Welcome to my two part series about new food. Please have a roll of Tums ready before reading.
I’m not a big fan of new food. My philosophy is this: if it didn’t exist when I was a kid, I can live without it now.
Besides, if you ever meet me in person, you’ll know instantly that I don’t need any new things to eat. I’ve had quite enough to eat, thank you.
When I say “new food,” I’m not talking about new dishes. Like ceviche. Be honest, had you ever heard of ceviche before the Food Network started broadcasting? There were probably some little scraps of raw fish and lime laying around after a taping of Iron Chef (“Today’s secret ingredient–dirt!”) and a production assistant sponged it onto a plate, after which Bobby Flay took a forkful and inexplicably started speaking Spanish, yelling “Ceviche” (literally “who left this lying around?”) and a nearby member of the crew thought that was the name of the dish, and soon they started making it on all the shows.
By “new food,” I’m also not talking about new cooking methods, like molecular gastronomy. Anything that requires preparation on the atomic level can’t be good for you. Also, I don’t think that foods should be turned into foam against their will. And then there are foreign cooking methods like sous vides, which, if you don’t speak chef, is when they put food in plastic bags and boil it. Come to think of it, we did have that when I was growing up. Only then it was called Birdseye.
The new food I’m talking about is stuff you see on menus that, if you stop and think about it, suddenly began appearing just a few years ago.
Like the ubiquitous Chilean sea bass.
You hardly ever see a menu anymore without Chilean sea bass on it. But, like the Russian sleeper agents in the TV show The Americans, they are in the U.S. under false pretenses. I believe the scene would go like this:
- FBI Agent 1: Sir, we’ve tracked the Chilean Sea bass back to 1977. But there’s no record of it before then.
- FBI Agent 2: It’s a cipher, sir. A phantom. In 1977 it just shows up in restaurants, and soon it’s everywhere. There isn’t a kitchen in North America it hasn’t infiltrated.
- FBI Boss: You mean…?
- FBI Agent 2: That’s right, sir. Fishpionage.
- FBI Boss: But who is it working for? The Russians? The Chinese? The North Koreans?
- FBI Agent 1: We don’t know sir. But we do know this: Chilean sea bass is an alias. Its real name is (dramatic music) the Patagonian toothfish!
- FBI Agent 2: Sir, it’s like the mahi-mahi case all over again!
After further investigation, the agents would discover that a fish importer named Lee Lantz (also possibly not a real name) invented the Chilean sea bass in 1977 because, for some reason, nobody was ordering Patagonian toothfish, even if it was encrusted with almonds. Similarly, no one had been ordering dolphin because they thought it was the mammal and not the fish, and people didn’t want to eat something that might have been smarter than them, plus it was like ordering fried Flipper. So–poof–dolphin became mahi-mahi.
If you’re dining in a snooty enough restaurant, your Chilean sea bass might come with a side of haricot verts. Where were those when we were growing up? I’ll tell you where they were: your mother was serving them to you as French green beans, possibly cooked sous vides style ala Green Giant. I didn’t mind them then, but now I try to avoid them because “haricot verts” sounds more like a medical condition than a vegetable. (“My, that’s a terrible case of haricot verts you have. Here use this cream and that rash will clear up in a week.”)
And if you’re of a certain age, you might remember filberts, the food that was featured in a delightful comic strip about some nuts working in office cubicles. No wait, that’s Dilbert. Filberts were actual nuts, but you almost never hear about them anymore, because they changed their name to Hazel!
If you look carefully, you can see food renaming at work right now, right under your nose. Perhaps you’ve seen Sunsweet’s new snack, Plum Amazins™. According to their website, they’re “diced dried plums,” perfect for snacking or tossing into cereal or salads. Except they’re friggin’ prunes! A dried plum is a prune! You see how they’re trying to put one over on you? Prunes have certain associations with old people and with certain bodily functions, so the prized 18-49 demographic won’t buy them. No problem. Change the name! They’re dried plums now!
Of course, not all new food is old food with new names. Some of it is old food that they’ve figured out how to produce more efficiently. Tilapia is a good example of that. Tilapia is an African fish that goes back to ancient Egypt, although hopefully not the serving you had last night. It suddenly started showing up everywhere because huge fish conglomerates discovered that large quantities of tilapia could be farmed really cheaply, since they grow very fast and eat primarily algae (the tilapia, not the conglomerates). But these fish enjoy warm water, and it was very expensive to grow them in less tropical areas because of the costs involved in heating the water. So the aquaculture firms solved that problem by building the tilapia farms next to factories and power stations so the “energy waste” could be used to warm the water.
That’s right: your tilapia grew up in water heated by energy waste from a power station. How does your tilapia taste now, huh? Maybe you should hold out for free range tilapia.
In my next post, I’ll tell you about the disgusting thing my daughter did that has prompted this two-part-worthy rant.
See you soon.