Kiwi, Pattypan Squash and Truffle Oil: We Are All Food Phonies
Imagine this: You grew up in a household where the only lettuce served was some mix of wild field greens; it was grown in abundance and very inexpensive. Salads would be inevitably be composed of these greens -- sometimes together, sometimes individually, as in arugula salad -- tossed with garnishes and generally a vinaigrette dressing. The vinegar used would never be anything but balsamic.
Then, one day, a miraculous new lettuce appeared from abroad. It was shipped as a heavy, densely wrapped ball of pale green leaves. When you sliced a wedge -- lettuce you can slice! -- and took a bite, the leaves released a small flood of chilled water into your mouth. The name said it all: Iceberg lettuce. Granted, it went for $17 a pound in the gourmet market, but you called your friends and raved about it and all of you -- and eventually the whole country -- couldn't eat enough of the stuff. Only the trendiest restaurants would serve it, often draped with a creamy dressing. But some of these places were also getting in a brand new vinegar that was nothing like balsamic: It was made from fresh apples! Again, the "cider vinegar" was hard to come by and rather pricey, but so light and refreshing compared to that same old-same old balsamic.
So what I am suggesting is that we sometimes get carried away by the newness of foods (and things in general), to the point that we lose a realistic perspective on them. So-called "retro" foods that come back into vogue -- for instance macaroni & cheese -- are often things we pushed aside in favor of these trendier, more exciting alternatives (in this case, maybe it was fettucine alfredo that shoved mac & cheese aside).
What follows are some foods that we may have over-embraced at one time or another in order to be perceived as hip to culinary trends:
Kiwi: This never sold much when it was known as the Chinese gooseberry, but once produce supplier Frieda Caplan renamed it, folks began to swoon over the gorgeous visual appeal and distinctive flavor; you literally couldn't find a fruit plate without one. Eventually, most of us discovered that it just isn't as tasty as most other fruit.
Pattypan squash: There was a time when these bright yellow, scallop-edged knobs graced the vegetable medleys of every restaurant. Problem is, they are absolutely tasteless and maybe worse -- by that I mean sometimes I suspect they suck the flavor out of other vegetables on the plate. Apparently most diners agree, as you almost never see them served anymore.
Truffle oil: This likely makes any foodie's list of overrated, overused ingredients. The real thing -- olive oil infused with truffle shavings -- is praiseworthy indeed when used in small amounts and in the proper dish. But it is rarely used appropriately, and worse, much of the "truffle oil" splashed onto restaurant dishes is vegetable oil perfumed with synthetic compounds that approximate the truffle aroma.
Fancy bottled water: Admittedly this isn't a food, but remember when The Setai had a water sommelier? That's what we mean by getting carried away with the trendiness of things and losing perspective. Nowadays "gourmet" bottled water is largely looked at as something only a crass anti-environmentalist would order.
Broccolini: No knock against broccolini -- it's a flavorful hybrid of broccoli and Chinese kale created by the Japanese. But it is often thought of as being some sort of baby broccoli import brought to light at greenmarkets, when it was just savvily renamed and marketed by an agribusiness firm in the Salinas Valley.
Foams: If your name is Ferran Adria and you would like to place some ketchup foam on my burger, well please go right ahead. If you are making me a cappuccino and wish to place milk foam on top, or baking a meringue using the foam of egg whites, I'm in. Otherwise, chances are the whipped up concoction you are obscuring my food with has all the flavor and mouthfeel of air. If you notice, the popularity of foam is dissipating like...well, foam.
Pork belly: When properly prepared (something of a rarity), this can indeed be a delectable, multi-textured delight. But it really isn't objectively tastier than a thick cut of bacon, and even when done right it's awfully fatty and one-dimensional for a full course. Would you ever really order an eight-ounce bacon steak?
Wrap sandwiches: Tortillas serve a noble purpose. Nobody wants to eat a bean and rice sandwich between two pieces of Wonder bread, and nobody wants to scoop guacamole with deep-fried pita triangles. If you are seriously watching your weight, then a wrap might almost make sense. But otherwise, considering all of the amazingly delectable breads available to the public, it should be considered a gastronomic felony to roll a protein, cold cut, salad or sandwich filling of any sort into a "wrap"-like tortilla.
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