There is a hullabaloo--or whatever you call increased press coverage--over expiry dates on food packaging. Someone has noticed that huge quantities of food are discarded, because they have reached the “artificial” date printed on the package. I wonder how much political correctness and over-protection of (stupid) consumers drove the addition of dates and the scope of perishability.
When I was a child, food did not have expiration dates. My mother smelled the milk: she knew when it went bad. Mold on food gave a hint. People knew, without the help of some watchdog agency. Then again, I wonder if they put an expiration date on Roquefort cheese.
Today, I might not buy something with a soon-to-be-reached expiration date. Once in the house, I tend to use my mother’s methods. I am not worried about eating something beyond the date, but my family think they will die a sudden death.
I recall meeting an English Army cook during a joint maneuver many years ago. A curry dish was on the menu, so I asked if he could dig up an alternative for my sensitive American stomach. He was foolish enough to admit to me the history of curry and army food, which started during the Empire days in India. The army used curry (and other strong spices) to hide the taste of rotten meat. Think of this next time your eat Indian food.
When thinking about expiration dates, I recall meeting a Canadian couple at a resort in St. Lucia, also many years ago. He was a construction worker on some remote island. Food sourcing was difficult and refrigeration limited. The wife explained that she would buy whatever she could and ignored dates on packages, certain that the frozen food had thawed and been refrozen many times on the trip from the factory in the United States down the food chain to some small grocery shop on an island. She had learned to boil everything before eating and to ignore the color of the water.
And, as careful as we are at home, no one knows what happens behind kitchen doors in restaurants...
A slew of articles about some judging the “best” restaurants in the world and naming a “winner”.
Of course, this is absurd. There is no such thing as “best”. Why should anyone believe the opinion of people with opinions, especially people who make their living catering (no pun intended) to this industry. Food writers will write glowing reviews of expensive top-rated restaurants, because the want to show their appreciation for the free meal they received and/or expect to receive. Food magazines thrive of glossy pieces about fancy troughs and newspaper insist on having a “food editor”.
I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, enjoyed street food in many countries, and satiated my hunger at most US chains. My “favorite” sandwich was bought at a rest stop outside Genoa, Italy, on the highway between Nice and Milan. I have had too many hamburgers and too many steaks to pick a favorite. Best is not something one can easily apply to something so varied, which often is affected by mood, company, and...hunger.
The worst thing I have eaten is sea anemone at a fine restaurant (except for this dish) in Spain. I noted that this is served that the restaurant the won “best”. It seems that offering weird stuff helps to win prizes, but I prefer normal food. I appreciate creativity and enjoy the meals I have had at one of France’s best, the Auberge de l’Ill, where every meal over the decades has been memorable.
The most memorable meal, although not the “best” was at a restaurant that is not even a restaurant. This was outside Kyoto, Japan. The place takes one small party a night. You sit on the floor and the waitress serves you on her knees. I do not recall what I ate, but each course was special. Mostly, I recall the setting. In a country known for being crowded, this small building was located in a huge wooded estate and offered pure tranquility. The ambience made the meal special, because I did not particularly enjoy the company.
I have enjoyed to many “bests” to pick one. Anyone that does is being disingenuous. Anyone that believes the selection is a fool.
A small building in a tiny park located in lower Manhattan is well-known to New Yorkers and many non-residents. Its name is Shake Shack. In a city known for hustle and bustle and pushiness, each day lines of people wait patiently for--I must say--a rather good hamburger, French fries, and milk shake. I believe that they also offer soft drinks and hotdogs. The building is unembellished, packaging is rudimentary, service is efficient, if brusk, and seating is outside on wooden tables and benches in whatever weather is prevailing. This is a quintessential American establishment, which cannot be improved or copied, because the formula has been proven and the location part of the appeal.
Because of this, I was surprised to discover a “Shake Shake” in a mall in Dubai during my last trip. I did not sample the offer, but was skeptical about trying to copy something unique.
