Brainfood
There is, out in the rural boondocks, a young man who has started a company which makes 17 varieties of barbecue sauce: honey, maple, cranberry, cider, hickory, mesquite, pepper, mushroom, onion, cajun, creole, ginger, sage, spice hot, curry, jalapeno and habanero. Just the litany tells you at least two things about contemporary cooking: first, that the use of condiments is widespread and that people are willing to mix different tastes more or less ad libitum.

There is a classical, or if you prefer a stuffy, part of me that thinks the bastardisation of plain barbecue sauce is no different from all those pesky, noisy, heretical sects that grew up in the wake of the Reformation. There is another side of me that says this is all good, clean fun, and a sign that people are becoming more determinedly interested in flavour and experimentation.

I suppose what I rue most is that this variety is tied to commercial preparations: that is, to gunk that one adds to food, before, during or after. Here, in America, restaurants at the lower end of the market offer a choice of salad dressings, usually French vinaigrette, creamy Italian, Thousand Island, Roquefort and Russian. The sad truth is that most of these dressings (these are but the tip of the iceberg, for I counted 29 varieties on my supermarket shelves) bear scant resemblance to a salad dressing: they are overpowering, gelatinous, runny substances in which to drown indifferent greenery.

But the trend continues unabated, and like most things in life and in food, it has its good sides and its bad. Take the matter of peppers. Served a mahi-mahi with a four-(hot)pepper dressing in Florida, one notices the zestfulness of the taste. On mature reflection, I wonder whether, were one of the four inadvertently left out one night, I would note its absence. Polish composers since the War have been insistently subdividing and overlaying rhythms: 2/4, 3/2, 7/8, 14/8 and so on, so that the violin section's poor players need an abacus to get through the score. How much are we actually supposed to hear? Do we need to retrain our palates to distinguish between three available forms of habanero peppers?

If one of the downsides of choice is confusion, another is plain ignorance. This week, mesmerised by the oriental bazaar aspect of our local supermarket, we decided to try out a few of the myriad tubers that line the bins: some dark, some light, some smooth, some knobbly, and all mysterious. The question then arose, what's to be done with these?

How do you handle a Peruvian against an Ecuadorian sweet potato? No doubt they order these things well in Lima and Quito, they probably pound the little bastards into mush; we, on the other hand, produced burnished little black rocks. The ghost of a flavour that rose from them suggested that either we were incompetent cooks or, to be charitable to ourselves, that these tubers had been lying dormant in the hold of a sweating cargo ship, the docks of Galveston and the central distribution points of Stop'n'Shop since time immemorial.

The good part of the choice revolution, in food at least, is that the small producer is making his own kind of impact on the market. My own kitchen shelves, I realised with surprise, contained more than a dozen different varieties of vinegar, five different olive oils. And the other day, wonder of wonders, I found a pound of sweet, freshly-churned butter: Emily's, the package said, showing a fresh-faced, fetching kid on the wrapping. At first I thought this must be another ecological con to grab the PC market. No, it was first-rate butter: that essential beginning of good gastronomy. Breads have multiplied and, despite the awful concoctions produced in a consumerist society, the terrible overkill of flavour for flavour's sake (Rosemary sourdough, for instance - dammit, bread is bread!), I do detect a return to bread that requires chewing, that has some consistency.

There is a downside to this, too, my friends, and you will soon enough notice it if you get lured into exotica. Emily's butter costs 250 per cent more than ordinary butter. So I give a limited welcome to 17 barbecue flavours, but a huzzah for every restored ingredient of good cooking to real butter, tasty peppers and contentious cheeses, to the use of nature's immense variety and its availability somewhere hard by. That I'm more than willing to pay for

Comments