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The Eternal Raisin Debate: Innocuous Dr. Jekyll or insidious Mr. Hyde?

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This is an article recovered from the Daily Gullet archive, originally published in 2003.

 

by Janet A. Zimmerman
Thursday, March 27, 2003

 

FORGET POLITICS and religion. You think the insurmountable divisions are between liberals and conservatives, Palestinians and Israelis, low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets? Nope. The real division, the line in the sand that counts, concerns raisins. The conflict in the Middle East or Northern Ireland is nothing compared to a raisin hater faced with a raisin lover.


Actually, the term "raisin lover" is probably a misnomer. People who like raisins never seem to be quite as ardent in their taste for raisins as raisin haters are in their abhorrence. I know. I'm firmly on the side of those who despise the nasty little fruits.


To be precise, I have to say that it's mostly the texture of raisins that I detest. I don't dislike the taste of raisins at all, really. Give me a late harvest zinfandel wine or a raisiny port and I'm fine. Perhaps even stranger, I don't particularly loathe plain raisins on any grounds. I don't go out of my way to eat them, but they're not that bad. I would much rather eat raisins than, say, blue cheese or insects. (Blue cheese is the other thing I really hate; once my sister found a recipe for a blue cheese souffle made with a raisin bread crust, and sent it to me. So terribly amusing, my sister is.)


But add raisins to food, any food, and all bets are off. Raisins are vile and loathsome in any dish at all, sweet or savory -- tiny desiccated Dr. Jekylls that, when added to innocent cinnamon rolls, turn into plump, slimy, nasty Mr. Hydes. I spent my childhood picking raisins out of spice cookies (my mother finally started making a portion of each batch without them after I fed so many raisins to the dog she became ill), sweet rolls, and cinnamon toast; I know what baking does to them. They should not be baked. They especially should not be soaked in brandy or rum and then baked (the true definition of "alcohol abuse"). Nuts and raisins together in baked goods are particularly evil; it goes without saying that fruitcake should be banned by Geneva Convention.


And Raisinets? The spawn of Satan. Raisins should never touch chocolate. End of story.


Imagine my dismay when I got a little older and more adventurous and found out that some cooks add raisins to savory dishes. My college roommate loved raisins. Fortunately, she never tried to bake anything. But she put raisins in fruit salad; I picked them out. She added raisins to rice; I picked them out. I thought it was the idiosyncrasy of a bad cook. Little did I know that she was not alone in this barbarism.


The only thing worse than regulation raisins are sultanas (the golden variety), because they blend in like undercover agents. You'll be eating a nice saffron imbued rice pilaf, and suddenly -- squish -- there's an albino raisin in your mouth. And picking them out is hard work, as they can hide. (Note to raisin lovers: if you have to use them, stick with the regular kind -- they're much easier to recover and destroy.)


And here's what really bothers me about raisins: they always seem to be in dishes that -- except for that blue cheese souffle thing, of course -- I would otherwise really like. I love curries, I love Middle Eastern foods, and I love cinnamon rolls. These things should not contain raisins. You want to add raisins to ambrosia? To Jello? Fine. But please, please don't pollute my couscous. And, whichever chef first added raisins to chicken salad should be forced to spend eternity watching Emeril reruns while sitting next to Rachel Ray.


I try to be understanding, generous. I don't think people who put raisins in food are being deliberately malicious. But I'd like to know, honestly, why they do it. Really, think about it. Would you miss those little dried grapes if you didn't add them to the carrot cake, those cookies, or that chicken salad? What can they possibly add, besides a virtually indiscernible touch of flavor and little pockets of squishy stickiness?


And yet I know that it's impossible to make a non-hater understand just how repulsive the little things are. People who like raisins look at me as if I'm crazy when I try to describe why I don't. I suppose it's no different with anything else. I have a friend, for instance, who hates celery. This is inexplicable to me. How can you hate celery? It's so, so innocuous. Isn't it?


But undoubtedly that's what other people say about raisins. Except that they're wrong. Raisins have one legitimate use, and that is for Amarone wine. Aside from that, keep them away from me


Janet A. Zimmerman (JAZ) writes about food and teaches cooking classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently working on a book, Matters of Taste.

 

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