Sunday, January 02, 2011

Food as Architecture

Traditional English Christmas dinner: roast turkey, apricot-bread stuffing, cranberry jelly, vegetables -- that's how it was offered on the menu at the resort restaurant in St.Lucia where we spent Christmas. The turkey and stuffing were quite delicious; the broccoli and carrot a bit uninteresting; I did enjoy my meal.

However, I found myself questioning why such a straightforward tradition needed such an elaborate and not very traditional presentation. The meat was rolled up around the stuffing, the cranberry sauce piled on top. A sprig of rosemary topped the cranberry jelly, its flavor not especially integrated into the food.

Architectural presentations have been a restaurant fad for at least 25 years. At first this style characterized a certain type of edgy restaurant -- I recall being impressed by the sheer height of the decorations at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, for example. Soon everyone was doing it. On the food channel, most demos end with the words "let's plate it up [pause for piling and pouring sauce and picking up a fork]. . .MMMM."

No aspiring chef on TV or in real life would just place the food in neat, separate servings on a dinner plate, large or small. A large single-person platter is normal. On the platter's center stands a tall structure. The supporting layer is usually whole grain or mashed potatoes. Next probably a small wedge of meat topped or decorated with vegetables. Small green sprigs, halves of tiny cherry tomatoes, or other garnishes are applied selectively. In the 80's the garnish was often raspberries, but this trend has mercifully declined. Beyond the tower and the garnish, the vast remainder of the smooth china surface must be adorned with swirls of sauce. (Other than the Christmas turkey, most of my dinners in St.Lucia did have swirls of sauce.)

Cooking shows, blogs, dedicated books, and cooking classes show home cooks how to create food presentations on their own chinaware plates (preferably large, white, and square). When I made the Julia Child recipe for duck a l'orange, it occurred to me that this style had not yet been invented when her book was written in the early 60s, and when I served it, I simply placed the foods on a platter for serving. I've never learned the new way, just the old. Silly me!

How many people study these blogs and shows and serve their family a little cylindrical tower of food with a sprig of rosemary? Or do they eat even traditional feasts from a plate piled to the rim with all good things? A plate that looks sort of like this version of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which is about the same as the English Christmas dinner:

I guess the most extreme presentations in this field are dessert. An article in this week's New Yorker describes the extremest cases -- writer Adam Gopnik explored the architectural trend in dessert. His description: "three upright cylinders—small towers of something wrapped in something—with the tops sliced at an angle; a crumbly landscape of some kind; and a reflecting pool running around the edge."

The food tower fad has been with us a long time. I wonder when it will be superseded by another trend.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Hi, Mae, I'm coming back from the dark side of December and catching up! Let me say that the day I build my food in a tower and serve it to anyone in my family (or maybe even my foodie friends) is the day they will laugh me out of the room! Well, maybe someday I'll try a dessert -- just for sport!