Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Infantilization of American Taste

Increasingly, Americans are eating like children. The most recent bit of evidence comes from an article in The New York Times about milkshakes served at fancy New York bars (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/08/dining/08shake.html?scp=1&sq=milk%20shakes&st=cse).

Americans have a fondness for drinks containing ice cream that goes back to the nineteenth century when soda counters were a respectable alternative to bars and taverns. In that abolitionist era, milk and milk products were the antithesis of the devil’s brew, associated with mother’s milk and purity, though not necessarily with childhood. The first ice cream-laced beverages were often carbonated “ice cream sodas” or “malts” made with malted milk and ice cream. (Malted milk is dry milk powder mixed with malted barley.) Shakes as we know them didn’t come along until the invention of the blender in the 1920s, which happily coincided with the beginnings of American road culture. Soon enough these calorie bombs became a favorite treat at roadside ice cream stands like Dairy Queen. Today’s “large,” (almost a liter) Dairy Queen chocolate shake is over 1100 calories. While ice cream sodas tend to have a Frank Capra small town association milk shakes evoke images of roller-skate outfitted waitresses in California drive-ins à la American Graffiti. They elicit early adolescence rather than childhood, an age of furtive kisses rather than teen pregnancy.

And after that excessively wordy digression, let us turn to The New York Times’ article which reports on the reinvention of the milkshake as a cocktail. In Brooklyn, now New York’s coolest borough, a reimagined bowling alley serves bourbon-spiked milkshakes. The rest of the menu, according the owners was designed with “childhood memories of birthday parties” in mind—but with booze. The trend has jumped the East River into creaky Manhattan where milkshakes have been spotted at the ultra-trendy Momofuku. In one recipe, the pastry chef Christina Tosi takes cereal milk (that is milk left over from eating dry cereal) and spikes it with Kahlua and vodka. There’s ice cream in there too. In Los Angeles where cool is always much cooler, chef Maria Swan, serves milk shakes based on such combinations as añejo tequila with dulce de leche (a sort of caramel), and Cherry Heering with lavender vanilla ice cream. She readily admits her inspiration is Bob’s Big Boy. While in and of itself, the trend is little more than a clever conceit, when you begin to see it as part of a wider phenomenon it heralds a significant shift in culinary culture. Some years ago, American restaurants and bars came to be afflicted by a plague of cocktails. It started with frozen margaritas but them moved to increasingly more complex mixtures. The result is invariably sweet. Moreover the drinks often share the palette of Crayola crayons. Foods associated with childhood, especially mac and cheese, now have restaurants dedicated to them. A place down the street from me offers a version with “Brie, Figs, Roasted Shiitake Mushrooms and Fresh Rosemary” along with more conventional offering. “Sliders,” small hamburger-type sandwiches are now filled with sophisticated fillings like duck confit and braised venison. Childhood desserts like cupcakes have turned into a global phenomenon. This is reflected elsewhere too.

Fancy restaurants offer deconstructed s’mores, the campfire dessert made with packaged graham crackers melted Hershey’s chocolate and marshmallows. Of course in the white-tablecloth version, the biscuits are home-made, the chocolate is French and the marshmallows are made with Tahitian vanilla. But the result is a little like the ten year-old smearing her face with her mother’s lipstick. Or perhaps the forty-five year old buying a toy car for fifty thousand dollars? Is this kid food masquerading as grown up food, or adult food pretending it’s child’s play?

Recently, social scientists have postulated that we should add another stage to the development of the human animal. In much the way that adolescence was invented in the 19th century, they propose a period of life called young adulthood that spans the period between the teenage years and “real” adulthood, which now seems to arrive at thirty. If this is indeed true then these childhood foods offer a sort of the booster seat to the grown-ups table. Or do they? Do the thirty-year olds then advance to a more adult phase of taste. Or do they simply continue eating more highly sweetened foods you can pick up with your hands for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

American brides now often turn to cupcakes instead of wedding cakes to celebrate their nuptials. It’s an interesting shift in symbolism. Whereas the white wedding cake so clearly stood for virginity devoured, the cupcakes seem to indicate that a wedding is just another childhood birthday party. I’m all in favor of parties but does the food have to cater to the tastes of a six-year old?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cupcakes and Macarons

I was recently in Paris, in part to interview the master pastry chef Pierre Hermé. In case you haven’t leafed through a Paris Match in the last dozen years, Pierre Hermé is one of those French culinary hypercelebrities, appearing regularly on television programs to deconstruct the state of French cuisine today. All the same, his celebrity is of an older more glamorous variety. He has not yet degraded himself by appearing on

Iron Chef. He is a recipient of the Légion d’Honneur, his nation’s highest honor. He brought a new spirit of inventiveness to French patisserie and as a consequence the French press has branded him with the rather dreadful moniker of the “Picasso of pastry.”

