1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 5 of 6)

The cook herself was drunk less often for having to concentrate and remember: bread-making is not a quarter-hour task like making pie crust or dumplings.

The fine woman’s fine husband came home oftener and sniffed happily at the round pan of dough rising on a dining room chair near the furnace register, with a clean linen napkin laid lightly over it.

People, too, not just husbands, came in on baking days and sat, flairing the air with a discretion geared to their social background, and no matter what their financial bracket sat back gladly to eat a slice or two or three of the warm, delicious, fresh-baked loaf and taste its strange sweetness and never miss the salt that supposedly should make it palatable.

A cook who must rely upon his own skill to make something edible, rather than toss in an impossible load of salt in the hope that it will stupefy if not soothe the outraged palates of his guests, can count himself fortunate indeed, for there is no culinary challenge quite so demanding as salt-free food in the modern diet. It can be good food, as I know.

There are a thousand tricks at hand, of course, to make saltless food full enough of natural flavor to be satisfying. In general the simplest procedures are the best, and a cook who finds himself by force or by his own choice in a salt-free kitchen will soon revert to an almost primitive way of roasting, basting, and poaching. He will also, if he is worth his forbidden salt, think back on his own more ornate skills and dream of a perfect soubise in the way some men dream of power. And he will, and this I can swear to, next make that soubise with a tenderness and respect unknown to him in the old days when he did it daily, and at times too casually, assuming with most of his clients that too much of a good thing might be a sin but was still more desirable than not enough of it.

I am convinced that coping with a saltless regimen should be part of every good chef’s schedule, at least once a year or so, to sharpen his dulled appreciation of food’s basic flavors and to make him consider them with caution before his routine boiling and peeling. In a strange kitchen fashion, some such penance as this might act as a kind of purification, connected in its own way with the religious significance that has always cloaked bread and salt.

Having made honest bread again, with or without salt, and recollected its mysterious, moving fragrance, having grilled meat again, uncalloused by the chemistry of salt, the cook would be able to sense fundamental flavors that are quite beyond too many of us and would be refreshed, strengthened, able once more to make his cunning sauces without stooping, as he has found it increasingly easy to do, to the universal brew, the one served in so many restaurants, the one recognizable from Here to There.

He would, knowing it or not, remember that salt and bread are to be honored, not turned into dull necessity and the puffed packaged furnishings of any corner grocery. He would be a better chef…

V is for venality…

…and for the mixture of gastronomical pleasure with corruption that helps senators and actresses to pounce with such slyly hidden skill upon their prey.

Wherever politics are played, of no matter what color, sex, or reason, the table is an intrinsic part of them, so much so that Brillat-Savarin asserted, enthusiastically if not too correctly, that every great event in history has been consummated over a banquet board. Though I may question his statement, I still admit the loose rightness of it and bow to the companion thought that history is indeed largely venal, no matter what its ultimate nobility. Surely many a soldier has been saved from death because his general slept the night before the battle with Ottilia instead of Claudia, and more than one pretty creature in a Hollywood restaurant has missed stardom but kept her female balance because a producer did not like the way she ate asparagus...

Wherever politics are played, then, which means wherever in the world more than five men forgather; venality sits at table with them, corrupt, all-powerful. In every city from Oskaloosa to Madrid, there is one meeting place which above all others furthers and comforts the inevitable progress of the evil-bent, and the ghost of a Paris senator who last lunched at Foyot’s in 1897 would find itself perfectly at home in a certain air-conditioned restaurant in Washington, this year or next, or in some such place as Mike Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills.

Some of the best food in America can be, and occasionally is, found at his eating place, although architecture rather than gastronomy seems at first glance to be what makes it a necessary part of the nourishment of Hollywood politicians.

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