to have: influences of other cuisines and their treatment of ingredients at the very least.

So that was really my point. I'd like to go back to a time when high-end French restaurants served this kind of food, made to four-star standards.

I guess I'm the "Archie Bunker" of French food, and wondered if anybody else who noticed that fine French dining isn't like this any more (and hasn't been since the 1970's) agrees with me.


Edited by markk (log)

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... it seems like what I call "real" food has come back into vogue, and if the various chefs' "first" restaurants aren't yet returned to this, but they're opening "bistros" to serve it, will it be long before their namesake upscale-French restaurants swing back to this cuisine again?  ... why did we stop eating, and why did restaurants stop serving "real food" in the first place??

Don't forget that the silly, the overwrought, and the faddish have influenced cooking (and restaurants) for centuries, if the historical and reference books I've seen are accurate. I'm told Escoffier's famous formalizing and publicizing (and numbering) of "approved" French recipes (as the Guide Culinaire) was a reaction to cooks passing off any old thing under the name of a famous dish. (Modern parallels: genre products like Fettuccine Alfredo and "French" salad dressing in 20th-century North America; "Bolognese" meat sauces that are different all over Europe, none authentic.) Gault and Millau's "nouvelle" cuisine of the 1970s then reacted, in turn, to overreliance on a recipe canon at the expense of ingredient quality and creativity.

Meanwhile as you point out well, real comfort food continues to be made and served in bistros. From sound ingredients and folksy touches -- confits and innards and meat pies all figure in the posting above. John and Karen Hess once remarked that cooking's history is largely the story of housewives making something interesting from cuts the gentry wouldn't touch ...

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Just to reassure you, there are lots of restaurant meals here in the south of France that very much resemble yours. The execution you show might be a bit more elevated than some, but I can find those elements on many menus here. It's much harder to find nouvelle-influenced food, were one looking.

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I think eating changed when everything else did, with the advent of easy transportation and jobs off the homestead.

You can't eat like that and not work it off in some manner. Most people can't find enough hours in the day to work off a real meal.

I cook for the guys who work for me on the farm and trust me, they are putting it away. They eat enough to make any food lover happy. But they work, and despite the fact I can go through two dozen eggs in a week, we're all *knock on wood* pretty healthy.

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We found out about cholesterol and the health risks of obesity. Nothing wrong with food like that every now and then, looks fabulous in fact, but it's just not the kind of thing you can eat every day.

We also got considerably better non french food in this country, particularly asian food.

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We still eat like this (at least until my stock of foie gras runs out).

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Another question might be "When did we start eating like this?". Although I'm no food historian, I would guess that the style which you call "real food" was derived relatively recently. Food, like culture, evolves and to some extent I think the new style of cooking reflects a more systematic exploration of the senses we use in enjoying a fine meal. I think it has to some extent allowed a food-focused person to better analyze, refine and ultimately elevate all styles of cooking. I love it.


Edited by Mallet (log)

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I think eating changed when everything else did, with the advent of easy transportation

Yes, I know that in theory, "nouvelle cuisine" started because things started appearing fresh in the markets of Lyon, and Paul Bocuse couldn't find recipes for them in the Escoffier master lists, so he broke from tradition and invented recipes, and though he called it "market cuisine", it took hold as "nouvelle cuisine".

But it meant the end of foods like "Tournedos Rossini" (the traditional name for that dish make with fillet mignon), and it doesn't seem to me that the fancy French restaurants in New York have ever quite returned fully to that style of cooking in full force.

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I'm inclined to think the molecular gastronomy trend is motivated by different impulses on different sides of the Atlantic. The founding, European model is a continuation of the well-established tradition of supplying people who have too much disposable income and leisure time with something to keep them amused. While the American version performs that same function admirably, I'll be a little kinder to it and suggest that it's also part of a larger trend among us, by which we're simply trying to relearn what food actually is. With so many venerable foodways lost or atrophied, so much food production given over to industrialization, so much psychological and spiritual distance separating city and countryside, it isn't too surprising to see the culinarily curious energized and enchanted by the notion of distilling pure flavors into foams, tinctures, or ethereal blobs.

As to whether indulging that curiosity will get them--or the rest of us--anywhere in the long run, I have my doubts, but I think I at least understand the motivation. What's more important is that many other components of this awakening of ours are occurring at the same time (organics, local sourcing, humane animal raising, heirloom produce, real cheese, charcuterie revival, etc.). As they take hold and alter the overall picture, our craving for stunts like molecular gastronomy will go the way of our baby teeth. The way things are shaping up, we won't be able to afford them anymore anyway.

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I'm inclined to think the molecular gastronomy trend is motivated by different impulses on different sides of the Atlantic. The founding, European model is a continuation of the well-established tradition of supplying people who have too much disposable income and leisure time with something to keep them amused. While the American version performs that same function admirably, I'll be a little kinder to it and suggest that it's also part of a larger trend among us, by which we're simply trying to relearn what food actually is. With so many venerable foodways lost or atrophied, so much food production given over to industrialization, so much psychological and spiritual distance separating city and countryside, it isn't too surprising to see the culinarily curious energized and enchanted by the notion of distilling pure flavors into foams, tinctures, or ethereal blobs.