Macarons at Ladurée in Paris

I mention all this simply to contrast his fame with his personality which is entirely generous and free of any pretension. Hermé has the easy grace of the truly successful. We met in his miniscule office above his boutique in the ever fashionable Faubourg St.-Germain. The boutique is tiny and resembles an ultra-trendy jeweler more than a pastry shop. Each sweet sparkles under the carefully arranged spot lights. You can only fit in about a half-dozen customers at a time so naturally the line snakes out the door and down the block. (Hermé is a master of PR.) Upstairs, our conversation inevitably led to the macaron for this is the maestro’s claim to fame. Displaying no false modesty, Hermé admits to having started the macaron fad that swept pastry shops across the world in the last decade.

For those who haven’t visited a pastry shop in the last five years I should explain that the macaron is a confection of sugar, egg whites and almonds and goes back to at least the seventeenth century. I had always assumed that it was one of those Italian imports that arrived with Marie de’ Medicis or one of her crowd, but I have begun to have my doubts. I just can’t find any use of the term in Italian that doesn’t refer to pasta (or an idiot). (How “maccheron,” meaning pasta in both its meanings would become almond cookies is baffling to me—nevertheless the Académie française dictionary insists this the French word’s origin.) But whatever its origin it became a classic of the French pastry repertoire. There were lots of variations, including macarons stuffed with jam but it wasn’t until the 1940s (?) that someone had the bright idea of sandwiching two of these delicate cookies together with buttercream. And it wasn’t until the late 1990s that they became a multinational phenomenon and for this we have to thank M. Hermé. Bored of plain old chocolate and vanilla he started infusing his macarons with flavors of roses, green tea, licorice but also with such things as wild rose, fig and foie gras (that’s one in one macaron, mind you). Next thing you know, pastry shops in Los Angeles, New York, Brussels and Vienna had leapt onto the idea. Today you can walk into Picard, the French frozen food chain and pick up a selection of macarons with flavors like basil-lime, white peach-rose, and yuzu praline!

So why the obsession? I have a couple of notions about that. At their best the macarons are genuinely delicious. The intensity and clarity of the flavor translates into pure, uncomplicated pleasure. They are also small so that they are a practically guilt-free dessert, so important in this day and age when we give up pleasure so that we may prolong our joyless lives as long as possible. The flavors are often exotic but safe. They’re difficult to make so that we can exercise our connoisseurship by finding the very best producer—yet they’re informal. You eat them with your hand. It’s all so very 2010 (or perhaps 2005).

Cupcakes at Gerstner in Vienna

Now even as macarons have swept the French-style pastry shops in the United States there has been a local fad that is oddly analogous, mainly for cupcakes in an equally wide panoply of flavors (bacon, “chai-latte,” tiramisu, peanut butter...). For years it was a staple at children’s birthday parties, and like the macaron of old, in no more than two or three flavors. However unlike the macaron you need virtual no culinary acumen to make a cupcake. Most people make it from a cake mix. And like macarons, cupcakes have gone global.

The two desserts aren’t strictly analogous but I do think they give you insight into the state of European and American culture today. Increasingly, the old bourgeois structure is breaking up in on the old continent to be replaced by something at the same time more cosmopolitan yet attached to some hypothetical Europeaness. Luckily so far it has only been nationalism lite (if you set aside the Balkan conflagration). It would be interesting to analyze the exotic flavors of the macaron and where they come from. I bet it isn’t Africa or the Muslim world. In France the flavors often come from herbs or those extra-safe foreigners, the Japanese. Yet even while the macaron may be informal it is still a very adult-sort of treat. There is still a line drawn between childhood and adulthood by most Europeans.

But in the United States a youth culture has been dominant ever since the baby boomers hijacked the nation. In America, the ideal age is about 16. Old enough to drive and screw but as yet with many of the tastes of childhood. When not at work, the average American man dresses in sneakers, jeans, tee shirt and a baseball cap, the uniform of a twelve-year old. To an enormous extent these tastes apply to food as well. Sweet is the favorite flavor in America, whether in pasta sauce, bread, ketchup, breakfast cereal or 90% of all beverages. American’s love eating food by hand. Think of sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, burritos and, naturally, cupcakes. The cake you don’t need to eat with a fork with a gooey uncomplicated appeal to childhood, much like the rest of American mass culture. It is the perfect dessert.

Yet as different as the two cultures are we all know how they are gradually turning into one. Walk through a typical European airport and it’s hard to tell anyone apart by dress alone any more. The fashion-makers across the world are using the same media to set their trends in motion. The most recent trend out of France seems to involve marshmallows (guimauves) a treat that seems almost as binational and infantile as Jerry Lewis.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Carnival Donuts in Innsbruck and Venice

A few weeks back I happened to be in Innsbruck just as the Carnival celebrations were coming to a close. The holiday is decidedly more low key here than in Rio or New Orleans and has none of the pomp of Venice. In the Tyrol, which claims Innsbruck as its capital, fat Tuesday, or Fasching, is celebrated with a parade of the good burgers hidden behind grotesque masks straight from a Hansel and Gretel nightmare. Kids opt for princesses or Power Rangers, or whatever Disney dishes out that year.

