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Fat Guy

The Sweet Food Problem

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As we were beginning to discuss on the Mrs. Fields/cinnamon-bun thread (in Media), I'm finding that a lot of food served most everywhere is too sweet. I'm not just talking about desserts, though those are often too sweet too (for example, I like to taste the bitterness of chocolate, not just sugar with some chocolate overtones). I'm talking about supposedly savory dishes that are overwhelmed by fruity, sweet, cloying sauces and ingredients. I'm not a die-hard about the wall between savory and sweet ingredients, but surely a dessert-like fish dish is too much. Also, I've found this problem to be much more acute when traveling in America outside New York.

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I prefer whipped cream unsweetened and find that very few restaurants serve it this way. I also find that sometimes even fruit has been sweetened which IMHO ruins it.

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Fat Guy, I've seen a dangerous trend in France as well. It should be noted that if I see something once and it really bothers me, I see a dangerous trend. Even Daniel Boulud's masterful incorporation of fruit into seafood dishes leaves me sometimes wondering why, but in his case it's done without any sense of "sweet" and my question is put aside at least as long as I'm eating, which is only when it matters.

A few years ago in Brittany, my wife and I ordered two separate dishes at a two star restaurant. It was debatable which of us least enjoyed the dish or the restaurant. We found the dishes syrupy in a way that went beyond the sweetness I've found acceptable in Asian preparations. At least two more editions of Michelin have come out with the same two star rating. Unless we were there on a bad experiment day, I smell danger.

Just last month at a lcoal Parisian restaurant with no stars, but with some bit of attention in the press and by word of mouth, I had a crab salad garnsihed with a scoop of tomato ice cream. It was creamy, sweet and unexpected. It could have been dessert. It's possible to do a savory ice cream. I think sweet was a creative choice. The lacquered duck that followed was also sweeter than expected although here I expected some sweetness.

As for the U.S., one of the things that led us to approach yearly trips to the Adirondaks via Montreal rather than from airports and train stations closer to home, was the food. Everything in Burlington, VT seemed to come garnished with fresh fruit as if I was ordering some brunch special. The killer was the bowl of pasta with salmon in cream sauce, in some very fancy restaurant somewhere upstate. It really didn't need that sprinkling of fresh blueberries on top. I could only guess they ran out of dill or chives.

I would be tempted to argue with Rosie and say desserts, on the other hand, cannot be to sweet, but an Emeril Lagasse banana pie with caramel demonstrated otherwise.

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I would argue that desserts can definitely be too sweet, as well as salads (some raspberry or fruit vinegrettes) and many meat courses that incorporate fruit in the sauce (e.g., duck or venison with a cherry or berry demiglaze). As mentioned, chocolate is easily ruined by too much sugar (eg most American products).  I haven't noticed this trend often in France, but find that when I haven't ordered a tasting menu, I am usually much happier if I opt for a cheese course instead of dessert.  (And then we have chicken in cocacola sauce).  

Addendum: Have you ever noticed in the US how many people opt for a caffeinated soft drink instead of coffee when snatching breakfast on the run?  This has to either foster or reflect a major sugar preference or addiction.  

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Yesterday I turned on an infomercial and watched a woman make a cake that (a) was steamed on the stovetop, and (b) had diet coke in it.  In fact, the topping for the cake consisted of canned cherry pie filling and diet coke.  Because, you know, cherry pie filling isn't sweet enough right out of the can.  There was also diet coke in the batter.

On the other hand, this weekend I made a chocolate polenta cake.  I used Scharffen-Berger 70%.  It was aces.  And I didn't even have to buy a weird infomercial device.

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I agree with Margaret. Having spent a lot of time this year working in the United States in corporate offices I just can't get over the fact that if we have a meeting at 7am they will bring in trays of donuts and danishes covered in various forms of sugar and then nearly everyone in the meeting will drink a Coke for breakfast!! There is a serious sugar addicition problem.

No wonder so many restaurant dishes are loaded with honey or caramel.

However Scharffen-Berger chocolate is an exception (mamsters reply). It is a very well-made product and reminds me of the quality of, say, Valrhona from France. Good chocoloate should taste of chocolate not added sugar.

