I like to cook, and I am good at it and know something about it. So I therefore am somewhat attracted to certain information streams including, for instance, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table” on National Public Radio. (Although this show comes out of the Twin Cities, Kasper and I have only crossed paths a couple of times, and very uneventfully. Some day I’d love to actually talk to her. I have some questions about garlic.)

But I have some issues related to cooking and elitism. Gourmet cooking is an elitist activity, and a large share of the cooking enterprise in general in the US has become so. If you want to understand this, just go to an appliance store. There, you can find two functionally identical stoves where one is made entirely out of stainless steel and costs five thousand dollars, and the other is made of a mixture of perfectly adequate materials and costs five hundred dollars. The five thousand dollar stove will be called the “elite” model, just in case a prospective buyer is not getting the point, and the five hundred dollar stove will some with sneers and snarks from the sales persons. Same with dishwashers and refrigerators. In other words, there is a clear trope of conspicuous consumption linked to the upper “middle class” (ha!) kitchen.

One of the things that annoys me and delights me at the same time on The Splendid Table is the routine where this couple … a pair of restaurant critics that seem married to each other but who’s names escape me … travels around the U.S. and obnoxiously reports “finds” of excellent this or that to eat in some out of the way place. Again and again, for years and years, this couple ebulliently, almost giddily, gush effusive praise for the remarkable, presumably natural ability of some slack jawed yokel greasy spoon chief to concoct an extraordinary meal that people in South Podunk actually travel all the way across town — presumably on their mules and often while sleet is falling from the skies — to eat in quantity, as though this was the first time any such freak of culinary nature (good food that is not being served up in the latest bistro) has been discovered. Oh wow. How quaint.

So I listen to the Spendid Table and I enjoy it and I cringe at the same time. Sort of like sex if you are Woody Allen.

Well, a couple of years back, the Umami thing came around as it does every now and then, and the author of a book on “The Fifth Spice” was being interviewed on The Table. This was a long piece, the main feature for the show that day, and the participants wen on and on and on about Umami. In case you don’t know, Umami is a flavor like salt or sweet that is detected by the taste buds and is found in certain sorts of food. Perhaps we can deal with the science of that some other time, for now we’ll just stick to the cooking lore.

During the course of this conversation abundant examples of umami were given. The proposal was made that you really weren’t a cook unless you had an “umami cupboard” in which you stocked a variety of substances that could be used to provide the umami for whatever worthy item you were busy cooking. Get some smoked fish and grind that up. Various spices, especially in combination, would do in certain contexts. There were blends of umami and saltiness or umami and sweetness. Tomatoes. And so on and so forth.

And during this entire time not a single mention was made … not one tiny little mention … of the most commonly consumed umami compound, which is in fact THE ultimate umami source in the US. The best, most abundant, least expensive, most widely used, and the mainstay for certain applications of some of the worlds greatest chefs.

Indeed, I’ll tell you a quick story about that! I have had the pleasure of meeting, and even eating with, one of the Twin Cities greatest chefs. I met him early in his ascendancy, when he was still a guy who worked in a certain restaurant and not yet a guy who owned and operated (and cooked in) a certain restaurant. One day I was visting one of these early restaurants … where this chef worked … and sitting with the owner munching on some new food concept produced by this excellent chef.

And there was a sauce, made in large part of this umami ingredient extraordinaire of which I speak. Knowing what was in the sauce, and wanting to play with my host a little, I said “Yes, your chef is brilliant. This sauce … it has that certain je ne sais quoi … almost like … like I cannot possibly say!

And the owner of the resturant, and at that time owner of the chef as well, smiled with the little dollar signs in his eyes and said, “Yes, he’s brilliant alright. It’s ketchup!”

In truth, it was ketchup mixed with some other stuff, but ketchup was indeed the primary umami ingredient. But the Nouveau Elite continue to shun this amazing ingredient as though it would cause leprosy if even spoken of. And, honestly, I was very disappointed that ketchup was not mentioned during Kasper’s foray into Umami of a couple of years back.

Nor is it mentioned in this news piece about the latest science of umami. Shame, really.


  1. #1 chezjake
    December 23, 2008

    Ketchup is certainly an excellent source of umami, but it’s a bit blatant for many dishes. Mushrooms are another excellent source, as well as all the traditional meat/poultry/fish stocks.

    BTW, I also need to nitpick a bit, just to introduce you to a wonderful, underused word. Ketchup isn’t a spice; it’s a tracklement. Tracklement is a delightful English word used to refer to all the savory condiments that are primarily intended to accompany meat — ketchup, mustard, horseradish, relishes, salsas, chutneys, chimichurri, Worcestershire sauce, etc.

  2. #2 Moopheus
    December 23, 2008

    After that buildup, I thought you were going to say MSG. I’d be willing to bet that MSG is cheaper and more widely used than ketchup.

