Fair Comment

I’ve been able to forgive Gordon Ramsay for much because, when criticizing a trainee chef’s work, he is alleged to have uttered the immortal words, “You burned that fucking dish so black it went out and stole my bicycle!” (I don’t care if he said it or not, actually; all I know is when I read the story I nearly passed out from laughing so hard.)

Now Chef Gordon has uttered some more immortal words, as part of a another story:

“That’s when I knew Americans knew fuck all about good food. Right there and then.”

Before we get our backs up and start muttering about “Spotted Dick” and “Toad In The Hole” (British ahem delicacies both), not to mention a storied national tradition of boiling food to cook it, Our Gordon has a point. How else can one explain such excrescences as the Big Mac, Cincinnati chili (don’t even ask me), light beer, and concepts such as drive-through windows at “fast food” outlets?

I’m not being a food snob, really. I hate the whole concept of “fast food” (as I’ve stated innumerable times in the past) for the simple reason that one absolutely cannot create good food when speed of delivery is the sine qua non of the thing. And once again, let’s not talk about how little room the Brits have to talk; this is about us, we Americans.

I have to think that we treat food in the same way as we treat most problems: we’re hungry, so we eat: problem solved. What we eat doesn’t really matter, because practically anything will do to assuage hunger — and besides, we Murkins are a busy people and we need to take care of our hunger right now — unlike for example, the indolent Europeans, for whom a lunch “hour” is, in the immortal words of Pirate Captain Barbossa, “just a guideline”.

The problem is that when we’re prepared to eat just any old shit under those circumstances, our standards become so atrophied that (and I swear this was once said to me, in total earnestness) places like Applebee’s, Red Lobster  or Olive Garden become perfectly acceptable choices for dining out when we aren’t in a hurry. And they shouldn’t be, because they serve absolute crap — at best it’s mediocre, and usually, it’s unimaginative and boring food prepared to suit palates accustomed to the boring and unimaginative.

Once again, please remember that I’m no food snob: I can’t be, not when I enjoy junk food like sausage rolls, fish & chips and similar fare. But I do understand the concept of proper dining as opposed to just eating, and I think that’s what Ramsay was alluding to. If you read his story above, it concerns how his lunch guest was prepared to take out her Caesar salad to eat later, even though, as he correctly pointed out, it would taste like shit because it had already been dressed (and un-refrigerated Caesar salad dressing goes off faster than a Kardashian’s underwear). She was prepared to eat terrible-tasting food just for the sake of eating something — and I think that’s something that lamentably, we Americans are often guilty of.

Also again: I’m not suggesting that we should make a fetish of our food like, say, the French do; but I do believe that we need to become more discriminating in our approach to food because otherwise we will continue to fall prey to the purveyors of the mediocre. And that’s a Bad Thing.

Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote, for a change. I remember going grocery shopping with the Son&Heir when he was still just a boy of about fourteen. We walked around the store picking out foods we’d like, and I noticed that he wasn’t buying ordinary cheese but really good stuff, whether imported or the better Wisconsin fare (we were living in Chicago at the time). Ditto bread: no Wonder Bread, but loaves from the store’s bakery. On and on we went, until I pointed out how much I appreciated his choices. His reply was immediate: “Why should anyone buy shit food when good food is only a few pennies more?”  (I should also point out that as a weenie, he’d lived off canned Vienna sausage and Kraft Mac O’Cheese like so many kids do. But living with me, he’d become accustomed to having only good food in the house, and his tastes had adjusted accordingly.)

So I guess my point is this. We don’t have to settle for the ordinary. Yeah, sometimes the extraordinary may cost a little more, but in the grand scheme of things, “good enough” just can’t compete with “great”.

And as my old Dad used to say: “Long after you’ve forgotten how much you paid for it, you’ll still be enjoying it.” In the case of food, you’ll remember the fine meals forever, while the ordinary meals will be long forgotten.

Besides, I’d love us to start proving that smug little British turd wrong.