Faschingskrapfen at Café Diglas in Vienna

But mostly, the imminent arrival of Lent is marked by an Alpine-sized avalanche of Krapfen. Krapfen filled with jam and cream. Chocolate Krapfen and vanilla Krapfen but also the eggy, boozy Eierlikor Krapfen filled with an egg-based liqueur. Of course Venetians would hardly be surprised that Carnival should be a time to gorge on fried dough balls, the city has its fair share of pre-Lenten fritters and for much the same reason as Catholic Austria. Doughnuts are an indulgence that used to depend on animal fat: clarified butter if you were really hoity toity but lard for most of the rest of us. Great cauldrons of simmering lard, something that would be strictly forbidden for the next forty days and forty nights. Thus the donut orgy before the fast.

Of course donuts are hardly limited to the catholic world or even Europe as any fan of Homer Simpson is well aware. They are certainly as old as the ancient Greeks and any civilization that has figured out how to fry food has its version. In India there is the dayglow tangle of dough called jalebi, Arabs have Luqmat al qadi, a ping-pong- size fritter that translates as “judge’s morsel,” Spanish speakers have churros, the Dutch have olie bollen which, according to some historians later turned into American donuts. And, of course we mustn’t forget zeppole served on St. Joseph’s Day, right in the middle of Lent, proving once again that Martin Luther was right about the Italians.

Roughly speaking there are historically two ways of making fritters. In the case of churros and at least a some of the fritters that go by the name bignè in Italy (from the French beignet). The dough is made by mixing flour into hot water. You often find egg in there too. There’s recipe for this sort of thing in the ancient Roman cookbook of Apicius. Scappi, the renaissance maestro, calls a much enriched version of the same thing frittelle alla Veneziana (sic). The other kind of fritters, the ones that are called fritelle alla veneziana today are essentially made with a bread dough, leavened with yeast. And this is the category to which the much-beloved Krapfen belongs.

The origin of a fritter called Krapfen probably goes back to the middle ages in Central Europe. A recipe from 1531 has you mix in honey and wine as well as the usual eggs, flour and yeast. These early recipes seem to have been unfilled. Instead there is some evidence that they were dipped in honey or possibly some sort of fruit butter (apples and plums were traditionally boiled down in Central Europe without the addition of expensive sugar). In this they may have resembled honey-dipped Levantive fritters or, for that matter, the fritelle di Chanukà of Venice’s ghetto.

Filled Krapfen seem to have come along only when they moved to the big city. In Vienna these filled donuts came to be called Faschingskrapfen, because of their association with Carnival (Fasching) though Krapfen were by no means limited to the holiday. The Florentine Gazetta Universale reported that in Vienna April 7 1790, Leopold II distributed 300 pounds of prosciutto, 3000 pounds of roast veal, 3000 bread rolls 2000 Krapfen after annual ceremony when vows allegiance were exchanged between him and the representatives of his domains. Rather skimpy if you ask me but the Hapsburgs were known to be skinflints. And Krapfen weren’t cheap. They ran one to two Kreutzers unfilled and double that with a filling. That would have cost an ordinary workman one or two hours of wages. The really fancy ones were even more. You could tell good quality Krapfen by the tell-tale ring around the edge. It told you the doughnut was light enough not to sink in the cooking fat. She as pretty as a Krapfen was high compliment. And when a gentleman was to intimate with a lady that they would share a Krapfen you knew that a proposal had better be in the works.

Krapfen at Pasticceria Tonolo

Yet just when the Krapfen craze reached Venice isn’t recorded. Or at least I haven’t been able to track it down. Presumably it came with the Austrian occupation after 1797 though I am skeptical that the locals would have leapt on the invaders’ fritter all that quickly. But sooner or later the German donut’s very obvious appeal overcame any nationalist reservations and the locals adopted it as their own. I am tempted to ascribe Florence’s bomboloni to the Austrians as well but here too I have no proof other than the very obvious similarity of the recipe.

Who could argue with the appeal a sweet snack endorsed by both Homer Simpson and John F. Kennedy. Well, OK, in both cases we’re dealing with fiction. A cartoon character in one case and an urban legend that when Kennedy stood in front of the Brandenburg gate and declared himself a “Berliner,” he made a grammatical faux pas and inadvertently declared himself a jelly donut. Well it turns out his grammar was actually just fine. A pity, it would have been a much more universal statement of the unity of humankind, if you ask me.