    “you can find two functionally identical stoves where one is made entirely out of stainless steel and costs five thousand dollars”

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “functionally equivalent.” A DCS or BlueStar will give you a burner with 20K+ BTU output; no cheap range can come close to that. Ovens are definitely not created equal when it comes to temperature stability. With my cheap, beat-up landlord-provided stove, I have to watch the temp closely when I bake. Construction quality? No comparison. But even high-end gear is not created equal; if you’re going to spend big bucks, shop carefully. A Sub-Zero fridge? Not worth it in the home–high upkeep and maintenance expense.

    Yes, of course, most aspirational buyers of this stuff have no clue how to use it to any advantage, they just want what’s trendy and they saw on an HGTV show. Isn’t that what home equity loans are for? (Whoops!) Heck, even the cheap stuff will emulate the look, if not the performance, of the high-end.

  3. #3 Peggy
    December 23, 2008

    When I first heard about umami flavor, what I found striking was that us ordinary cooks were already using it to make food taste better – not just ketchup, but Parmesan cheese on spaghetti, and soy sauce-heavy teriyaki sauce – all already part of my ordinary kitchen. I suspect that it could be hard to sell “umami” to the pretentious type of gourmet cooks because the rabble were already well ahead of them – although “down home” Thai or other “ethnic” cuisine is probably more acceptable than simple American food.

  4. #4 eugene_X
    December 23, 2008

    The Road Food people are Jan and Michael Stern. I listen to this show regularly, I actually really like it, and every time I hear about their culinary road trips, I imagine that the two of them must just be monumentally fat! It seems all they do is sit in the car driving from one gorgeously greasy spoon to another trying out incredibly rich comfort food… Well, nice work if you can get it, at least until the heart attack.

    Totally agree about the gourmet kitchen gear. We see this trend with a lot of things in our culture, the notion that one proves one’s dilligence at a hobby or pastime by purchasing “professional”-level gear for it. It’s fairly silly. Although I do like stainless steel, even though it smells funny when wet.

    I took a few cooking classes last fall from very cool place in Seattle–culinarycommunion.com, and the chef/teacher was a blast, amazingly knowledgeable, and very funny, definitely an Anthony Bourdain wanna-be. We asked him about this very issue, and he did say that if there was one professional-level kitchen gadget to get for your own kitchen, it’s not a $5,000 stove, it’s a warming drawer. They’re not cheap, but oh so useful if you have a big dinner with a lot of complicated timings, and would still like to spend time with your guests.

    Have you seen the $2,000 and up patio grills? I mean come on….

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    December 24, 2008

    I prefer tomato paste, but that’s mostly because corn syrup and I don’t get along so well.

    Your comment about the road food reviewers reminded me of my mother ranting about the people who head out into farmland and gush over “quaint” dilapidated barns. People, these things aren’t here for your pleasure or entertainment. They’re here because they’re needed by the locals. And the locals, not unlike you, want the best they can get. If they have it, why should this surprise you? If they don’t, it’s because they can’t afford it, not because it’ll make for prettier pictures on your Sunday drive.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    December 24, 2008

    Moopheus: What I refer to specifically is function. There really are not two identical stoves, of course. What I’m talking about here is the appliance (stove, dw, whatever) with from zero to a small amount extra (like an extra quiet dw, for example) that costs a thousand (for dw) to four thousand (stoves/fridge) more for absolutely no good reason.

    MSG is pure umami, and was in fact invented by the Japanese scientist who discovered umami.

    Eugene … well, yes, I’ve seen those 2,000 grills. But THAT is worth it!

    Stephanie, I always drive by a quaint old barn on Route Ten that I KNOW would make a great resturant, with just a little fixing up…. may be a bistro style…

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    December 24, 2008

    I don’t know, Greg. The strong beer and wine license could be tough (and what’s a bistro without wine). You know how the locals can be so touchy about development, even when it’s in their best interest.

  8. #8 Moopheus
    December 24, 2008

    “for absolutely no good reason.” = no reason that you, personally, would pay for. But if the stoves are not, as you admit, actually identical, in ways that can affect their actual use, then perhaps others have a different valuation.

    “he notion that one proves one’s dilligence at a hobby or pastime by purchasing “professional”-level gear for it. It’s fairly silly.”

    Especially since that might be different from the stuff that actual professionals use. You generally can’t have a real restaurant stove in the home–it wouldn’t meet fire codes, and you’d burn yourself. I always like shopping in restaurant supply stores–a lot of good tools can be had for much less than you’d pay at a housewares shop. Stuff for hobbyists is often a ripoff.

  9. #9 TomS
    December 24, 2008

    I hadn’t heard of “The Splendid Table”, so I went to their web pages. It seems that the program is not on NPR, but on American Public Media. I believe that those are distinct.
    American Public Media is mostly known in the USA for Garrison Keillor. (And there is a third public radio network that I know of, Public Radio International.)