This trip, I discovered another “Shake Shack”, which is larger and located on a strip of newly developed residential and commercial properties at the new Dubai marina. This area is quintessential Dubai: luxurious habitable space wrested from inhabitable desert, spiced by American chains. The setting, decor, and ambience of this so-called “Shake Shack” (well, actually the signs says it) could not be further removed from the original...until one is opened on Mars.
I did sample the wares and was pleasantly surprised. The hamburger was excellent--much better than MacDonalds--and as I remembered the one I had in New York. To indicate how good it was, out 2-year old ate an entire hamburger for the first time in his life.
The ambience was very different, but that is not essential. Someone had managed to transport a culinary experience from a shack in Manhattan to a purpose-built city in the desert of Arabia.
We needed a quick lunch, so we decided (I mean, my wife demanded) to have a bite at the Christmas market. An annual favorite is called Kartoffelpuffer, which is a fried potato patty made from shredded potatoes. This is often translated as potato pancake.
Some might see a similarity to hash browns, but I do not. The Swiss serve something similar, which they call rösti, but is made in a frying pan and has less fat.
A good Kartoffelpuffer is best bought at a market stand and served right from the fryer with apple sauce. A normal serving is three. Nothing else is needed (because they are filling). One might think that apple sauce does not fit with potato, but one sampling of this German “delicacy” (hardly delicate) with change your mind.
Each time we “enjoy” this food item, I remind my wife of the time she ate eight (yes, 8) Kartoffelpuffer when pregnant with our first child. That was on a snowy night at the Frankfurt Christmas market.
To this day, she neither regrets the binge nor minds me reminding her.
As umbrellas suggest, there was little winter atmosphere at the Christmas market. Still, a bellyful of greasy potatoes was just the thing for a cold, damp day. Even if trying to keep from getting wet while eating did detract from the enjoyment.
One of the news feeds provided me with yet another reason to avoid visiting the United States. I read that the FDA will ban trans fats. One of the few reasons to visit the Land of Freedom Illusion and the Home of the Barely Making Ends Meet was the flavor of many tasty foods, such as ice cream or cinnamon rolls, to name only two. Why travel so far, when one can find similar tastes closer to home?
We traveled to Dubai for sun, beach, and a cultural experience. Most would assume that the cultural experience might contain something Emirati or Arabic. We do get a bit of that in the architecture and a glimpse of people in white or black robes, but mostly we immerse in North American culture (North because of a donut chain), with an added touch of European.
We are staying at a Ritz Carlton, which gives a nod to the location with some of its decorative design. Our room has one hint. The hotel has an Italian, pan-Asian, North African, and fusion restaurants.
The actual “cultural” experience comes outside the hotel and at malls. We patronized the Cheesecake Factory (better than I expected), TGI Friday’s (as mediocre as always), Starbucks (unchanging), Trader Vic’s (our favorite chain for kitsch and drinks), Tim Horton’s (insert your favorite Canadian joke), IHOP (the taste I remember), and Fauchon (a touch of food heaven from France). The selection of US and international chains is virtually endless in Dubai, with many having more than one outlet. One must not fly 10 hours to binge on junk food, when everything one could desire in only 5 hours away...without homeless people, concealed weapons, or crime.
Although breakfast is included with our room, we escaped the monotony of the daily buffet to seek refuge and pancakes. At IHOP, one enjoys a multi-sensory experience: aroma, taste, and feel. I had the sensation of my hands becoming sticky upon entering the restaurant. Of course, this probably happened only upon touching the laminated menu, but I recalled previous visits to this sticky chain. All staff were Asian, but we still enjoyed the taste of (former) home. The only exception was the bacon, which was made from beef. No pig has ever set foot on the Arabia Peninsula, which alters the flavor of breakfast.
Today is a holiday in Germany: Reunification Day, to commemorate the joining of “communist” East Germany with “democratic” West Germany. This basically meant that citizens of the former West Germany took over paying for their poor “relatives” from the east...and are still paying today.
As on most holidays, there are festivals up and down the country all competing for visitors and their pocket money. Even I managed to leave my lair and venture out to a festival in the old part of town, partly because the weather was so nice...and my wife dragged me.
