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The Secret History Of Deliciousness

Wailing the praises of food-world fixtures, those workhorse flavors that never fail to deliver satisfaction

By Christina Waters

CAN YOU SMELL the smoke? Rome is burning as we snooze. The West is slipping slowly into the west. As flames consume the consumer in darkest 21st-century California, as decadence croons her siren song from every shopping mall, website and overpriced restaurant, let us pause to consider just how many great flavor memories involve lowly, underappreciated ingredients. More importantly, let us pay tribute to those reliable foods that almost never make it into the culinary Big Time. How much poorer would our autobiographies be had these unsung workhorses of American gastronomy not fed our deeper needs for comfort, simplicity and joy?

Although a Restaurant Rococo is in full swing even amid the ashes of the dotcom empire and 9/11 paranoia, I stubbornly turn my metaphoric gaze toward the likes of peanut butter. You heard me. Peanut butter. Nobody doesn't like this creamiest of nut butters, loaded with sensuality, healthy oils and noncholesterol protein. In a well-made gado gado, it drives some of the most vibrant flavors of the Southeast Asian repertoire. Between two slices of bread--and of course, lavishly accompanied by one's favorite jam--it forms the backbone of what is left of the American Dream.

The PB&J of my own childhood was composed of nondesigner white bread, Skippy peanut butter and Welch's grape jelly. Add a bowl of Campbell's chicken noodle soup (itself a candidate for unsung hero worship), and you have the perfect school lunch, especially on a rainy day.

Condiments of the Gods

Condiments populate this landscape of plebeian power foods, those accompaniments that can raise a meal from pedestrian to memorable with a few well-placed dollops. I am speaking of mayonnaise, that miracle of emulsive alchemy that can transform tuna into the stuff of oral fantasy. Ditto pickle relish. Is a hot dog actually thinkable without a moist topping of crisp, tangy, sweet, tart pickle relish? Nope.

And while we're lauding the most humble of lunch-counter fixtures, let's get down on our knees and thank the patron saint of lunch for ketchup. Once a colonial corruption of the fiery chutneys of India, ketchup gives meaning to the very idea of hamburgers, not to mention french fries. Dining doesn't get much better--oh, it can get a hell of a lot more expensive, but not necessarily better--than a plate full of fresh, hot french fries and a side of ketchup. Dip, eat. Dip, eat. Lick your fingers. Dip and eat some more. In a parallel universe, one can easily imagine the sacrament of the mass being performed not with bread and wine but with french fries and ketchup. Sure it's a stretch, but then so are black holes and quasars.

Appetizers that never, ever let us down--that would be black olives for sure. Even those Del Monte canned babies that appear to have been punched out of some shiny black rubber have the power to calm the most rebellious teenager. And the serious olives--kalamata, niçoise, Sicilian--are so voluptuously pungent, complex and delightful as to transcend their status as mere plate decoration.

Consider, if you will, whether civilization could possibly have occurred without the tomato? See, it couldn't. It takes my breath away (though not for long) to consider the sheer versatility, the open-armed friendliness of the crimson pomodoro. Without it, there would be no pizza, no marinara sauce, no BLTs, no salsa, no ketchup (see above), no caprese salad, no topping for that burger. Unthinkable.

Also consider the glorious ubiquity of that crazy thing called ham. No culture, it seems, is without some variation on cured pork--ambon, jamon, Schinken, prosciutto. In the middle of nowhere on any continent, you can keep body and soul together with ham on some kind of bread. OK, maybe not in Israel but you shouldn't be in Israel right now anyway ...

Scramble for Cover

While we're on the subject of main-dish-type foods that rarely make it to the cover of Gourmet magazine, I'd like to thank scrambled eggs for giving me so much for so little over the years. Even male college students can get a few eggs into a pan, stir them up while applying heat and manage to get them onto a plate. Scrambled eggs and their grown-up sibling the omelette have helped me through many a fiscal downturn. Deliciously, too (and yes, ketchup does come in handy here, as well).

Low-brow according to food fashion but resplendent in terms of delivering the goods, my list of reliable foods amounts to what, in a less PC climate, we could have dubbed "peasant food." Nut butters, rich sauces, country-style cured ham, eggs--definitely stuff that any rancho or farm would or could have lying around, ready to use. And so we absolutely cannot go one word further without honoring the baked potato and sausages of all kinds. (Depending upon one's heritage and politics, tofu can be substituted for sausage--at great sacrifice of robust, soul-pleasing flavor, however.)

Sausage--the recombinant magic of myriad meats, herbs and spices in a sizzling cylinder of unparalleled mouth feel--is another of those marvelous items seemingly invented everywhere by everyone. There is something about humans that requires sausage. Like its metaphorical phallic counterpart, the sausage likes to spurt hot juices and fits easily into cozy, rounded containers. Primal right down to its sassy coating of mustard.

And the baked potato, one of the obvious partners for those scrambled eggs we recently mentioned, is another of those surefire dining companions whose emotionally nurturing texture belies their dirt-poor origins. Just as nobody doesn't like a tomato, similarly nobody doesn't like a potato. They're both natives of Peru, and they both rhyme in English. Cosmic, no?

Oh, I could add a few other luscious foodstuffs whose very obviousness seems to render them almost invisible to food snobs and gourmets, like for instance chocolate ice cream--the stuff of childhood dessert fantasies, and the furtive dream of adult desires. You can taste its cool creamy heart of darkness right now.

This modest listing of overlooked culinary staples has been intended as a counterweight to the inflated inventory of tired, overpraised, out-of-date "delicacies" that we'd like to see on the next boat to Saudi Arabia. My personal "give me a break" list includes: steak (trite and boring), crème brûlée (a dessert too far), lobster (just another big bug) and truffles (eau de locker room). Make up your own list.

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From the September 4-11, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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