Nov 18, 2010
This article first
appeared in the November/December 2010 edition of Calgary's
City Palate, an excellent publication covering
Calgary's food scene.
I once ate a 48-ounce steak in one sitting, and I have the T-shirt to prove it.
I am a notorious glutton who, at a business dinner, threatened to bite a waiter’s hand off for attempting to clear my plate before it was empty. Over the years I’ve gotten used to being viewed as a culinary carnival freak. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that gluttony seems to be in style.
The current trend is exemplified by the popular food blog, This is Why You’re Fat, which features glutton-friendly dishes like Meat Mountain and Deep Fried Cheesecake Bites. Visitors to the blog marvel at the Krispy Kreme Bacon Cheddar Cheeseburger, and our jaws drop as we ogle the Fat Monkey (two slices of chocolate chip banana bread, with layers of Nutella, bananas, and marshmallow creme sandwiched in between, dipped in cake batter and deep-fried, then dipped in melted chocolate and rolled in toasted almonds and coconut).
Major fast food outfits have followed suit by introducing headline-grabbing dishes like KFC’s infamous Double Down, a cheese and bacon sandwich dripping with special sauce and served between two deep-fried chicken fillets. At the top of the fast food chain is the 1,420-calorie Hardee’s Monster Thickburger. Though I’ve never had one, it seems to me it would be ideal washed down with a 1,290-calorie Jack In The Box Oreo Cookie Ice Cream Shake.
Okay. That kind of food is too much -- even for a guy like me. But it’s not just the fast food industry that’s riding this fatty wave. Look at any fine dining menu and you’re likely to see dishes like braised pork belly and short rib sandwiches that pack just as many calories as the downscale monstrosities that are getting all the press. (Mind you, in a swank eatery, a main course for one isn’t routinely served on a table-sized platter.)
The haute fat craze began about 10 years ago, when lovers of real food began rebelling against the cholesterol fascists who co-opted the food chain in the 1980s. Led by their big-haired overlord Jenny Craig, this group of skinny finger-waggers demonized animal fat to the point where you couldn’t get a decently wobbling pork butt in this country. It was a long, dry period for those of us who like to leave the dinner table with grease all over our cheeks.
Now it’s much easier to get triple-A beef and well-marbled pork, although it astounds me that meat producers still get a premium for the leanest cuts. Why in hell’s name should extra-lean ground beef cost three times as much as regular, which has three times the flavour? The obvious answer is that too much of a good thing will eventually kill you.
We’re constantly reminded of the consequences of overeating by documentaries like Supersize Me, goody-two-shoes chefs like Jamie Oliver and reality shows like The Biggest Loser. But does gluttony really belong next to greed, wrath, sloth, pride, lust and envy? In some contexts, it actually qualifies as a virtue. For example, gluttony has always been an important survival mechanism in the animal kingdom. Whether you’re a lion or a vulture, gorging yourself is simply what you do when you’re lucky enough to find something big to eat.
The same rationale used to apply to humans. In agrarian societies, gluttony was an important part of the annual cycle. Every fall after the harvest came in and the pigs were ready to go to hog heaven, the traditional weeks of feasting weren’t just for pleasure. Loading up on the autumn bounty was necessary. It helped build up reserves of fat that would allow people to last through the long, cold winter, in which culinary highlights included wizened carrots from the root cellar and a barrel of sauerkraut stored in the barn so it wouldn’t stink up the house.
Same thing for the aboriginal people of the Wet Coast. The annual return of the salmon meant a release from the drudgery of eating nothing but dried food over the winter, and gluttony was simply part of the seasonal celebration of the harvest.
Of course, the most gluttonous society of all was Rome at its political and cultural peak, when every decent home had a vomitorium, and, presumably, the book Eat, Puke, Repeat was at the top of the bestseller lists.
It’s obvious that today’s form of gluttony has little to do with survival – it’s closer to Rome than it is to Haida Gwai. Gluttony in modern life is about glamour and prestige. It reflects our cultural craving to vicariously experience the ideal. Just as fashion photography or architecture or music allow us to escape to a place beyond our day-to-day existence, so it is with a rich, full, long dining experience.
