Saturday, January 08, 2005

Fresh Direct

Just got back from Julius Meinl, perhaps the most wonderful place in Chicago. It's a Viennese coffeehouse whose NYC equivalent would probably be the somewhat more posh cafe in the Neue Gallerie. I basically went all out--got something called frittaten soup, which had noodle-type things made of some kind of crepe--whatever it was, it was delicious--plus a walnut and goat cheese salad, apple strudel, and a cappuccino. This might not be all-out by Chicago standards, as neither steak nor deep-dish nor cheesecake were involved, but anything multi-course, i.e. not just pasta or cereal, strikes me somehow decadent.

I realize as I write this that I am terrible at describing food. OK, that's not exactly true--I'm pretty good at describing bad or disappointing food. I nearly broke down once several years ago in a cafe when a sandwich I'd ordered and was very much looking forward to turned out to be nothing but two sad, cold pieces of sliced brown bread with slimy strips of overcooked zucchini between them. I could give in-depth accounts of this, of a "hamburger" I bit into at a barbeque in Germany that most certainly was not a hamburger (white, gristly, and almost certainly from a pig snout), and of similar bad-food experiences. But I couldn't explain why the soup I had tonight was good, it just was.

The one thing all good good-food writing has in common, it seems, is that ingredients are described as "fresh." I mean, even dining hall slop is probably fresh, since where would they store all the stuff long enough for it to go bad? But adding "fresh" to a description of a meal suggests a farm nearby, a lack of refrigerator-taste, in short, a better-than-average meal, conveying tastiness to those who could not possibly know if a meal was actually good, but in a more subtle and thus more convincing way than just saying, as I said of the soup I had tonight, that it was "delicious." Ever watched Martha Stewart's old cooking show? Everything she tossed into a bowl or threw into a blender was "fresh." Over at Crescat, Waddling Thunder recounts cooking scrambled eggs: "Seeing that my local supermarket produced some good looking Mitake mushrooms, I fried them in high fat European butter, and then slowly le[t] my fresh eggs cook on a low, gentle heat." What, then, made his eggs "fresh"? Does he own a hen? According to health guru Jane Brody, eggs can be kept for a "month or so" past their expiration date. "Fresh" can either mean from a nearby farm or not-yet-spoiled, and unless a farm is mentioned, I assume the latter definition is the one being used. So technically eggs are still fresh when they are two months old. Which means that there's not much we can really say about Mr. Thunder's eggs other than that they were not yet ready to be trashed. But when reading his description of scrambled eggs with mushrooms, I for an instant forgot that I don't like mushrooms and am no great fan of scrambled eggs. Because, after all, "fresh" sounds good, and, as one of Patsy's dippy fashion-magazine co-workers on Absolutely Fabulous said of a complex description of a new wrinkle-removing cream, "it's forcing me to believe it."


Anonymous said...

I take your pont about freshness. In this case, though, I think my BS level was pretty low - I got the eggs from a store that claims to bring them from farms within the last day or so. But for all I know, they're buying supermarket eggs and just taking them out of the box.

Not-a- Generic-User-ID said...

Fresh isn’t just BS when it comes to describing food. Spices allegedly keep for a long time, but in fact they tend to lose their flavor fairly quickly, even if kept in their jars and tightly sealed. I don’t know the exact function for this, whether its linear or exponential or what, but spices are a lot better when they are first opened and a lot worse after 6 months have passed. Since many spices are used in very small quantities, most people will not use up spices till after its flavor goes flat. Restaurants probably will due to a higher volume of meals cooked per night. This likly contributes to the “fresh” taste you get at restaurants. (Information indirectly courtesy of my mom)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It may not be BS, but since "fresh" can either mean not-yet-bad or extra-new and wonderful, a tv chef, a food blogger, or similar, may throw the word around simply to convey a sense that, though you'll never get to taste the meal he's cooked, you can be assured that it was awesome, without having to prove or even claim that individual ingredients were harvested at any particular date.

Anonymous said...

Well, we buy our eggs from a local organic chicken farmer. He sells once a week at the farmer's market, and usually sells out, so the eggs are at most a week old. Of course, our case is unusual since we live in the country.

One hint: fresh eggs are harder to peel when hard boiled than slightly aged eggs.

Farm country fact: hatched eggs are called chicks. Extremely hatched eggs are called chickens. (Wow, that was useful).


I agree with you on "fresh". It is an overused term. It is interesting that you find it easier to describe bad food than good food. Aren't you taking literature classes? If I remember, a lot of 19th century writers describe good food well. Dickens does it surprisingly well, and he rarely uses "fresh". For a real blast, try the short story Babette's Feast.