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Isn't the sweetness of chocolate a simple question of the percentage of sugar and aren't most good chocolates available in a range of percentages? I'm asking, rather than saying for sure that I know, because I don't for sure. Thanks.

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Yes, the sweetness of chocolate is purely to do with the percentage sugar.  However, not all brands are available in a reasonable range of percentages.  And the problem with sugar in general is that it can be used to cover up flaws in the product.  I will gladly eat Valrhona or Scharffen-Berger 70% straight, but if Hershey's made a 70% bar, it would be just as bad as a regular Hershey bar.

I keep forgetting to mention El Rey.  I haven't bought any in a while since Scharf is available in more convenient sizes for baking and Valrhona is available cheap at Trader Joe's, but the El Rey chocolate is an unusual product that plays up some of the fruity tastes in chocolate that other manufacturers play down.  It's not better so much as different, but I have a powerful craving for El Rey from time to time.

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I've not noticed a lot of people grabbing a coke for breakfast, but I eat most breakfasts at home. I don't get to lot of corporate board rooms as well, although I have to admit I've spent a few afternoons in corporate lawyer's offices which is better than spending them in court. Soft drinks and American coffee are always there. My understanding is that the Coca-Cola for breakfast is most popular in the same region that considers sweetened ice tea or lemonade as the proper lunch and dinner accompanyment.

Sweet salad dressings are strange to me as well, but most American recipes for vinaigrette include sugar.

(Edited by Bux at 4:33 pm on Aug. 28, 2001)

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I'm pleased you mentioned El Rey chocolate. Perhaps the slightly different taste comes from the fact that it is manufactured in Venezuela. I have tried this chocolate a couple of times and thought it was particularly good.

My understanding is that they use criollo beans from Venezuela for the production.

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Nobody's mentioned the new super-sweet varieties of fresh corn on the cob. They appeared maybe 10 years ago and at first they tasted horribly sweet to me, and it had less corn flavor. Remember the days when you had to eat fresh corn the same day it was picked, or it would lose its sweetness and be starchy? The new corn might actually be better the next day, tho' the texture is tougher. I've actually acclamated to it, I hate to say.

Have you noticed that American bread often has suger added? Yech.

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savory dishes that are overwhelmed by fruity, sweet, cloying sauces and ingredients.
Soft shell crabs tonight in a citrus sauce that turned out to be candy orange at Aquagrill. My initial dinner at this restaurant was less than scintillating, but word of mouth led me back and we've become fond of the place for oysters. Maybe I let my guard down and slipped by ordering something that wasn't simple and plain, but this dish was unpleasant. Come to think of it, the octopus salad I ordered as an appetizer really needed some zing to counter the sweet onion marmelade on the plate.

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It is true: most American things have gratuitous added sugar. One example I find is Ben and Jerry's ice cream (which used to be good); it's consistently too sweet. Of course, the whole formula has become so hopelessly adulterated since their sale to a corporate giant that I've given up on it. (And those "Twisted" flavors? Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?)

And even if the discussion on this board is largely about chocolate and how many of us prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, you have to notice that most of Middle America prefers milk chocolate. (Which has been referred to as "brown cheese", but that's a different thread altogether.)

We did get a "bitter chocolate" at Zabar's, and the name escapes me (Michel something) without realizing that 99% meant there was no added sugar. That's too extreme even for me.

Lastly, I notice that dishes combining meat and fruit aren't always a corruption; sometimes they harken back to an earlier time. I cite "Pork Tenderloin with Cherries" which appears in my "Modern Italian Cooking" by Biba Caggiano. In the intro to the recipe, she says, "Cooking with fruit is nothing new. In many dishes from the Renaissance, we find that fruit appears often in conjunction with meats or fowls." She goes on to say that for her, eating game with fruit is the only way: the fruit is a foil to the gamey flavor. Takes all kinds.

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dishes combining meat and fruit aren't always a corruption; sometimes they harken back to an earlier time.
True and even in an earlier time one might question how the French, who gave us such "classics" as Duck a l'orange, could say that Americans liked sweet things with meat. However, the difference really was about the way the fruit and it's natural sugars are used in combination the meat and other ingredients. It's one thing to use fruit as a foil and another to let the fruit overwhelm and worse yet to add additional sugar as if the fruit were dessert and the higlight of the dish.

