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Thursday, May 25, 2006 01:54 pm

Snobbish about food

Too many people have no idea what real food tastes like

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My kids tell me I’m a food snob, and it’s an accusation to which I cheerfully plead guilty. But my snobbishness isn’t about exotic ingredients or fancy preparations — either when I’m cooking at home or dining out. Sure, I enjoy those things; I love Michael Higgins’ carefully crafted dishes containing seasonal local ingredients at Maldaner’s. But I also love the hamburgers at Fulgenzi’s and the barbecued ribs at P.T.’s stand on Taylor. I get satisfaction creating a French chartreuse — an elaborate mosaic of precisely cut carrot and zucchini batons filled with a broccoli purée — for a special occasion, but I also have a deep sense of satisfaction when I make a salad from the first spring greens with the simplest of dressings. One of my strongest food memories is biting into a white peach I’d just picked from my grandparents’ tree. It was perfectly ripe and hot from the sun. I can still taste its intense perfumed sweetness, the warm, sticky juice running down my chin. Food just doesn’t get any better than that. I don’t, however, eat at the chain/fast food restaurants that shout at us from the highways or buy the convenience foods that seduce us from our TV screens. Their products are made of cheap, highly processed ingredients made palatable by the addition of artificial flavorings, excesses of salt, and empty calories of fat and sugar. Their intensive advertising, aided by the hectic pace of modern life, has succeeded to the degree that too many people — especially children — have no idea what real food tastes like anymore. I’m disappointed when chefs feel they can pull a fast one on unsuspecting diners, as was the case recently when I had lunch at a local restaurant. The crab-and-artichoke melt sounded good, but experience has made me a little cynical, so I asked the server whether the crab was real or fake surimi crab, which is made of various kinds of puréed fish that is spread into sheets, artificially flavored, rolled into cylinders, and dyed red. He was new and had to go ask but returned to assure me it was real crab. Sadly, when it arrived, under the melted cheese I could see the artificially bright red color and pinwheel shape of surimi crabstick. This was foolish as well as dishonest; some people are very allergic to red food dye. Four years ago when I started teaching cooking classes in my home, one of the hardest things was deciding what to call my new business. I finally settled on “RealCuisine,” but it was pretty much by default. Since then, however, I’ve come to realize that it was absolutely the right choice. RealCuisine is what I want my cooking classes — and this column — to be about: Real food, from the homiest comfort food to the exotically ethnic. Clean tastes. Preparations that don’t rely on artificial ingredients or highly processed fillers for their flavor. Fresh ingredients and the best places to find them. Great places to eat out and delicious recipes to try at home. News from and about the food world, especially in the Midwest and central Illinois. I welcome any comments or suggestions.
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