Thursday, July 17, 2008

Food Phobias & Faux Pas

Last week thinking about all the best of Wisconsin food, it was only natural that some of the bad stuff would come to mind. Granted, we all have food fears. Reptiles, rodents and insects aside, there are very few things I won’t eat or at least try. Many of these prejudices are cultural, including mine: I’ll eat the body fluid from a bee but I won’t eat the bee. Sometimes our dislike is based on bad experience: I would have liked squash more if I my mother hadn’t made it to taste like its name.

My number one food phobia is ice cubes made in a home freezer. Okay, ice cubes aren’t food per see but it’s hard to enjoy a meal where they don’t make an appearance. It’s not just that homemade ice cubes are ugly, milky white and leave some mystery residue in you glass. They’re bad because too often they’re stored in open containers and end up tasting like everything in the refrigerator. I always buy ice.

I use to have a phobia about tap water, too, until I realized how much money I was spending on bottled water, how ecologically unsound the bottles were and how dubious the provenance of the water could be. I did buy a water filter.

Second on my feared food list is Jell-O. I was force-fed way too much of this stuff as a kid—it may be “America’s Favorite Dessert” but it was the only salad my aunt ever made. It comes in bright, pretty colors but what IS in that little box? Gelatin (which is made from animal bones, hooves, cartilage, tendons and intestines). Sugar. Artificial flavor and artificial coloring. If Jell-O were banned tomorrow I’m sure the consumption of canned fruit cocktail, pears and cling peaches would decline dramatically and we’d all be so much the better off for it.

Next on my list of foods I don’t like is something that often appears on top of Jell-O: Cool Whip. This is not a product born in someone’s kitchen. It was invented by a chemist in a laboratory. It’s mostly air and water … for what you’re getting it’s twice as cheap to buy real cream and whip it yourself. Cool Whip also contains sugar (lots of sugar) and hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil (much worse for you than the saturated fat in real cream). My favorite ingredients, though, are polysorbate 60 (a major ingredient in some sexual lubricants) and sorbitan monostearate (also used as a hemorrhoid cream).

In general I avoid products that have ingredients whose names I can’t pronounce, and worse yet, I don’t know what they are. I avoid ready-to-eat foods mass produced in factories. I avoid items with encoded expiration dates and things shipped in from afar that are produced locally.

Avoid is the key word here. It’s not always possible to get what I want especially, when eating out, especially at airports or a friend’s house. That brings me to my other topic: faux pas or meals that should never have been. I’m always surprised that people seemingly are a lot more interested in what I have to say when it’s a criticism as opposed to a compliment. It sure is a lot more fun to write about.

Most often asked question: “What is the worse meal you ever had?”

That covers a lot of territory. For the most part, memorable meals are just that and bad ones are soon forgotten. However, sometime an experience can be so awful it borders on traumatic and appallingly remembered forever.

Numero Uno. It was a formal dinner party with a picture-perfect table set with fine silver and china. The first course was cold soup as thick as chip dip. In fact it tasted and looked like Dean’s French Onion Dip. Unfortunately there were no chips … only a spoon and a watching host. Next was a salad … yes … lemon-flavored Jell-O containing anchovies and capers; molded in the shape of a little fish with a slice of pimento-stuffed olive for an eye. The entrĂ©e was a casserole made of fish, canned smoked oysters and condensed mushroom soup. It was very muddy, murky and fishy to say the least. For dessert a picked-over box of Russell Stover candy passed around the table, leftover from Christmas three months prior. I noticed someone had stuck his finger in the bottom of each of the remaining chocolates obviously to check its contents. He obviously didn’t like caramels.

The worse meal I ever had in a restaurant was here in Madison in the 1980s. Perhaps I remember it being so bad because I had such high expectations. It was a new place, a gourmet restaurant right in my neighborhood on Willy Street … Bohm’s. I had heard nothing but glowing things about the place. I was actually taking a friend (another foodie) out for his birthday. I ordered lamb curry, something you didn’t find in Madison often at that time. It wasn’t a disaster but it wasn’t good. The pieces of lamb had been cooked separately from the sauce and were tough and gristly. The sauce (which I had the inclination appeared frequently in many of their other dishes) was thin and watery with the barest hint of curry. But why I even remember this meal at all is my friend’s fish. It was a whole catfish (something you don’t see to often) prepared in a very exotic fashion … highly touted on the menu and by our server. What appeared was a very large fish with a maraschino cherry covering the eye. The problem was the fish was bloody raw … not like sushi, but catfish nasty. My friend tried to send the fish back. The server grudgingly took it back only after a considerable and heated argument, insisting it was properly cooked and my friend just didn’t know better.

I normally end with a recipe and this was the only thing that seemed appropriate.

Aunt Louise’s Sunday Jell-O

1 12-ounce can apricot nectar
1 3-ounce package peach-flavored Jell-O
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened and mashed with a fork
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple with syrup
1 cup pecan, toasted and chopped

Miracle Whip
Maraschino cherries

Heat the apricot nectar until hot but not boiling. Dissolve the gelatin in the hot liquid, stirring. Add the cream cheese and stir to combine (it will not be completely smooth but a little lumpy). Add the pineapple with its syrup. Stir in the chopped pecan. Separate between individual molds and refrigerate until completely firm. Unmold the Jell-O on to salad plates lined with lettuce. Top each with a dollop of Miracle Whip and a maraschino cherry.

Serves 6.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I can't top yours, but I remember my first awful meal. It was in the early 60's, and I had gone with my friend DeeDee to visit her grandmother. On the drive home, Dee Dee's mother pulled out our dinner -- Spam sandwiches with margarine on Wonder Bread, which had spent several hours in the hot car. My sister and I each took one bite and hid the remainder under the backseat.