As heard on WAMC: You’ve probably noticed, every time a television chef uses a “naughty” ingredient, the studio audience let out a big chuckle.
Garlic, it seems, is a funny word. Sure it has a connection with slaying vampires and it makes your breath well — emphatic, is perhaps the word I’m looking for, but why people laugh or when they hear the word ‘garlic’ is a bit of a mystery.
They laugh at butter too. When Julia Child cooked in public, the audience always cracked up when she used tons of butter. She’d say, “If you are worried about using all this butter, add heavy cream instead.” She also used to say, “The only time I diet is when I’m waiting for the steak to cook.” Julia used wine in her cooking, and this led people to think she drank a lot, though in fact, she didn’t.
Nowadays we laugh at maraschino cherries and pistachio ice cream and wiggly, squiggly Jell-O, and squishy marshmallows and Hostess Twinkies. And Wonder bread and Brussels sprouts. You can always count on fruitcake to make folks snicker.
We laugh too at great American classic dishes like tuna fish casserole, spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and Green Goddess dressing.
We scoff at cream of mushroom soup — and hamburger helper. It’s been years since we thought it a treat to open a can of fruit cocktail. The culinary masterpieces of yesteryear have passed into the realm of passé. No longer do we salivate over Chicken à la King or Beef Stroganoff or Beef Wellington, Lobster Thermidor, angels on horseback, angel food cake, Boston cream pie, or Cherries Jubilee. Even thinking about them is like seeing your entire life flash by.
Food snobs sneer at cream-filled, jam-packed doughnuts though heaven knows it’s not only men in blue who eat them. By the way, have you noticed we eat hardly any foods that are blue, except of course, blueberries? If you offered someone a blue steak he’d gag at the very thought of it.
Certain foods fade in and out of fashion, like clothing. As Oscar Wilde once observed, “If fashion wasn’t so awful, it wouldn’t keep changing so often.” Some foods fail to achieve fashionable or funny status. Instead they remain in the realm of the weird. It’s that way with beets. Beets should be taken seriously. They are put up on pedestals at Harvard. It is not surprising that Harvard College, an institution with a pronounced affection for the color crimson, should have come up with the idea of Harvard beets — although their color is closer to magenta than crimson.
Pickled beets are a puzzle. You see them on every salad bar, but you hardly ever catch anyone actually helping themselves to a spoonful of them. Eastern Europeans seem to have got the hang of cooking beets and profess to like them, but that’s probably because they are cheap. At some of the poshest European spas, however, extremely well nourished patrons are offered regular doses of fresh beet juice, and told it will be a big help with weight control. (They pay handsomely for advice like this.)
Out in the country, they grow a big orange-colored beet known as the mangel-wurzel,
which tastes just as horrible as it sounds. The natives eat it but only if there is no alternative.
Some things get lost in translation. When an American diplomat attending a banquet in Russia was urged to have a second helping of beef, he declined. He explained: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The translator reported he had said, “The vodka was terrific but the meat was horrible.” As for the diplomat, his face was as red as… a you-know-what…No word on whom had the last laugh.