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Thursday, July 23, 2009 09:29 pm

Blurring the meaning of delicious words

An authentic gourmet Tuscan bistro?

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An “authentic” Pizza Hut Itallian Bistro.

“Education courses teach you words that say nothing.”

I heard this bit of wisdom from my music teacher, Esther Duncan, when I was a teenager. In her day, she was a legendary figure in Springfield for her feisty character, the excellence of her Lanphier choirs and her aggressive driving. After she retired I took private voice, piano and theory lessons from her — and learned much more than music.

I didn’t understand her remark until I heard college professors whose words sounded wisely important but were largely meaningless, divorced from reality. I remember Miss Duncan whenever I get frustrated with words that are so overused and/or misused that they’ve become meaningless. Here are a few food-related examples:

Gourmet — The dictionary defines gourmet as: Noun 1) a connoisseur of fine food and drink; epicure. Adjective 2) of or characteristic of a gourmet, esp. in involving or purporting to involve high-quality or exotic ingredients and skilled preparation 3) elaborately equipped for the preparation of fancy, specialized, or exotic meals: a gourmet kitchen.

For centuries the word gourmet was used solely as a noun. It’s only relatively recently begun appearing as an adjective, and it’s as an adjective that the word has been overused to the point that it’s devoid of any meaning. That’s reflected in the second definition: food can be gourmet if it just purports (definition: implies or claims, often falsely) to involve high-quality or exotic ingredients and skilled preparation — it doesn’t actually have to. Gourmet coffee at fast-food chains abounds. Gourmet sandwiches — those must be the ones with Dijon rather than ballpark mustard.

Bistro — Patricia Wells has long lived in France. She is unique: an American who critiques French restaurants for French readers. In her cookbook, Bistro Cooking, she says, “Most simply, a bistro is a small neighborhood restaurant serving home-style, substantial fare. Diners are on a first name basis with the harried waitress. In days past, [Parisian] bistros served as an extension of the family living room. Apartment kitchens were small (in fact, almost nonexistent), and many Parisians took all their meals at their local bistro. In some cases they even stored their own napkins there. Bistro cuisine is French home cooking at its best. Ingredients…. come straight from the local market.”

Many restaurants calling themselves bistros attempt to create that warm and casual ambience, even if the particulars aren’t the same. That’s fine with me. But bistro is now used in ways far removed from the real thing. Pizza Hut added a few pasta dishes to its menu, and now calls their restaurants “Italian Bistros.” In Italy bistro-like establishments are called trattorias. And nationally-franchised pizza joints aren’t just different from genuine bistros; they’re their antithesis. Bistro is also now used as an adjective. Bistro burgers, anyone? A Springfield sports bar serves “tangy bistro dipping sauce” with beer-battered brat bites…. Huh?

Tuscan — Tuscany is the kneecap of Italy’s boot. Renowned 20th century gourmet Waverly Root says in The Cooking of Italy, “The one characteristic shared by the best Tuscan dishes is a single-minded avoidance of unnecessary complications. Great attention is paid to raw materials of the highest quality, cooked with a minimum of sauces and seasonings. Tuscany is best known for three gastronomic traditions: beef, beans and Chianti.”

The beef comes from Chianina cattle, the world’s oldest breed. Tuscans eat so many beans, they’re nicknamed mangiafagioli, bean-eaters. Pasta isn’t as dominant as in other Italian regions. Root says Tuscany is “the region where the cooking is thought to be the least ‘corrupted’ by outside influences.”

At least until American marketing geniuses grabbed hold of it. Why call something Tuscan when it has little or nothing to do with Tuscan food? Does food sell better when it’s labeled Tuscan? Is it more appealing, somehow sexier than Roman or Neapolitan or Bolognese? Easier to pronounce? The Tuscan craze reached new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective) with the introduction of Tuscan and Florentine canned cat foods by Fancy Feast. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Authentic — especially preceding an ethnic designation, such as Mexican. Some restaurants may be authentic, but how can average diners tell? While a menu may have some authentic dishes — perhaps tacos al carbon or coctel de camarron, if it includes nachos and taco salads it’s a safe bet much of the food is geared toward us gringos.

Perversely, often the least authentic restaurants work hardest to persuade us of their authenticity. The Olive Garden goes so far as to tout their Culinary Inspiration — their “Culinary Institute” — in Tuscany, naturally! I don’t doubt that it exists — visitors to their Web site can take a virtual tour. I do doubt that it serves much purpose besides marketing, despite all those visuals of grandmotherly Chef Romana teaching eager Olive Garden employees. I have two primary reasons. First, many menu items designated “inspired by our Culinary Institute” contain combinations that would be absolute anathema to Italians, such as tortellini topped with entrée-sized portions of short ribs, and grilled seafood with cheese-sauced pasta.

The second is a woman I met when taking a week-long course at the Culinary Institute of America. Open only to professionals, the course’s 20-odd students were a mixed bunch, among them chefs from Japan, several Navy cooks — and a woman who had for the five previous years been Olive Garden’s quality control manager in nine western states. She knew nothing about cooking, not even the most basic of basics. We had to show her how to cut an onion. This nice woman was horribly embarrassed, sometimes to the point of tears. She was only able to get through the class because everyone pitched in to help her.

There are many more meaningless or misleading food words around — garden-fresh and healthy are two that come to mind. Start looking, and see how many you can find!


Clafouti

RealCuisine Recipe:
Clafouti


For an authentic, gourmet dessert served in French bistros and homes, try making a clafouti. Somewhere between a custard and cake, it’s a simple, eggy batter poured over fruit and baked. The crisp outside and edges contrast with the more pudding-like interior.

For an authentic, gourmet dessert served in French bistros and homes, try making a clafouti. Somewhere between a custard and cake, it’s a simple, eggy batter poured over fruit and baked. The crisp outside and edges contrast with the more pudding-like interior.

  • 3 c. fresh fruit, cut into bite-sized chunks or slices if necessary — berries, cherries, peaches, etc., singly or in combination. Frozen fruit (unthawed) may be substituted
  • 3 T. butter plus additional for greasing the baking dish
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 1/4 - 1/2 c. sugar — use the larger amount if fruits are very tart/sour
  • 1/2 - 2/3 c. flour (The larger amount of flour will make the clafouti more cake-like; the smaller amount more custardy)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1-2 drops almond extract, optional (best used with stone fruits such as cherries or peaches
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest, optional Confectioner’s sugar for serving


Preheat the oven to 400º. Butter a two-quart baking dish. Melt the 3T. butter in a small skillet, then remove from the heat.
Beat the eggs until frothy, then whisk in all the remaining ingredients except the fruit. This can be done by hand, or with a mixer, blender, or food processor.
Scatter the fruit evenly in the baking dish. Pour the batter over the fruit. Bake 35-45 minutes, or until the clafouti is puffed and golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm, dusted with the confectioner’s sugar, accompanied by ice cream or whipped cream if desired. Serves 6.

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