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1.) Americans don't always choose "gratuitous added sugar", American food conglomerates do.  It's a chicken or egg question as to whether they did so to fill a need they saw, or whether the perception of the need developed because Americans got used to it.

Of course this thread started based on a discussion of restaurant food and not packaged or prepared food, but the argument still works.  If Americans came to expect extra sweetness in one venue, then why not another?  Chefs are people too, and what they themselves see on the shelves, and what people around them expect are certainly factors in their choices.

2.) Consumption of soft drinks for breakfast isn't inherently any more ridiculous than consumption of caffeine.  Whether its true or not, many people at least THINK that the sugar will act as a stimulant.

Of course I've seen people drink DIET SODA with Breakfast.  What's the deal with that?

3.) Meat and Fruit:  I think this thread got away from Fat Guy's original complaint about "fruity, sweet, cloying sauces and ingredients".  For me, at least, the natural sugar in the fruits isn't the problem--its the idea of a sauce supplemented by fruit and/or added sugar--especially when its something not suited to it.  Heck, I don't even like Cranberry sauce on Turkey--I'd rather my Turkey have gravy with a full body and I don't even want that Cranberry sauce on the same plate.

4.) Sweet corn:  One added bonus of Sweet corn is that it doesn't need butter.  A bit of roasted garlic rubbed up against it is more than enough.

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Quote: from jhlurie on 11:08 am on Oct. 10, 2001

Of course I've seen people drink DIET SODA with Breakfast.  What's the deal with that?

i ask, what's *wrong* with that?!?

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"gratuitous added sugar"
It's a question of balance. As for the chicken and egg question, my earlier reference to a soft shell crab dish was about a level of sweetness comparable to dessert and not the unneccessary but still subtle use of sugars in packaged foods. Admittedly I tend to avoid packaged foods, but as noted earlier in some thread, we use canned chicken broth as a staple. Still manfacturers of food product wouldn't add sugar if they didn't have reason to believe it helps sell the product. It does lead to a vicious circle.

It's the diet soda mention that really caught my attention. As the "pick me up" in colas is the caffeine anyway, diet cola might make as much sense as black coffee.

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Quote: from franklanguage on 7:44 am on Oct. 10, 2001

In many dishes from the Renaissance, we find that fruit appears often in conjunction with meats or fowls."

One could argue that fruit grown during the Renaissance wasn't nearly as sweet as the fruit we get today.  Many of the hybridizations, etc. have been made specifically to get a sweeter fruit.

I'm one who detests sweet stuff with my meat.  I was beginning to think I had bad taste, because virtually every upscale restaurant serves it sweet.  Glad to see that some of the "experts" in this discussion agree with my taste buds.

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The other night my wife and I went to a mexican restaurant and bar that someone suggested I review for the newspaper.  Everything from the appetizers to the tacos to (especially) the rice and beans was cavity-inducingly sweet.  It was incomprehensible.  Luckily, they didn't sweeten the beer.

I normally try to avoid writing negative reviews--I'd rather just recommend someplace else--but I'm going to make an exception just so I can rant about sweet food.

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Many of the hybridizations, etc. have been made specifically to get a sweeter fruit.
I'm old enough to have seen the tide turn. Most fruits seem to be bred for looks and ability to be shipped without blemish. Sweet is only one of the tastes lost, but I won't carry on an off-topic rant right here and now. ;)

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Sweeter fruit:  Can we be more specific?  Are we talking about berries, pears, bananas, grapes, oranges, apples or something else?  And with WHICH varieties?  

I, for example, favor very tart apples would speculate that the sweeter alternatives might have been bred in that direction to contrast.

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Quote: from jhlurie on 9:37 pm on Oct. 10, 2001

Sweeter fruit:  Can we be more specific?  Are we talking about berries, pears, bananas, grapes, oranges, apples or something else?  And with WHICH varieties?

Well, remember: the forbidden varieties of any fruit are always the sweetest of all.

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