Food Porn

by Bernard Brandt

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I am a food pornographer. I freely admit my manifold sins and wickedness in that department. I have long loved reading and writing about food, in a manner which not only approaches the lascivious, but far transcends that adjective. I love food: sourcing it, preparing it, cooking it, serving it to others, and eating it myself. This is my confession.

I suppose that I came by this evil love honestly. My father’s side of the family came to this country as farmers from the Alsace-Lorraine. My father’s great grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather was a grocer and a butcher who prepared his own hams, etc. And my father, although he later became an engineer, worked in his father’s business as a child and young man, and could expertly butcher anything from a quail or a possum all the way up to a side of beef.

My mother’s side of the family is equally responsible for my present sordid state. The Indian school in Oklahoma where my grandmother was taught by Catholic nuns as a child had a model farm, and the nuns, in addition to giving a good Catholic education, also taught the children there how to farm the land, how to prepare and can food, and how to cook it. I remember my many visits to my Gramma and Pop’s house, looking at the small but perfect greens garden back there, and looking at the numberless quart and gallon Mason jars in the cupboards there, filled with preserved green tomatoes, half peaches, plums, berries, and oh my!

And I remember the neighborhood in Tulsa where I spent my first six years. My father’s father, after retiring as a grocer, had bought five houses in a row there, one for himself and his sister, my Great Aunt Mary, and the rest for his four children: my father and my aunt and two uncles, Bernard, Morris, Charlie, and Mary Anne.

Most of all, I remember the feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, when the great table was filled with whole turkeys and hams and roast beef and many other delectibles, and every adult was seated there. And after dinner, they would have their adult talk around that table while my brothers, sister and cousins were under that table, whispering as quietly and excitedly as we could. And I remember the summers, when the whole family, my mother’s and father’s side, would come together for the barbecues where the back yard seemed to go on forever, and every adult was gathered by the three oil-drum charcoal grills, vying with one another to cook the endless hamburgers, hot dogs and home prepared sausages.

I am thankful to and for my parents that even after we went on the great Western Aerospace Migration from Oklahoma to Southern California by covered (station) wagon, we continued that great tradition of food and feasts. I remember the large (40′ x 40′) garden that we planted and tended there, which provided us and most of our neighbors all of the vegetables and most of the fruits we needed.  And I remember the many family dinners and feasts that we have had (and still have) at the great walnut table in my mother’s house.

And when I was starting high school, my father came up to me and said, “Son, I’d like your help. Your mother wants to go to college, and to start working. I want to continue having dinner together. She can’t do both. So, I’d like you and your brothers to help with cooking, so that both she and I can have what we want.”

Well, Mike, Bill and I had already had considerable experience in cooking, having helped in the family chores since we were babies. But we decided to turn this from a chore into a adventure. These were the days when St. Julia Child was starting her program, ‘The French Chef’, Graham Kerr was doing his bibulous ‘The Galloping Gourmet’, and ‘Great Chefs of the World’ was starting to play. So my father bought a copy of St. Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I & II, and the five of us (my mother and father, my brothers and I) got down to the task of learning French and Continental technique, and cooking an awful lot of good stuff in the process.

Well, pretty soon we had gone through both volumes, but my family’s attitude was ‘Today Europe; tomorrow, the World!’ In our culinary imperialism, we were appropriating foreign food cultures with gay abandon. We started by ransacking the cuisine of our next door neighbor, Mexico, but soon after were ravaging Central and South America as well. Then we swept across the Pacific and began our own invasion of Japan and China. From there, we staged a full on assault of India, and then took the Middle East by storm. Let me tell you, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun had nothing on us!

It was then that I went to the library, did a bit of research, and turned several five pound tins of Heather Honey into five gallons of one of the sweetest and smoothest of meads that you have ever tasted. Then my brothers and the rest of my family got into the act, and between us, we produced several hundred gallons of really good dessert and table wines, starting with peaches, apricots, pears and plums, and then going on to white and red grapes. My father even designed and constructed a small fruit and grape press, and we all made good use of it.

