Monday, November 19, 2018

The clear eyebrow mascara of cooking advice

And done. Thanks to some tremendous achievements in the field of not getting out much (except over the weekend, when a modest neighborhood-leaving attempt proved more exhausting than anticipated), I have now seen all four episodes of "Fat, Salt, Acid, Heat." "Acid," the Mexico episode, was by far the most compelling. I should note, however, that I have had exactly one true pregnancy craving, and it's been a second-half-of-third-trimester fixation on tacos. (I watched the consumption of the authentic article onscreen while eating an approximation at home. My dining-out of the past few weeks has been tacos and more tacos, basically.) Also: I've been to Italy and Japan, but never to Mexico, so there was more for me in the way of vicarious experience. Also, also: More broadly, I think citrus probably is an underrated ingredient-type, and one that hasn't had reason to reclaimed post-'lite'-and-low-sodium-1990s in the way that salt and fat have been. The concept felt somehow more original. (Also, also, also: tacos.)

So I was feeling kind of won over. And had high hopes for "Heat," the non-travel-based final episode. At last, all of these trips to get special ingredients were going to culminate in a home-cooking application!

Which... is and isn't where things go. Home for Samin Nosrat is Berkeley, California, but starts off at her former workplace, Chez Panisse. As I ate a defrosted (but - apologies to "Fawlty Towers" - fresh when it was frozen) and toasted bagel with mediocre Canadian goat cheese, I watched as Nosrat and an Alice Waters-esque woman (but not Waters herself) prepared thick steaks over a wooden fire, inside a kitchen, as one does. (Yes, it's the egg all over again.) The narration involves all these tips, assuring that the cooking of enormous steaks over a fireplace fire inside the Chez Panisse kitchen is something that actually has relevance to one's home-cooking techniques. My bagel-fueled skepticism was what it was, but I kept watching.

I should not have continued watching. Next up is the everyday, ordinary trip to the regular old supermarket, to learn how to shop. "One of the valuable lessons I learned at Chez Panisse was that you don't have to use expensive ingredients to make good food. All you need to find are simple, quality staples, and to treat them with respect," narrates Nosrat, as she meanders the aisles of a supermarket in Berkeley that looks like something out of a dream. (She also super-casually tastes some string beans (?) without paying, which I think is meant to seem non-pretentious, charming, and in the spirit of being sure to taste food at every step along the way, but... I don't know.) First, there's the meat. It's not just that this supermarket has a butcher - not standard, but not unheard-of. It's that the meat looks amazing and costs - to my now-Toronto-trained eyes - practically nothing.

But then comes the produce, and it's like, why bother, the viewer asks herself, pouring a bowl of raisin bran a couple hours later. It's like a peak-summer NYC farmers market, but with more - and more brightly-colored - vegetables. But with a layout reminding that it is in fact a supermarket. More narration, this time with Nosrat saying her focus isn't the special vegetables that happen to be in season in California but the everyday items like broccoli and string beans. Then why film in the Berkeley dreamscape supermarket? Anyway. Everything is lush and incredible and the herbs are fresh and bright green and come in bunches for like 40 cents rather than tiny desiccated clumps in plastic shells for like $4 because Berkeley is not Toronto. Further narration urges the addition of fresh herbs to dishes. A later scene involves the preparation of a salad made from roasted (complicated-ish) vegetables and pre-soaked beans (were we expecting boxed or canned? but not fresh, which is something) and then this massive pile of the herbs in question.

So. It makes perfect sense that cooking shows would feature aesthetically appealing food, and that a competent-but-no-more home cook going to a Canadian supermarket in the hopes of finding scallions, only to leave without any because it's not a scallion day, would not make for compelling television. (Downtown Toronto is so not a food desert. It's that Berkeley is exceptional in the other direction.) It also stands to reason that food professionals would gravitate to (or start their careers in) Berkeley, clustering there rather than cities where for most of the year you sort of cut into a piece of fruit and hope for the best. All of that is fine.

The problem here is more specific: If your reference point for grocery-shopping is Berkeley, your advice to home cooks generally is going to be maybe not so applicable beyond there. The thing where you cook so as to showcase the freshest ingredients - simple flavors, not too much in the way of sauces or spices (both of which could well give Toronto the ingredients advantage) - only works in a locale where more can be said of the ingredients than that they're not uniformly rotten. It is - to paraphrase myself from Twitter, sorry - very much like the approach to beauty-writing where you hear about which moisturizer someone with perfect skin uses as their entire beauty routine. Yes, it will send readers running out to buy that moisturizer, but if they were to pause for a moment they'd realize it's not (just) the moisturizer.

And yet. Just as the Glossier approach to beauty has a way of sucking you in and making you buy an actually very good tube of clear eyebrow mascara, watching "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat" has revived my own interest in home cooking. (As, admittedly, has not being much able to leave the apartment.) Did I braise short ribs for about 6 hours the other day, because I'm suggestible? I most certainly did, and they were excellent.

1 comment:

Petey said...

I haven't checked your blog in years, but I just so did for an unrelated topic, only to find out you've managed to get pregnant, and even more importantly, finally get to Japan! Congrats!

And yeah, the delicious food in train stations was indeed one of those thrills that never got old as long as I was there.