As to whether indulging that curiosity will get them--or the rest of us--anywhere in the long run, I have my doubts, but I think I at least understand the motivation. What's more important is that many other components of this awakening of ours are occurring at the same time (organics, local sourcing, humane animal raising, heirloom produce, real cheese, charcuterie revival, etc.). As they take hold and alter the overall picture, our craving for stunts like molecular gastronomy will go the way of our baby teeth. The way things are shaping up, we won't be able to afford them anymore anyway.

Well said Barry except after visiting your website and reading a few excerpts from your book, I'll have to go out on a limb and guess that everything you've said above is a stone cold LIE! :laugh:

*** Also, note to self *** Must find a way to invite myself to dinners with markk. :wink:

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molecular gastronomy is a direct result of the formalist art movement. It is about paring food down to the essentials, down to the very meaning of the food. That way you can have a bite of food that tastes and evokes the feeling of the particular food more than the actual dish.

Food provides a very accessible and understandable way to do this.

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That meal is exactly what I ate in culinary school, and the kind of food I enjoyed cooking when I got out. Traditional, very French, heavy. It's delicious, decadent stuff. I love it, and love that there are still restaurants that are cooking it.

But you know, cooking is like any other creative persuit. Things are going to change, evolve. Whether or not you find molecular gastronomy to be enjoyable or to your taste is beside the point - it is more than doing its bit to keep high end cooking relevant.

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Another question might be "When did we start eating like this?". Although I'm no food historian, I would guess that the style which you call "real food" was derived relatively recently ...

Let's see: 1892 and 65 BC given as dates for two of the recipes, and foie gras was already an ancient delicacy when it was popular in Roman times (dating to the Egyptian empires).

My point isn't to quibble with Mallet, but to repeat a principle about timelessness emphasized a few decades ago by a popular US author on European cooking (Julia Child or maybe Marcella Hazan -- not sure at the moment, though the remark's been in my food quot'ns file for 20 years). The specific comment was about about good stews, and how they survive all manner of food fads and trends, belonging instead to a category A. J. Liebling labeled "the I-beam of cooking," the sort of dishes that can always please people whose criteria are good and satisfying flavor. I think that language could apply also to some of the sorts of foods markk mentioned above.

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My two rather unexperienced cents....

We quit eating like this for the most part because society itself has changed. People placed value on well prepared food. Now a days most of the people I know go for fast food. And its a shame really. As I was eating lunch at my desk today, like I do many days, I was pondering the idea of how nice it would be to just get out and actually SIT somewhere and EAT a decent meal with REAL forks during the day. Unfortunately for myself and most my co-works that is something that rarely happens. And I think our collective health has suffered for it (Here in the US anyway).

Molecular gastronomy I think is a natural existention of the change in times and what appeals to the senses today. I mean, doesn't the food like of look like something cartoonish in a way? It does to me, and thinking of all the video games, japanese anime (sp?) and stuff that is popular, it makes a certain sense.

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We stopped eating like that when cooks realized they didn't need to serve the same thing that their grandparents cooked. Molecular gastronomy aside, access to quality produce and seafood has changed the way we all eat. It doesn't look like there is anything in that meal that couldn't be stored in the fridge for two weeks. No question some of those dishes are delicious, but unless you live in the gulags you probably have access to more interesting ingredients.

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Culinary currency is all about trends and fads, and thus is cyclical. But certain truths remain constant, like classic French, Italian, etc. With the advent of modern gadgetry, fundamental techniques are being manipulated with ,I would argue, less skill, but consistent precision to create a interpretation of a method or a cultural cuisine. The "theater" of dining has intruded into the experience, where actually ingesting of a food is an afterthought, merely sniffing something, or eating paper, or whatever is considered dining.


Edited by Timh (log)

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IMHO, there are two factors at the fore of the current food "fashions":

First, most of us in Western nations cannot "afford" to dine on the classics all of the time, from a caloric/nutritional POV. It is only in recent years that the greatest health threat faced by developed societies is too many calories, versus too few. The fact that many, if not most, of us make our livings with our brains and very little physical labor means that consumption of high-caloric-density foods is a health threat. (And, for all that we 'poor folk' like to gripe, these past few decades are the first time in history that being overweight is an overwhelming problem among lower-income workers, at least in the developed economies of the world.)

Secondly, information and transportation technologies have developed to the point that all of us - including underpaid peons like myself - have relatively easy access to exotic foods and foodways. Even twenty years ago, when I was first married, I couldn't just Google a technique for (as an example) tempering chocolate. My methods would have relied upon whatever I might find in a cookbook, plus whatever sage advice passed on by reliable cooks in my social network; and my list of potential ingredients would have been very small, compared to what I find available today. As things stand now, I'm able to easily access a worldwide network of ingredients, methods, and recipes that have never, until now, been accessible to the average home cook.

And, while we're all longing for the "good old days," when food was food and methods of preparation were classic and not subject to trends: The "good old days" never were. Ancient Roman recipes were as trendy as foams are today - bird tongues, anyone? - and Medieval Europe had more than its share of Fashionable Foods, like "four-and-twenty blackbirds, baked into a pie." Food, as with clothing, goes through cycles of fashion. We in the twenty-first century simply have the advantage easy access to lots of information about contemporary trends, as well as more ancient ones.

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