When we eat something truly delicious we experience a transient form of perfection. Many of us continue to eat beyond what we need because we don’t want to let go of that feeling.
MFK Fisher put it best in a little essay called G is for Gluttony, when she wrote:
“Perhaps the nearest I come to gluttony is with wine. As often as possible, when a really beautiful bottle is before me, I drink all I can of it, even when I know I have had more than I want physically. That is gluttonous. But I think to myself, when again will I have this taste upon my tongue? Where else in the world is there just such wine as this, with just this bouquet, and just this heat, in just this crystal cup? And when again will I be alive to it as I am this very minute, sitting here in this dim, murmuring, richly odourous restaurant, or here in this fishermen’s café on the wharf? More, more, I think – all if it, to the last exquisite drop, for there is no satiety for me, nor ever has been, in such drinking.”
That’s wonderfully poetic. But, of course, modern gluttony can also be inspired by less profound influences -- namely, booze. When I drink, I eat more than double what I would consume without the help of alcohol. Sometimes I continue to eat for no other reason than to counteract the effects of my drinking, which of course allows me to drink more, which prompts me to eat still more. Which is not very glamorous, and not very good for my health.
But let’s end these gluttonous musings on a higher note. What inspires you to MFK-Fisher-style gluttony? What eating experiences create moments for you that you just don’t want to relinquish?
For me, it’s meals like turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. I eat too much of them because I don’t want the occasion that brings me together with my friends and family to end.
It’s a big juicy fried oyster burger (or two) washed down with cold beer on a sunny deck with a perfect ocean view.
It’s one deep-fried mini-donut after another after another, savoured as the music from the merry-go-round drowns out the worries of the world.
It’s biting into a perfect rib, and then six or eight more, at a summer barbecue between easy laughs with your best friends, the ones you can’t see often enough. Every bite of the juicy, tangy, smoky pork, and every refreshing swig of that glass of crisp, fruity white wine extends that elusive moment of perfection just…. a little…. longer.
Come on. Just one more bite. Please?
The Wakefield Inn Oyster Burger
Makes 4 burgers
Years ago the Wakefield Inn,
a pub on BC’s Sunshine Coast, invented the ultimate burger
—and it’s not grilled.
To get the right texture, you need to pan-fry the oysters. The
Wakefield Inn used seasoned flour to coat the oysters, but I prefer
the extra crunch of cornmeal. Serve the burger with a dill pickle,
a dollop of potato salad and a big mug of cold beer. Sadly, the
Wakefield Inn has fallen to a condo developer’s wrecking ball and
all that’s left is the great view, and this recipe.
1 tsp | 5 mL ground cumin
1 tsp | 5 mL ground ancho chiles
1 tsp | 5 mL freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup | 125 mL cornmeal
1 Tbsp | 15 mL butter
1 Tbsp | 15 mL olive oil
12 medium-sized fresh West Coast oysters, pre-shucked (you can buy them in tubs)
4 burger buns, toasted and buttered
4 Tbsp | 60 mL commercial or home made tartar sauce
1 bunch green leaf lettuce
4 slices crisply cooked bacon
1 thinly sliced ripe tomato
pickle slices and parsley sprigs, for garnish
Combine the cumin, ground ancho, pepper, and cornmeal in a small bowl and pour the mixture onto a dinner plate. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat until the butter is sizzling. Lightly coat the oysters in the cornmeal mixture and fry them in the oil and butter until they’re crisp on the outside and done inside, 2–3 minutes per side.
Spread 1 Tbsp | 15 mL of tartar sauce on each toasted and buttered bun. Add a leaf or two of lettuce, 3 of the fried oysters, one crispy slice of bacon (ripped in half), and 1 or 2 slices of tomato. Sprinkle the works with salt and pepper. Top with the other half of the bun, and garnish with a pickle and a parsley sprig.
So, dear Barbecue Secrets readers. What brings out the glutton in you? Voracious minds want to know. This blog rarely gets comments -- I invite you to dig in and share.