Harmony on a plate
Saturday 01 June 1996
This somewhat tacky jingle, a wartime product of the Wisconsin Cheese- Makers, , has long stuck in my head, perhaps because a sharp Cheddar and apples do react splendidly together - but also because it represents the bangers 'n' mash syndrome: a cultural insistence that some things are to be eaten together.
I am sure no parent reading this is unaware of the peculiar eating habits of the very young. Of any three elements put on the traditional plate - a protein, a carbohydrate, something green - one will always appeal more than the others, and one will always appeal least. Hence that age- old childhood dilemma: do you eat the "good" thing first and hope to get away with not eating the rest, or should you first get rid of what you don't like, in order to enjoy the rest with a warm feeling of virtue? The good news/bad news joke, on a plate.
But there is a side-bar to all this. My son the Gastrognome, having reached the ripe and bolshy age of eight, has become a purist. For him it matters not what is eaten first, so much as that all things should be eaten separately. He is the anti-bangers 'n' mash man. He will eat a sausage, he will eat mash, but ne'er the twain shall meet. Quite useless is it to explain that all things blend in his belly into one lewd, undifferentiated mass. So long as he is in charge of his eating - while his food is, so to speak, still alive - it must be kept separate.
Think about it for a moment, I urged the young man last night, and you will note that your father, producing a dinner, pays rather close attention to things that "go together". A meal, after all, is a composition of flavours, colours, textures. The human palate, that great taxonomist, has classified a series of accompaniments: green beans with lamb, fattened beeves and roasted potatoes, bratwurst and mustard, chilli con carne. And who are you, to undo these concoctions? Would you, in Alsace, separate your sauerkraut from your sausage?
Then it occurred to me that this reluctance to mix flavours may be one reason why the young are often averse to soups and stews: they can't separate out the various elements. Is it because they abhor chaos? In this I am inclined to agree. After all, one of the (many) things wrong with the paintings of Jackson Pollock is that they are a mess; nothing emerges from the canvas to tell the eye what it is looking at. Pollock may be the artistic equivalent of the dreadful "after": the digestive tract. In which case Vermeer, with each thing distinct and luminous, to be savoured in detail, represents the "before": the perfect meal.
Different cultures go about these matters in different ways. The Chinese and Japanese eat many things seriatim: a bit of this, a bit of that. The Bedouin dip this in that and finger the resulting desert hodgepodge into their mouths. Italians are discrete eaters, to the extent that, in a proper household, no two elements of a meal may be put on the same plate. The northern races allow an extraordinary amount of seepage: in Germany, for example, one potent sauce covers all.
One of the principles of good cooking is that flavours should be kept distinct and clearly defined. However, we also combine things on our forks, as in bangers 'n' mash. And we cook our food.
Take meat, I explained. By heating meat, we break down the membranes between the cells, allowing the contents (amino acids, fats, sugars, minerals) to flirt freely. Intense heat, such as frying or roasting, creates all sorts of chemical reactions, principally among proteins and carbohydrates. Now, do you understand why you can eat a mouthful of potato salad with your kielbasa?
Obviously not. Said he, "What do you care so long as I eat it all?" Of course, he is right. There should be no less freedom in eating a meal than in preparing it.
The French use the word "compose" to describe preparing a main course that has more than one ingredient, and that's a fair description. Asparagus and artichokes put together may look pleasing, but in terms of flavour they'd be a mistake - as, in my opinion, is that Great American Disaster, the Waldorf salad (celery, apples, nuts and mayo - yuk!). Traditions exist for a reason, and some things, like some people, go together like kisses and squeezes. Others don't
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