Hold the urchin tongues; let’s cook like Grandma

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Froma Har­rop

is the sea­son to do cook­ing. And the hol­i­days are when folks yearn for the old clas­sics, just like ones we used to know. Even some hard­core “food­ies” put away the ex­per­i­men­tal cui­sine and make pre­dictable dishes with rec­og­niz­able in­gre­di­ents.

One can un­der­stand why food writ­ers per­sist in ad­vo­cat­ing “makeovers” of tra­di­tional dishes. If they didn’t put a new spin on stan­dards, they’d have noth­ing to write about. They’d just ref­er­ence a cook­book or pro­vide links to the chicken pot pie recipe on Epi­cu­ri­ous (though I doubt the pi­o­neers had ac­cess to dried chanterelle mush­rooms).

Food writ­ers con­tinue to spread the be­lief that a 28-year-old celebrity chef can im­prove on cen­turies of culi­nary trial and er­ror. There may be a ge­nius or two among them, and it’s a free coun­try. But fa­mil­iar foods feed a hunger for phys­i­cal links to past ex­pe­ri­ences.

Con­sider an Amer­i­can clas­sic, the s’more. Marsh­mal­lows and choco­late melted be­tween two gra­ham crack­ers, the s’more evokes Scout nights around the camp­fire. Sure, you can re­place the crack­ers with brioche and Her­shey’s with im­ported Bel­gian choco­late. Point is, when you want a s’more, you want Her­shey’s.

Sim­i­larly, when you ask for South­ern fried chicken, you gen­er­ally ex­pect a re­peat of the clas­sic dish. Some cooks do it bet­ter than oth­ers, but the diner is gen­er­ally not seek­ing a culi­nary revo­lu­tion.

Ital­ians have al­ready spent a mil­len­nium get­ting lin­guine with clam sauce right. Why one would in­cor­po­rate Asian spices into the dish, other than for their nov­elty value, re­mains a mys­tery. Non-Euro­pean culi­nary tra­di­tions also de­mand re­spect. There’s a que­sadilla made ac­cord­ing to Mex­i­can cus­tom, and there’s a Pek­ing duck per­fected in China.

The restau­rants pro­mot­ing the most ex­treme tear-downs of es­tab­lished dishes — food writ­ers call them “re­sets” — con­gre­gate in cen­ters of tech and fi­nance. They have a clien­tele that can af­ford truf­fles on their cheese omelets — and that be­lieves there’s not a wheel that doesn’t need rein­vent­ing. We’re re­port­ing from planet dis­rup­tion.

For­mer restau­rant critic Daniel Duane has writ­ten on the bizarre tem­ples to culi­nary grandios­ity now pa­tron­ized by the filthy-rich ven­ture cap­i­tal and postIPO crowd in Sil­i­con Val­ley. At Man­resa, for ex­am­ple, he was served a cre­ation called “Tidal Pool” — “a clear lit­toral broth of sea­weed dashi pool­ing around sea-urchin tongues, pick­led kelp and foie gras.” When he re­turned in a party of four, the chef cre­ated a spe­cial tast­ing menu. The bill for the ta­ble af­ter tax and tip came to $1,200.

Down in Amer­ica’s merely af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hoods, restau­rants lure the hip­ster class by strew­ing dishes with less ex­pen­sive ex­ot­ica. Greens, of course, have to be mi­cro, the cheese “ar­ti­san.” The servers of­ten do too much ex­plain­ing and de­liver too lit­tle food.

About the tapas craze. All din­ing tra­di­tions have an or­der of eat­ing — what you start with, what comes next, how you end. But the “lit­tle plates” phe­nom­e­non has in­jected chaos into the restau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence.

Tapas hap­pen to be a ven­er­a­ble Span­ish bar tra­di­tion. They are small dishes of nib­bles set on the counter to keep one go­ing un­til the late Span­ish din­ner hour. In Spain, that’s snack­ing, not din­ing.

But as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs in this coun­try have turned small plates into the whole thing. That means that four peo­ple might have to or­der 10 or 11 dishes. The plates fly to the ta­ble like loaded Fris­bees, forc­ing din­ers to fight with sharp cut­lery for their share.

This is a gen­er­al­iza­tion, I know, but the hot­ter the restau­rant the colder the ser­vice. The own­ers don’t par­tic­u­larly care if you feel un­wel­come, be­cause at that very mo­ment, your re­place­ments are read­ing erotic ac­counts of their grilled lamb hearts. Bring me some fish stew, waiter, and

hold the urchin tongues. E-mail Froma Har­rop at fhar­rop@gmail.com. Fol­low her on on Twit­ter: @Fro­maHar­rop

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