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THOMPSON: How fine dining has changed over the years

September 03, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


When our ancestors dined - let’s say our great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were lucky enough to snag a dinner invite from Ben Franklin in Boston in 1776 - the table would have looked vastly different than today.

What passed for a fancy dinner then probably would draw wrinkled noses and weak smiles from most us. Unless, of course, you savour a variety of boiled and garnished mammal heads, stuffed cow udder, jellied calves feet and pickled snouts.

There might have been a roast, perhaps, but it would have lacked the flavour and tenderness of even cheaper beef cuts in today’s local grocery. There were chickens, of course, though more often than not they were boiled…not roasted. And, if you were really fortunate…maybe you would have had overdone pheasant or grouse.

Salt and butter were ubiquitous…but no one - and I mean no one - ate garlic or seasoned with most of today’s popular spices and herbs like black pepper, oregano, basil and thyme. Usually, the aforementioned foods and more would be served - 10 to 20 dishes at a time - in three shifts…a buffet more or less.

All in all…the food of yesteryear - despite the abundance - wasn’t worthy of an ordinary weekday dinner today. Indeed, quantity was as important as quality. Remember, back then fat was fashionable…skinny people were poor…rich people were fat.

Ironically, the tables of poor people across town from Ben Franklin’s home might have offered up lobster, and probably clams and oysters. Hmmm…sounds like most of us would have preferred to go slumming in days of old.

Refrigeration - except cool cellars - didn’t exist. The standard in the late 1700s was that you ate any animal within 24 hours of it being shot or slaughtered. Pork was rarely eaten fresh…mostly it was cured with salt…providing bacon and hams.

It’s interesting to foodies like me that almost every dish that we consider a delicacy today - a gourmet item - was peasant food early on. Lobster didn’t garner hosts compliments back in the day…it was not much more than opening a can of Spam today.

Lobster became recognized as a gourmet item in the mid-1800s…when railroads were built and fancy dining cars featured the crustacean on menus for people traveling from Pennsylvania or Illinois…places where virtually no one had ever seen a lobster. The railroads loved it…buy lobsters for a little in New England and sell them at a premium to wealthy riders in Pittsburgh and Chicago.

But back to my earlier assertion that peasants used to eat what is now the fare of mostly wealthy folks. Foie gras, for example, or goose liver, was once sold out the back doors of butcher shops for centimes in villages across France.

Today, foie gras - even though it’s almost always duck liver - sells for a couple hundred dollars a pound and the closest purveyor to us is in Vancouver. Foie gras, by the way, teamed with a vintage Chateau d’Yquem, is one of the most sublime marriages of food and beverage I’ve ever known. But, I digress.

Beluga caviar, another gourmet item that requires mortgage approval today at just under $5,000 a pound…was once the food of poor peasants near the Caspian Sea. The last time I had Beluga was at a swanky private dinner at The Breakers in Palm Beach in 1997…there were nearly 200 guests…and a kilo of Beluga.

I don’t know how much that dinner cost…but since we dined off Gianna Versace’s personal china (bought by the hotel from his estate weeks after he was killed) and a Cirque du Soleil troupe performed between courses…I’ll assume it was a small fortune. I didn’t pay anything, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Oysters were pretty much shunned by the hoity-toity until 1889, when New Orleans restaurant Antoine’s invented Oysters Rockefeller to replace the top hors d’oeuvre of the day…escargot. It seems there was a serious snail blight for a couple years and desperate times call for desperate measures. The son of Antoine’s founder created a sauce and used the plentiful Louisiana oysters to make a substitute dish for the missing snails. He named it after America’s richest man - John D. Rockefeller - and as they say, the rest is history.

Some foods have become popular…though not necessarily expensive. Chicken wings, for example. When I was a teenager, grocery stores sold them for 10 cents a pound…mostly they were cooked in soups or broths.

But in 1964, Teressa Bellissimo, the owner of the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, got a shipment of wings ten times larger than usual. If you like chicken wings, thank the memory of some poor shipping clerk at a food purveyor in Buffalo…his mistake led to what is now the most ubiquitous appetizer and pub menu item in North America.

Polenta is another rags to riches food story. Working class Italians and Americans in the South knew polenta…grits to Southerners…for a century. But a bunch of celebrity chefs in the 1980s “invented” the dish…selling it New York for five times the price. Never underestimate the power of rich people to pay too much for something they think might define them.

The truth is some people - self included - have traveled the world over seeking local cuisines that reflect the cultures - often like micro-climates - of countries. My wife calls me the most adventurous diner she has ever known. That’s probably what most who know me would say.

I’ll try almost anything once. Most of the time…I come away with a smile, satisfied and with a little better understanding of the people with whom I’m sharing a meal. So, I’ve eaten everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Monkey brain from Thailand, lion from Africa, sea urchin from Japan, fried crickets also a favourite in Thailand…and on and on.

Rarely, have I been disappointed or found foods that were simply inedible or detestable. But, it does happen. Near Burgos in the north of Spain - a friend no less - tricked me into eating air-dried partridge. Basically, the birds were shot and hung on wooden trellises for three weeks.

As you might imagine, this was a dish - and I use the term loosely - one would have to sneak up on. I tried…but the aroma was so horrific that I could never stop gagging and convulsing long enough for a bit of the rotting bird to reach my mouth. Those that gathered for this more or less picnic laughed heartily.

They were from that area of Spain and had dined on this dish since they were two years old. They moved me upwind…and after copious amounts of wine…offered me the only roasted partridge. Even so, the only partridges I tolerate today are in the “Twelve Days of Christmas”…which isn’t one of my favourites either now that I think about it.

It’s been 46 years since that ill-fated partridge dinner. There have been thousands of dishes since then…almost all of them delightful. I guess those aren’t bad odds when you think about it. That’s why - even today - I never say “no” to a food offered me…the first time. Bon Appétit.


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