Food and Drink: It may be fertiliser to you, but to me it is supper
Saturday 10 April 1993
Nor, I assume, can you. But to put off the real news is part of the writer's craft. It is called suspense.
I know that you are all - or at least those of you who have a plot of land - gardeners and that, as gardeners, you keep a compost heap. (No, this is not the gardening column gone astray.) I have done so myself: mown grass, autumn leaves, rotting cabbage stalks, that sort of thing. Sometimes I have even remembered to use the compost the next year. More often it has become a rather rank garbage dump: squeezed oranges, the spinach the kids would not eat, the lettuce forgotten in the fridge.
One thing I did not do with my compost heap is eat it.
There. The news is out, and such was the subject of the broadcast. Ten minutes, give or take a little, in praise of the newest trend in eating.
Yes, like you, I had a moment, listening, in which I, as you doubt your eyes, doubted my ears. But I like to think that I am without prejudice when it comes to eating, so I cannot dismiss this latest dernier cri without examining it. There is, after all, a real possibility that a fricasee of composted beach leaves, avec son coulis of rotted lemon, could be a gastronomical triumph.
Was it an April Fool? I waved that aside. First, public radio in America has anything but a sense of humour; and second, however improbable a thing may be in America, there is every chance that someone, somewhere, is doing it.
The part I remember best was a sort of indirect interview with the fabled Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in San Francisco, in which she praised the properties of this ultimate back-to-nature cuisine. She who has been in the forefront of plundering the garden, stretching our minds to using all sorts of implausible greens (many unobtainable or very pricey indeed) in our salads, made it all sound perfectly natural. And, I thought to myself, if we hang hare and pheasant until more than a little corruption produces an exaggeration of flavour, why not baked meadow grass? Rich in nutrients it ought to be, and ecologically sound it undoubtedly was.
That this originated in California is, of course, the tip-off. There is a widespread belief, at least on this side of the Atlantic, that almost everything from California is original: original riots, novel ways of arresting speeding motorists, superior forms of exercise such as solo volley ball, the motion picture industry, helicopter surveillance of backyard marijuana plants, Clint Eastwood as mayor, precocious new torts . . . I could go on and on.
There was no questioning the verisimilitude of the transmission. Though gastronomy is not a much touched-upon subject on radio (professional gastronomes, as in Britain, prefer to drivel on television because it pays better, it feeds their egos and the miraculous results of their cooking always look good and cannot be eaten by the viewer), the piece went that classic way that American 'serious' radio has. A question is tossed into the airwaves (eg, 'Have you ever been fondled while taking Holy Communion?') and is immediately answered with an instance. In this case, a warm-voiced lady who was, even as we spoke, working on the first compost cooking book.
She spelt out a number of recipes - hence my irritation with not having a transcript and being unable to put this to the proof - which, again in the time-honoured manner of these cosy chats, showed how homey and reasonable even the dottiest among us are. No one asked her, but she volunteered that her contact with compost cuisine had begun rather by accident. Not that she had forgotten to shop (this rarely happens in California) but she had been watching her compost heap steam and, well, it just popped into her head that it might be fun to see what would happen if . . .
As we know, a number of great dishes have come into being precisely that way: through a disaster in the kitchen or idle curiosity. But from that moment on I was hooked. The next stage in these rather natty bits of chat is, as you know, the talking head, the expert. And up they sprouted. Compost cuisine was the hottest thing in restaurant X in Milwaukee; in New York it was all the rage. Someone asked, would it be cheap? Answer: well it should be, but the restaurant business being what it is, this was unlikely. The Koreans would probably corner the market in exotic compost, thus allowing shiny new star chefs to produce frozen souffles of disintegrated kumquats.
If you think I am having you on, think again. Do you know of anything in cuisine so improbable that it has not been tried and foisted on an unsuspecting public? I am not talking here about the specifics of la cuisine composte, or cuisine orduriere as I prefer to call it, because I have not got the cookbook yet; or, currently, a compost heap; or an inclination for a saute of last year's potato peel. But in my heart of hearts, I am sure this is not just a California phenomenon. Somewhere in Britain a redolent compost heap has tempted a budding chef, for once anything is imagined it is almost certain to become real.
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