18 comments

  1. My wife and I celebrated her (mumble)th birthday by going to Italy, she being the grand-daughter of four Italian immigrants. The day we arrived, in Rome, jet lagged and tired, we spent a little while at the Vatican Museum, then the tour guide recommended we stop at one of the trucks, but a sandwich, then take it back to the hotel, eat, and take a nap, we’d gather again for dinner. We were asked not to eat on the bus to avoid messes. So wife and I bought basically flat-bread sandwiches, a couple slices of salami, couple slices of provolone cheese, folded over and pressed. It smelled so wonderful we were sneaking bites on the bus, and it tasted even better than it smelled. Nothing fancy at all, but just wonderfully tasty probably because everything was good quality and fresh.

    That, I admit, was an eye-opener for me. We tend to equate “good food” with “fancy food”, but there’s nothing that says that something as simple as a hot pressed sandwich can’t be good food (nor anything that says the fanciest food can’t be crap).

    Later in the trip my wife (who, to repeat, had four Italian grandparents and had eaten lasagna her whole life) had the best lasagna she’d EVER had, purchased at a highway rest stop where we stopped for lunch between points A and B (IIRC in Revell, Italy). Because again, just because it’s a simple meal eaten because it’s lunch time and you’re hungry, doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

  2. M’sieu “Chef Ramsey” should spend some time in South Louisiana. I’ve been through all the fifty states and enough of Europe to have a statistical sample, and NOTHING compares. Not a whole lot of effort on “pretty presentation”, but IMO, the main purpose of food is to taste good.

  3. Exactly – we have a great HEB store in our town with fresh produce, good meat and fish market, nice selection of beers and great selection of wines. You can spend as much as you want for fine cheese and special meats. That takes care of supply and being retired now I have time so the other key piece to the puzzle is what to cook and how to cook it, that’s where the internet for me has mostly replaced cookbooks, I do have a whole bunch of those, it is so easy to list a few ingredients in a search engine and then find an interesting recipe.

    Our grown kids, three of them, with their families also love to cook, multi course meals eaten away from TV and electronics with kids expected to have good table and conversation manners. When our daughter’s son, now seven, was five years old he was given a recognition test during physical. He was shown various images and the doctor was impressed when the only symbol he did not know was the McDonald’s golden arches. My daughter explained to the doc that grandson had never eaten that stuff and she was going to keep it that way.

  4. It is very much dependent on how one is raised. I was lucky enough to have a German father who could cook (not just German food, but most anything) and a German-American farm girl mother who could cook well both various American and Americanized German dishes (and importantly, game too). Really,most of the rest of the extended family cooked well too. So my siblings and I grew up expecting that tasty home made food with a wide variety was the norm. It was as I got out in the world that I realized how many people can’t really cook and do not even know what real food should taste like.

    The biggest eye opener was going to my then girlfriend’s family for Thanksgiving while I was in college. Well to do family (more so than mine rather easily) – but the blandest worst cooked (though pretty) thanksgiving dinner I have ever had in my life. I was shocked that people would eat that way; but gradually over time I spent I realized that is the rule and my family was very much the exception.

    My wife’s family too. They are only two generation back from the Caribbean, but have completely lost any of that cooking. When we met, my wife would eat almost nothing that was not familiar, and very little was familiar. Not that she was a bad cook (very much the opposite) but she had no baseline for what was possible. Well over 25 years that has completely changed, but it is very much the rest of her family.

    Final anecdote, a number of years ago my sons had one of their friends from HS (boarding school) who was Norwegian come visit us over Easter Break. So the first night I bake some bread and cook some fish of some sort and some side dishes – do not remember what. This boy is attacking the food like it owed him money – after a bit he looks up and says it is the first good food he had in the US.

  5. I grew up as a not-well-to-do latchkey kid, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to “good” food. Lots of mac and cheese (25-cent boxes) in college. Busier than reasonable during the homeshooling phase. Who says homeschooled kids are not adequately socialized? [/excuses]

    So, I’m starting at something of a disadvantage. I actually enjoy cooking. I do fine with pots of stuff – chili, stew, gumbo, bouillabaisse, etc. But it’s time to start learning to do some good beyond that. Does anyone have any links to good recipes that are relatively simple to prepare?