The main attraction of these festivals is food and drink. This one had a “foreign” flair, offering French stuff. Flammkuchen is a favorite in Alsace, which now belongs to France, despite often being German (check history for yourself). This is not unlike pizza, since it is unleavened bread (kuchen) with toppings heated over a fire (flamm), except that some have sweet toppings (apple and cinnamon is tasty). This was probably introduced into the region by Roman soldiers on their march north along the Rhine River.
Local fare was also available. Being Autumn, people could bring apples from their yard and have them pressed into cider. Or they could buy some.
Despite the foreign words, neither is the Word of the Day. That honor falls to a fish. The word for trout is Forelle.
This word has significance for me due a minor incident in the past. I spent my 21st birthday alone in Fussen, Germany. I had traveled there with a Eurail Pass to visit Neuschwanstein Castle and was spending the night in a cheap pension (I was a poor student!). For my birthday dinner, I decided upon the brewery restaurant, having heard that they always had good food. I wanted to have trout...but did not know the word and no one spoke English. I ended up pointing to the word goulash on the menu, that being the only dish I recognized. This was very different from the dish my mother prepared, but I recall that it was tasty. Still, it was not trout, so my birthday was not great. Now that I know the word, I am no longer interested in eating this fish.
I hate to throw away food. This leads to discussions, rolling of eyes, and shaking of head, when I resist my wife’s discarding of perfectly good food. She hates to eat leftovers; I kinda like them (usually).
My eccentricity is not a result of my mother’s imploring us to “think about the starving children in Africa”, when we refused to empty our plates. Lack of hunger or satiation were not an excuse to leave food on the plate. We always ate well and lack of food was never an issue.
My lovely wife, on the other hand, grew up in post-war Germany, where food shortages were common. Her tales of childhood meals are surprising to me. Because of this deprivation, I would expect her to be less likely to waste food or discard perfectly good food.
This is, and will remain, one of life’s paradoxes. Bon appetit.
I am not a fan of Jamie Oliver, the English “celebrity chef”, but he does stir things up in the field of media attention to food and eating habits. He tried to improve school lunches in Britain and was ruthlessly attacked. It seems that mothers would rather bow to children’s desire to eat unhealthy food.
I bring up his name, because I noticed a headline in which he stirs another kettle and emotions, cooking up only controversy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that his latest salvo hits a target. Photos or video footage of poor people’s homes always reveal the presence of modern electronic amidst the squalor. During riots, looters always seem to hit the electronics shops, not the grocery stores.
My conclusion is that he is correct. Numbing the brain (have you scanned programs currently available on television?) has priority over filling bellies with healthy fare. High levels of sugar, salt, and fat in cheap food is enough to dull both hunger and thought. Sadly, Mr. Oliver is again cooking up only a furor in which few will be interested and nothing will change.
I do not like the taste of coriander, which is difficult to avoid if Asian cuisine. I recall its copious use spoiling my enjoyment of grouper at Hong Kong dinners. Earlier, I thought that lemon grass was the of the unpleasant taste sensation, until I learned the true culprit.
I have found that a mere hint of this herb can provide an interesting accent, but cooks tend to use too much...which tips the balance into the unpleasant camp. We do not use this at home, because I wish to avoid the risk of being forced to eat something I will not enjoy.
Today, we visited a Michelin-starred restaurant for lunch. The set menu included everything I like...except the desert selection: melon soup with coriander ice cream. Of course, I informed the waiter of my aversion, but she counter with her shared feelings and surprise at tasting the desert. I decided to live on the wild side and not demand a different desert.
Wise decision. In fact, I enjoyed the coriander ice cream, to the extend of praising the chef. He explained that he had made the ice cream using coriander seeds and not leaves (as if I knew the difference!). The lesson here is that one should be willing to try something risky, but only if the waiter recommends. Of course, this leap of faith will never extend to Indian cuisine, which one must only look at to know that it cannot be good...
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.