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.