Keep Calm and Put Down the Sriracha
It has come to my attention that some of you are becoming unable to eat good food unless it is spiced to within an inch of its life.
I've been noticing this for a while. It started with friends who put hot sauce on everything, even on dishes that were perfectly good without hot sauce. With dinner party hosts who proudly declared that the secret to good cooking was just to douse something in Cajun spices until you noticed the powder forming drifts on the side of the pan. With people who reported that an Asian restaurant was "good" because it had left their taste buds numb for hours.
Then, during the holiday season, I saw a Slate food writer declare that American apple pie is not as good as French apple pie because it is "bland and goopy," and I began to suspect that something had gone seriously wrong with our food culture. When I saw an article on restaurant chefs who are daring to bring back prime rib, I became sure of it.
I'm as excited as anyone about the majestic spread of foreign food throughout our nation's urban downtowns, its strip malls and cookbook aisles, its fruited plains and amber waves of grain. I can't think of a national cuisine I don't like, and that includes foods that will sear the taste buds off a water buffalo's tongue at 20 feet.
But somewhere along the way, too many people seem to have gotten the idea that if exotic foods are good, that must mean that the boring old domestic varieties are bad. Excuse me, "bland and goopy."
This is first-class fustian. If you are unable to enjoy simple, traditional fare that has been properly prepared with good ingredients, the problem is not with the food; it is with you. To purloin a phrase from Slate food writers, you're doing it wrong.
I'm not saying that you have to like every available food. I dislike tripe, most cooked fish, liver and kale. But that doesn't mean there's something wrong with foie gras or salmon mousse; it just means that I don't care for them. Almost anything I do like, however, is as good prepared simply as it is in your triple-braised habanero short rib stew. Complicated dishes highlight the interplay of ingredients, but basic recipes allow your ingredients to shine. And without all that capsaicin numbing your taste buds or salted caramel overwhelming your palate, you can taste their full, delicate flavor.
I am not above cutting the kernels off a fresh ear of corn, blanching them in a little boiling water, and then sauteing them in brown butter before drizzling with truffle oil. That is delicious. But fresh corn is also delicious boiled until just done, then eaten with butter and salt. Magnificent tomatoes make a magnificent marinara and an equally magnificent tomato sandwich on fresh bread with good ricotta and just a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Apples are gorgeous in a galette, and also in a good, old-fashioned American-style apple pie, with flaky pastry on top and lightly spiced juice oozing all over the plate. It is not a worse version of the French pastry; it is a different dish, to be enjoyed in its own right.
To get the most out of eating, you should be prepared to like as many dishes as possible, including the old favorites that now seem a bit passe. You can broaden your horizons to enjoy the deliciously spicy foods of the Asian and African continents without looking down on the equally delicious culinary marvels that are right there at your feet. Prime rib, baked potatoes and, yes, pie have just as much place in our culinary canon as pad Thai.
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