    Disclaimer: I’m not very good at discrete hunks of protein except filet mignon. I’d like to learn, but I need to ease into it.

    1. You might try crock pot steak. It’s a recent discover of my own (though not original with me, I’m sure). Wrap your steak in aluminum foil with whatever spices you want on it, put it in a crock pot, set it to low, come back three to four hours later and eat.

      The meat nearly falls apart, and can easily be eaten with a fork (or a spoon I suppose, though I haven’t tried that).

    2. If you want something interesting to watch that will learn you how to cook stuff, get a hold of Alton’s Browns “Good Eats” series. It’s fairly fun, with a whole lot of both the how to cook something, and the why of why you cooking things a certain way.
      There’s also a fair bit of how to make your own version of expensive specialty cookery items from common & cheap hardware store merch.

  6. Yes! I’m busy. For breakfast and lunch I eat relatively healthy food that doesn’t take long to prepare or buy. For dinner we cook something healthier and hopefully tastier (results can vary).

    Then, a few times a month we go out to a real restaurant (not a chain) and enjoy a real quality meal. Sorry Gordon, I don’t have time for that crap every day.

    Agreeing with some of the above comments on quality of ingredients. In a month or so the local farmers’ markets will be open and that’s where I’ll do most of my food shopping.

  7. I went to Gordon Ramsay’s “The Narrow” restaurant in London a few years ago. https://tinyurl.com/ycsgvsoo

    Fabulous setting, marvelous beer, awful food and worse service. In fairness, it’s more a pub than a fancy restaurant, but I am in London often enough to know that the pub food is often, usually, very good.

    So I stopped paying any attention to Ramsay whatever. A man who can’t run a pub can’t claim to be a serious restaurateur.

  8. “And as my old Dad used to say: “Long after you’ve forgotten how much you paid for it, you’ll still be enjoying it.” In the case of food, you’ll remember the fine meals forever, while the ordinary meals will be long forgotten.”

    I remember reading an anecdote about some famous French epicure. A friend called on him one evening; the manservant at the door said “The master is enjoying his dinner.” The friend said “Oh, I don’t want to disturb his meal, I’ll come back later.” The servant said “Oh, no. The master dined several hours ago; he is in the library enjoying the meal. I’ll show you in.

    It’s not just meals. My Tai Chi teacher served us some oolong tea which I still remember. This was a limited reserve (the grower was an old friend.) Oh. My. Word. I had no idea.

    And a lovely Pilsener I drank at Die Goldene Gans brewery in Augsberg thirty years ago.

  9. The one blessing that has come from having IBS is that I can no longer have MSG, which means that most junk food is right out*. So, fresh food prepared simply (usually seasoned only with salt and pepper) is a bit part of my current diet. You catch more of the actual flavor that way.

    *As is most Thai and Japanese food, alas!

  10. The best Italian food I ever had was inside an unmarked door with a single light bulb hanging over it. In San Benedetto del Toronto.

  11. Fast food and may other restaurants serve a purpose or a need rather than a want. I’m hungry and don’t have time for a meal, go to something fast.

    Ramsay is wrong about America. Great food and wonderful meals can be found in the United States.

    Jim

  12. Guess I’m more of an event or home person for food memories. The meals that have stuck in my mind were those large Thanksgiving gatherings (food was good to great), the days of delightful leftovers afterwards, and those specific, simple, and mostly cheap ‘comfort food’ meals Mom made a few times a month. Turkey and noodles, beef and noodles, milanesa, those wonderful home made meat pastilles.

    I’ve eaten at a couple of well reviewed gourmet restaurants. The food was ‘fine’ but not spectacular. For eating out I’d rather go to favorite small restaurant or diner. Gourmet is just too frou frou for me. One steak place was memorable but now that I’ve got sous vide at home I can get 95% of the taste and quality (my steaks are not dry aged…) as long as I get the good beef from the specialty butcher. Or even (hiss!) from Costco…

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