Their slice of the opinion pie: ideas foodies embrace, reject

April 21, 2004|By Rob Kasper

TO GET AN inkling of what's shaking in cuisine, I telephoned a handful of the 1,400 foodies attending the 26th annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in Baltimore this week and asked them two questions. What, in their opinion, is a smart idea now bouncing around in the food world, one they could embrace? And what is an idea they think is not so clever, an idea that might send them scurrying?

At first, several respondents balked, saying this approach to the multilayered phenomenon of fine food and drink was too simplistic. But after some cajoling, they agreed to give it a shot. They surmised that, like good cooks, they could substitute freely. They seemed to figure out that just as a dollop of fresh cilantro can lift the flavor of bottled salsa, a well-stated answer can rise above a plebeian question.

Jeffrey Steingarten, author of two food books, The Man Who Ate Everything (Knopf, 1997) and It Must've Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything (Knopf, 2002), quickly came up with a practice that he embraced. Namely, the notion that "men should roast whole, large animals."

The Vogue magazine food critic is on a convention panel discussing humor and food writing, and he wrote a recent article describing his adventures cooking a 70-pound pig in a plywood box lined with stainless steel, a device known as La Caja China.

He said that a pig or two will be roasted during the Baltimore IACP gathering and that when the group convened in New Orleans some years ago, several large animals, some of indeterminate origin, were roasted. Big fires and big beasts seem to be a combination worth watching, he said.

Men are especially attracted to this idea of roasting large animals, Steingarten said. "It is what we feel compelled to do and what we do best." He added that the primary, and perhaps only, skill required is lifting a large animal on and off the fire.

As for an idea that scares him, Steingarten first said "reality TV shows based on restaurants." This was a reference to the NBC show The Restaurant and to the accompanying real-life bitter legal feud between the restaurant's chef and chief financial backer.

Later, Steingarten admitted to having a fondness for another food reality show, The Iron Chef. He is scheduled to appear in a coming episode of the show, which pits two chefs against each other in displays of culinary skill.

But Steingarten said he won't be cooking; he will be window dressing. "I play the role of the giggling starlet," he said. Food reality TV, it seems, is what you make it.

Anne Willan, the distinguished cookbook author and founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne French cooking school, took a more serious tact in answering my questions.

Willan said a current idea that has a lot of merit is using fresh rather than dried herbs in recipes. "Fresh herbs have much more pungency and intensity, and they have a very different aroma than the dried," Willan said. "They impart a freshness on the palate." Moreover, she said, fresh herbs are now widely available in grocery stores.

The recipes in Willan's latest book, Good Food No Fuss (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003, $27.50), do not require complicated cooking skills, she said, but they do require fresh herbs. The one dried herb she accepts is bay leaf. She permits its use because, she said, "fresh bay leaf is virtually impossible to find."

Asked for a notion that she thinks is not so bright, Willan replied, "the American tendency to adopt dietary extremes." She mentioned several popular diets that stress eliminating carbohydrates. "I think it is extremely important to eat a balanced diet and not to totally cut out whatever food is the villain of the moment."

Amanda Hesser, author of Cooking For Mr. Latte (W.W. Norton, 2003), a recipe-laden tale of her recent courtship and marriage, cautiously answered my questions. Hesser is slated to appear on two panels during the Baltimore convention, one discussing the works of writer M.F.K. Fisher and another looking at the spice revolution. She also will sign books at a dinner held in her honor Friday night at the Brass Elephant.

I latched onto the notion, mentioned in Hesser's book, that a young cook should first master basic family recipes before attempting complicated restaurant fare. This, I told her, was a seminal idea, one worthy of national attention. She replied that while it might be "good advice" to learn to cook one or two basic dishes, she did not detect any national movement in that direction.

Rather than dissing any bad ideas bouncing around the food world, Hesser addressed temptations beginning cooks face. Some young people, she said, are tempted to skip over simple dishes and try to cook the innovative food served in restaurants.

"Roasting a chicken seems boring, but they forget that behind those elaborate dishes are 20 cooks working on every fine detail. When you cook at home, you are the one doing all the chopping."

Finally, I spoke to Janie Hibler, a cookbook writer from Portland, Ore., whose latest book is The Berry Bible (William Morrow, 2004, $29.95). She is a past president of IACP, and my friend. She had ready responses. A good idea bouncing around the food world, she said, is to get your "daily dose of antioxidants by eating a bowlful of berries. The darker the berries, the better," she said.

An idea that she can't cotton to, she said, is the raw-food diet. "A kitchen without a stove,'' Hibler said, "is a house without a soul. Life without osso buco? Are you kidding me?"

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