Saturday, March 5, 2011

Food bullies

Back in the 70s, a little truck-stop restaurant in the wilds of Eastern Washington became locally famous because its French patronne did not mind insulting her clients. Order wrongly, and she would refuse to grant your request. Salt before tasting, and she would angrily remove the salt shaker from your table.

When Mr Neff and I finally worked up enough courage to go to her restaurant, which was reputed to have excellent food despite the neon Pepsi sign in its front window, I decided to hedge my bets by talking to the dragon lady en fran├žais, which I spoke rather well at the time. Predictably, she was thrilled - finally someone who might understand her cooking!

When it was time for dessert, we ordered the small cup of ice cream that came with our prix fixe meal. La patronne vehemently disagreed. "You must have the tarte aux framboises," she told us.

"Oh, but Madame," we protested, "the meal was so satisfying that we couldn't possibly. All we want is a small dessert."

"No," she insisted. "You must have the raspberry tart. The people in the booth behind you wanted it, and I told them they couldn't have it. There are only two pieces left, and they are yours."

We had no choice. She brought the tart.

I have never, before or since, eaten anything like it. Each slice was a perfect triangle of raspberries arranged like a dry-stone wall with no visible mortar. Each raspberry was small and bursting with flavor (I suspect the raspberries came out of her garden). The crust was light and sweet and perfect. The first bite was exquisite, and every subsequent mouthful was even better, pleasure layering on pleasure.

So I am somewhat sympathetic to the chefs I read about in Diane Cardwell's article, "Have It Your Way? Purist Chefs Won't Have It," in yesterday's New York Times:
New York has spawned a breed of hard-line restaurants and cafes that are saying no. No to pouring takeout espressos, or grinding more than a pound of coffee at a time. No to taming the intensity of a magma-spicy dish. And most of all, no to the 21st-century conviction that everything can be accessorized to the customer’s taste.
If you want excellent food, why mess with the recommendations of experts?

On the other hand, if you know what you like, why let experts bully you into eating or drinking what you don't want?

OK, there are several good reasons: (1) to learn to like something new (isn't this what we tell our children when we offer them, say, their first bite of avocado?), (2) to learn why we like what we like so we're more sure of getting it next time, (3) to discover that food we don't think we like, prepared brilliantly, is actually quite good ... well, all the reasons seem to come back to learning.

And learning is why I checked out Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's Drink This: Wine Made Simple when I saw it on the new-books shelves at the public library - and why, after reading a couple of chapters, I actually bought my own copy. Grumdahl is hilarious. She knows wine. She explains things well. She has devised a clever system to help wine novices have fun while learning much more than they're likely to learn from more exhaustive books.

And yet, bless her, she doesn't suffer bullies gladly. From her "Wine Drinker's Bill of Rights":
Your whole life has been one cumulative process adding up to your own taste. No person, critic, wine shop clerk, or anyone else has a right to disparage or discount it. If you want to drink Bordeaux with your oysters, Port with your burger, or Chardonnay with your fried chicken, it is no one's business but your own. No one lives with your taste buds but you, so no one really knows what you are experiencing except you. It's your taste!
Right on, Ms. Grumdahl. Life is too short to drink wine you don't like because it's popular or snobby or expensive, or even because the server raised one eyebrow when you started to order a different wine. In fact, despite wine's popularity, why drink it at all if you don't like it? As Grumdahl advises,
If wine can't provide happiness, it should get out of the way and let something else do it, like chocolate.
Or like that heavenly raspberry tart - even though I allowed a stubborn restauratrice to bully me into eating it.


ngillard said...

Living in eastern Washington, I am very curious as to the location and name of the restaurant mentioned in your post. It is probably no longer in existence but I am curious. The raspberry tart description made my mouth water. Thanks.

LaVonne Neff said...

Oh, I wish I could remember. I just asked my husband, and he thought it was in Pasco. I thought it was in Richland. So it was probably in Kennewick. Sigh. And we can't remember the name at all. I went there three times, I think. Eventually it lost its liquor license, and then I think it closed. It was run by a middle-aged French couple who grew their own herbs for the soups.

Loren Seibold said...

Great piece on foodies in The Atlantic Monthly: