Ruminations On An American Palate
One Food Writer's Breakfast; Strange Chinese Chicken Naming Conventions
by Fred Ferretti
There can be no meal that compares, I am utterly certain you will
agree, with the hearty American breakfast. Substantial, nourishing, rife
with potential energy — the meal that keys our day. In recent months
I have come gradually to appreciate again the hearty breakfast as a meal
we ought not to avoid, or neglect. At the same time I wish fervidly not
only to be a modern person but to be considered one — a fellow on the
cusp of current gastronomic developments; one aware of the new enzyme baths
amid the vineyards of Sonoma and of America's new Alpine cuisine; one who
keeps pace; one who watches with care his cholesterol and sodium levels,
his sugar and fat contents. Hearty but healthy is what I crave.
So, the other morning, after my usual glass of cold breakfast drink
(ice water in which I dissolve "orange-flavored crystals") I poured some
cooking oil into my favorite skillet and heated it up: actually an oil
that was not oil but an imitation made with locust bean gum. In another
pan I misted a layer of the cooking spray I prefer because of its nutritive
constituents (corn oil, grain alcohol, artificial color, and a "propellant"
which I assume is wonderful for getting a leg up on the day) and its "natural
I put a couple of "lite links," little truncated lengths of rice and
sausage meat, in the sizzling locust bean gum and poured into the sprayed
pan some "no cholesterol egg product" made from corn oil, water, and egg
I had decided this particular morning to forgo one of the other hearty
breakfasts I favor, "artificially flavored blueberry waffles," which fortunately
contain no blueberries and therefore will not endanger my glucose level,
but I did cook up some potatoes, from a package that informed me the dried
slices were just as good as those newly cut and, besides, had "sodium
bisulfite added to protect color." I dismissed a passing notion that perhaps
these might send my sodium level over the top because I had flavored my
"egg product" omelet with a salt alternative (a flavorsome mix of potassium
chloride, potassium bitartrate, adipic and furmaric acids, and mineral
oil) that I was assured was "sodium free," even though it contained about
five milligrams of sodium per serving.
As my eggs and sausages cooked, I poured boiling water into a cup, creating
coffee out of some brown crystals. I added milk substitute made from soybeans,
malted cereal extract, seaweed, and sea salt and just a touch of aspartame
to sweeten it.
Breakfast was ready.
Oops, except for the toast.
I slipped two slices of "lite" white into the toaster slots and, when
they had browned and popped up, squeezed some imitation butter onto them,
"butter" made from vegetable oil paste colored with beta carotene.
Now, breakfast was ready.
I sprinkled just a soupçon of "nature's own" monosodium glutamate
over my breakfast plate, just to bring up its flavor a bit, and then I
ate. Everything. Heartily. I drank my coffee and felt myself prepared
to face the day, secure in the awareness that I had managed to ingest
more than my minimum daily requirements of America's chemical industry.
There I was again, allowing myself to become perturbed about some more
of the current absurdities circulating among foodies: things such as a
recent presentation that paired "favorite wines with frozen gourmet dinners;"
or reports of a growing "debate" over whether food on plates should either
be colorful or nourishing; or those promises from New England of exquisite
foods approaching two-star Michelin quality at the very least-cooked,
encased in plastic sacks, frozen, and made table-ready simply by dropping
the bags into boiling water, things like that, when my friend the dietitian
called to ask me if I had given any thought to raw food.
"Of course," I answered. "All the time."
"I didn't call so you could be funny," he said. "Name some."
"Sushi," I replied. "Sashimi. A lot of other kinds of fish I've been
eating lately that are supposed to be cooked but are really raw, warmed.
How about Carpaccio? Parma ham? Bresaola? Bundnerfleisch?"
"Those are meats," he said. "How about vegetables?"
"Raw eggs," I responded. "When you have a Caesar salad. Did you know
you have raw eggs in a Caesar salad?"
He said he knew because he was a dietitian, then asked again.
"Have you thought about vegetables?"
"And seviche. Seviche is raw. Herring is raw."
"They're pickled," he said. "About vegetables."
"Clams," I countered. "Oysters."
"Enough! Think about vegetables."
"Okay," I said. "Salads, except when they're warmed. Mushrooms, tomatoes.
May I count garnishes? Parsley, carrots, scallions, all those cute baby
vegetables. And how about gazpacho? That's raw soup."
"You have the idea," my friend said.
"The reason I asked is that I went into a restaurant the other day and
had a lunch of raw fish, raw beef, and raw vegetables. And I wondered,
what do they need chefs for if they don't have to cook?"
It's a thought. Perhaps we should also be thinking about interior decorators
as integral members of kitchen brigades?
I am not very good at gardening. In fact, I am probably the only person
in the world who has not been able to grow a tomato. I have grown tomato
plants — lovely, climbing, leafy tomato plants — none of which
has ever produced tomatoes. Nevertheless, it is in these months of greenness,
that I think about gardening and planting, and that perhaps it will be
in the next spring and summer that I will at last grow something besides
weeds and dandelions, which I seem to be able to do quite successfully
without significant effort.
So I sat and I thought. I thought about blue corn, so that maybe I could
make tortillas like everybody in Berkeley and Dallas is doing. Or radicchio,
so that I could decorate my salads the way they do in Los Angeles. Or
Bibb lettuce, which is used in, on, or around most of New York's dinner
plates. I discarded all of these notions eventually because I felt, I
knew, that by the time I got them growing, their time in the culinary
parade would be past. Then, one recent evening, I began thumbing through
an interesting book, The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs, by Richard
Alan Miller, and suddenly I realized that I had found the perfect use
for my garden.
But what was I to grow?
Yohimbe requires jungle forests, like those in the Cameroons, the book
said, and, whereas I had a thicket out back, it was not quite a rain-forest
tangle. Yage, a pleasant vine that occasions very interesting things,
would not do because it had to be grown in Brazil, and fo-ti-tieng, was
native to Asia. Guarana, from Venezuela, would not grow in my garden,
nor would iboga, the bark of which is quite popular in Gabon, nor would
kava kava, which seems to thrive in the Sandwich Islands.
I could try betel nuts, I thought, or muira puama, but after thinking
about them and explaining their use to my neighbors I decided against
them. How about ginseng? I thought. Everybody loves ginseng. Too common.
Sweet flag, which sprouts in Texas? Maybe. Thorn apple? Not really,
Then I happened upon the perfect plant for my garden.
It grows throughout North America, I read, and when cultivated and handled
properly it will take you up the "seven rungs of the Jacob's ladder of
consciousness," to a stage that "represents the spiritual unity of mystical
marriage, which is an internal union with one's own higher self."
Now that's what I call a salad!
For those of my countrymen who are having the trembles over our forced
march into the metric system, let me offer surcease. Think, just think,
of having to cope with the following measurements form an 1859 book entitled
The Corner Cupboard:
1 pottle= 2 quarts 1 coomb= 4 bushels 1 wey= 40 bushels 1 last= 80 bushels
1 firkin= 9 gallons 1 butt= 108 gallons 1 anker= 10 gallons (only of brandy)
1 runlet= 18 gallons 1 pipe= 2 hogsheads, or 1 butt 1 tierce= 42 gallons
1 puncheon= 84 gallons
Imagine being required to compute how many pottles there are in a pipe?
Be content with your millimeters and hectares, your liters and grams.
Table For Two
"Have you any idea how many generals there are, or were in the Chinese
Army?" I asked my wife the other morning in the kitchen as she was spooning
mounds of cut-up mushrooms, onions and preserved mustard greens into the
cavity of a roasting chicken.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Generals," I repeated. "It seems to me there is, or was, an excess
of generals in China, and all these officers, seem to have chicken dishes
named for them. So I was wondering if you knew how many of these there
were and if they were all genuine, the generals I mean. I would also like
to know why you don't cook General Ching's Chicken or General Tso's Chicken
or General Gau's Chicken or General King's Chicken, or any of those other
chickens named for Hunanese generals. Seems to me that everybody, absolutely
everybody I know eats General Tsao's Chicken or General Taso's Chicken.
My goodness, even the Glatt Kosher China Shalom has a General Tsao's Chicken
and the Empire has General Tseng's Historic Chicken. Every American, it
seems to me, is eating a dish named for some Chinese general. Why can't
we have some general's chicken?"
My wife looked back at me from over her shoulder. She exhaled the sort
of sigh she reserves for those times when she believes I am frivolous.
"I am preparing a chicken," she said. "A Beggar's Chicken, not a general's
chicken. I do not make general's chickens."
"Because I like Beggar's Chicken and you like Beggar's Chicken, and
I am confused by all those generals' chickens. I think they're fictitious,
the generals, I mean. If you were a general would you like a chicken named
after you? How would you feel if you were General Patton and somebody
decided to make up a dish called General Patton's Chicken? Tell me."
"I wouldn't like it," I replied.
"Of course you wouldn't like it. No general wants to be associated with
chicken. None of the generals in my family have chickens named after them."
"You have generals as relatives?" I asked.
"Of course," my wife replied. "There was my uncle General Chan. He was
in the Air Force. Three stars at least. He was French-trained, but there
was no chicken named for him. Do you think my Uncle Chan would have stood
"I guess not."
"Nor would my Uncle Yim. He was an Army general. There is no General
Yim's Chicken as far as I know. I hope there never is. My uncle would
not have approved of that."
"I suppose not."
"Now you know why I will not cook chickens named for generals," my wife
said. "It would be an insult to my uncles."
"We cannot have that," I said.
"No," my wife agreed. "And I don't care what sort of chicken our friends
cook. In THIS house we have Beggar's Chicken. If you wish I can change
the name to Rich and Noble Chicken, or even Brave Chicken. Would that
"Yes it would," I replied.
"Done," said my wife. "Tell your friends we only have Brave Chicken
in our house."
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