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Common Foodsense: Jerkitude Explained



As I review the various times in my life that I’ve been an ass, I find myself occasionally editing the memory so that it comes out looking a bit less unattractive. This is known as the Walter Mitty Rewrite to those of a literary turn, or the D.C. Shuffle, for fans of politics. In either case, it’s heartening to know that facts are held in such ill repute these days that I can maintain that my revised version of events is better than the real one.

One such event took place years ago in a bar (I know you’re surprised). I had finished a shift at Vanessi’s and was having a beer at Vesuvio with Paul, the sauté cook. My colleague, in addition to being a humble demigod of the sauté station, had the weirdest accent I’ve ever heard: born in Baghdad to a Russian father and an Iraqi mother, raised in England from the age of 4 until he was 11, when he moved to Brooklyn. And you could hear all those places when he talked. In one year he got a huge tip from an Arab, a Londoner, and a New Yorker, who all heard a voice from home in that mess. Anyway, Paul started talking to a couple of women at the next table. It was formulaic: no, we’re not visiting San Francisco; just got off work. Vanessi’s, a block down Broadway.  Cooks. Oh, you live here, too? You ever eat at Vanessi’s? 

One had, and the other revealed herself to be a vegetarian and said there was nothing for her to eat there. While this was technically not true, it was pretty close, and this was a splendid opportunity for me to commiserate or keep my mouth shut. Neither ability being one of my gifts (well, OK; I can commiserate a little), I embarked on an exploration of our menu, a discussion of vegetarianism in general, and a recounting of Reay Tannahill’s theory that perhaps the Moghul conquest of India was fueled by red meat energy against a largely vegetarian population. I think I may have put a crimp in Paul’s plans.

A nicer approach (edited, in other words) would have been an admission that yes, indeed, Vanessi’s did give short shrift to vegetarians, and it’s odd, really, since meat was a luxury for most Europeans for the last thousand years or so. The rich had a riot of meat on the table; the poor often made do with beans, and bones if they could get them. So there are a bunch of recipes. Pasta. Risotto. Eggplant wrapped around basil and mozzarella and deep-fried. Minestrone, which, if you take out the pig and the chicken stock, is a pile of wet vegetables.

And Italy, after all, was the first European region (it wasn’t a country then) where the potato was eagerly embraced. During the 16th century there was Renaissance of art, music, poisoning, gunpowder and slaughter; and if the local lords had a war on your wheat field, you starved. If they did it above your potato patch, you waited until they carried off the losers, dug up your potatoes and made dinner. 

I’m trying to remember if my disquisition —the real one; not the edited version—was prompted by a prejudice against vegetarianism, or by just everyday jerkitude. Probably a combination, with maybe some lingering resentment from Narsai’s, where I had worked earlier. In its forward-thinking way, Narsai’s offered a vegetarian option on its fixed-price menu. It was called “Vegetarian,” and consisted of seven different vegetable offerings on one plate. We got it rarely, so we never prepped for it. You’d get that order at 7:30 on a Saturday night, when you had a dozen racks of lamb, a Carre du Veau and two lamb saddles in the oven, and you now needed to run across the parking lot to the produce walk-in, scan for any likely looking vegetables, think up how to cook them, run back and put them together. And when you finally got it assembled, Narsai would come in and see your Tomato Maison (stuffed with sautéed spinach mixed with Hollandaise sauce, with the outside broiled until the skin wrinkled), announce that at Narsai’s we do not serve tomatoes with the skin on, and make you do the entire four-top over. And people still ask me if I’ve ever watched “Hell’s Kitchen.”

I did, at least, manage to overcome my vegetarian snobbery, partially through getting to know more vegetarians (they’re real people, too!) and partially through economic capitulation: Nothing conquers prejudice like money, and when you begin to design menus, indulging your own preferences often means cutting off a potentially lucrative market. Thirty years after my conversion, the big fast-food chains are beginning to dive into meatless burgers. Takes some longer than others, but there is progress. Perhaps when they look back on it, they’ll remember that they did it a lot earlier than they actually did. 

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