Did Simple Things Taste Better In The Past?

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Are We More Or Less Acute Tasters Today?

In the introduction of 2013’s 40th anniversary edition of the well-loved Moosewood cookbooks, Mollie Katzen says that tastes have so changed that when the staff went back to the original versions of favorite recipes, they found that the old classics tasted flat, dull, boring, bland. It made me start thinking about the nature of that change and wonder whether, rather than being a case of former culinary innocence/ignorance being gradually replaced by modern awareness of blazing new flavor principles, we have instead become taste-desensitized through the steady introduction of ever-bigger, bolder, more obvious and/or complex flavors.

I decided to test my theory this winter, when a series of flu and cold episodes left me without much appetite for anything. When you can’t smell food properly, very little actually tastes good. What did taste good was simple soups. Since my palette had been effectively cleansed by eating only very mildly flavored foods, it seemed a good time to attempt a re-set.

Here’s my favorite so far, which I find mildly addictive:

Simply Split Pea Soup

2 cups dried split peas
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 plump carrots, chopped

Combine peas with 6 cups of water, bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook for 1 hour. In a large soup pot, combine oil, onion, garlic, salt and paprika over medium high heat and cook for 5 minutes. Add celery and carrots, cover pan, reduce heat to medium and sweat vegetables for 5 minutes. Add water to cover, bring to a simmer, add peas and their cooking water and simmer for 1 hour. Adjust seasoning to taste. Makes about 3 quarts, tastes better the next day, and freezes well.

Try, Try Again

I started my taste-trend research by going back through my oldest cookbooks, which date from the turn of the last century through the 1940s, when war time restrictions severely limited food choices. These cookbooks often suit my every day tastes better than newer ones, since they are whole-food based, largely because they date from times when commercial prepared food was rare and canning done mainly at home.

As I cooked my way through them, I noticed a certain sameness; cooks a century or so ago had access to a very limited variety of ingredients, including seasonings. True, the range of vegetables was quite wide, and more garden fruit, such as gooseberries and currants, were included. However, many recipes called for what we would today consider gross over-cooking, resulting in mild, undistinguished flavors and mushy textures. Desserts, however, are often preferable, being simpler and less sweet in general, and served in portions far smaller than today’s monster cookies, muffins, and brownies.

Local Food Tastes Better When Simply Prepared

On the other hand, unless we grow our own, buy from a farmers market, or enjoy weekly CSA shares from a local farm, yesterday’s food probably tasted better than ours. True, we can eat asparagus and strawberries from Peru in January, but grocery store goods travel an average of 1,500 miles to reach us. What’s more, commercially grown produce has degraded significantly in nutritional quality over the past few decades, which also affects food flavor and texture.

That’s why just-picked kale from your own back yard or a nearby farm needs very little in the way of flavoring agents to make it taste delicious. Shred it raw into a salad; perfect. Steam it lightly and toss with a little excellent olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice; ahhh. A number of fine chefs have discussed the idea that very simple recipes require food of excellent quality to succeed. Tired kale will be more palatable if given a more complex treatment, perhaps stir-fried with curry paste or chile peppers, mellowed with leeks and bacon, or baked in a creamy cheese sauce. Roasting improves elderly kale and all tired vegetables, lightly caramelizing the outsides while softening the insides to creaminess.

So What’s Your Point?

Bottom line?  We are amazingly fortunate people, blessed with so many readily available flavoring agents that we can cook in any style we fancy. If you keep a well-stocked larder, you can create a more-or-less authentic Thai, Indian, Korean or Mexican meal without even making a store run. Though I say more-or-less, the foreign dishes we make today are (fortunately) a world away from those of yesteryear.

I grew up in New England, where culinary excitement consisted of minced onion, salt, pepper and/or cream. My hometown, Concord Massachusetts, didn’t even boast a pizza place until well into the 1970s. (We used to hang out at the Willow Pond Kitchen, eating greasy burgers and fries, or have pale green mint chocolate chip shakes at Friendly’s.) My own culinary awakening came when I spent a few years in Italy as a student, back in the 1970s. Garlic, spring greens, vegetables with texture and flavor, yikes!

Change Is Gonna Come

Lots of Americans visited Europe and the wide world in those days, when a round-trip ticket from Boston to Rome, good for a year, cost about $100. That travel freedom definitely colored our kitchen choices, yet I was recently given a church-community cookbook from 1995, and was fascinated to read through truly appalling recipes that became “Hawaiian” by dumping in a can of pineapple chunks, or “Mexican” because some taco seasoning was mixed in (along with processed cheese spread). Yow. Now, I know many of these good folks and I know that they no longer cook like that….

Perhaps I may be a tad judgmental because I myself have never been drawn to fast fake food. My own recipes from the time don’t reflect that weird low-fat-but-let’s-use-lots-of-sour-cream-and-horrible-fake-cheese-anyway mentality, though I found one which had a notation; “Replace eggs with applesauce and omit oil?”, followed by an emphatic “NO!!!”. Most of mine were closer to those of a farm kitchen than mainstream convenience meals. Even so, they show the relative paucity of available ingredients; cilantro and chile peppers were still unusual, found mainly in Asian and Mexican grocery stores, unsweetened coconut was almost impossible to find, and whole grains were just being re-introduced.

Change Is Here

Today, even our local Safeway stocks organic produce and an increasing selection of Asian and Indian foods, as well as authentic imported Italian and Mexican items. At least for those of us living on both coasts, the selection is a dozen times better than it was a few decades back. Cookbooks reflect this shift, of course; One of my current favorites is Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi, which treats vegetables with reverent respect and combines flavor principles from all over the world in exuberant recipes.

Many of them are fabulously simple, with often a single unusual ingredient (perhaps rosewater, muscovado sugar, or pomegranate seeds) to set them off. This outstanding book made me decide that indeed, many of today’s huge flavors, whether excruciatingly sweet, hot, or spicy, are indeed excessive. It also made me thankful that I am not limited to the foods available to us all twenty or fifty or a hundred years ago. World cuisine is certainly here, yet elegant simplicity is as powerful as ever, especially when we base our meals on local, organically grown food with fresh, vivid flavors and textures. We are the luckiest people in the history of humanity.

And yet, McEverything still flourishes….

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