And, I am happy to tell you that my family tradition continues, even unto the present generation. All the grandkids of my mother and father can cook well, and one in particular, my nephew John, has gone through Cordon Bleu training, and is a superlative chef. Let me tell you a bit about him.

Both John and my brother have continued our family tradition of experimenting with food. In addition to doing some marvelous things with hot and cold smoking of meats, John has gone on to an exploration of Modernist Cuisine. Now, I have long had a dislike of what has been called ‘Molecular Gastronomy’, which I have called ‘Inorganic Gastronomy’. But after the dinner which he served for his father and my brother, Bill, this last Sunday, he has made me a believer.

I came to my mother’s house early that day, mainly to clean up the place and to be, in the immortal words of Anthony Bourdain, John’s “kitchen bitch and prep monkey” for the afternoon. But by the time I had gotten there, John had already done most of the prep work. The menu was Steak-frites avec Sauce Béarnaise, salade Caesar, & Gâteau au fromage et aux fraises (that’s fried steak and French fries with Bearnaise sauce, Caesar salad, and strawberry cheesecake to you).

John had already baked the cheesecakes (both goat and cow milk cheeses), had the french fries prepared and ready in the freezer, and was prepping the New York strip steaks. That preparation consisted of having a sous-vide ready, and bagging the steaks in gallon zip-locks. After salting and peppering on both sides, he put the steaks flat into each bag until they were filled, placed sprigs of fresh herbs over the steaks, and poured in enough olive oil to cover the steaks. When he had finished bagging and tagging, he filled the kitchen sink with cold water, and, taking the bags by their open mouths, gently dipped each bag into the cold water just deep enough so that all of the air in the bag had been expelled. Then he sealed the bag and repeated the process until all four of the bags were sealed.

Then John put the bags into the hot water of the sous-vide, and closed the lid. He explained that the water in the sous-vide would soon come up to 55°C (or around 130°F), and stay there for the next hour. After that, the steak would be at a perfect internal temperature, and would remain there without problems for another few hours).  He also explained that he had brined the sliced potatoes in sugar, salt and baking soda, bagged them, and cooked them in the sous-vide until they were nearly done. Then he removed the fries from the bag, dried them, and put them in the freezer for later frying.

The remaining prep work was simple and easy. The family soaked the romaine lettuce in ice water, then dried the lettuce, removed the stalk, and tore it into proper size for the salad. We sliced the strawberries, reserving some for a coulis. We mixed whipping cream, maple syrup, vanilla and sugar for the whipped cream to be served with the cheesecake. And Bill, being rather particular about his Béarnaiseprepared it himself, and poured it into the siphon that I had thought would be used for the whipped cream.

When the time came for dinner, John quickly prepared the vinaigrette for the salad, then removed the bags from the sous-vide, and the steaks from their bags, placing the former on a platter. He already had the cooking oil for the fries ready, and also had a cast-iron griddle (8″ x 22″) ready for the steaks, which he placed on the griddle. While the steaks were searing, he put the fries into the frying oil. After a minute or so, the steaks were properly seared, and John turned them over. While the steaks were searing on that side, he had removed the fries from their first frying. When the steaks were done on that side, John removed them to another platter for resting. And while they were resting, John completed the second fry of the French fries. The whole process took about five minutes or so.

We had dinner for eight (the seven of us and Elijah) plated and on the table a minute later. The Béarnaise sauce was delivered by the means of the syphon, which foamed beautifully and resulted in a perfect sauce. In fact, everything was perfect. We enjoyed one of the best meals that we had had in the many years we’ve been dining there. I would estimate that the materials cost less than $12.00 per person. And we got a better meal than could have been had at a restaurant, at twice or thrice the price.

So, John has made me a believer in Modernist Cuisine. He has even been kind enough to loan me a copy so that I can learn more. Sorry though, no art work of the dinner is available. My sinfulness and my hypocrisy have some limits, after all.

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