Champagne, caviar, pheasant under glass. Rolling off the tongue, the words sound wickedly delicious as they whisper promises of the good life. Merely print them on a menu, and they spell out instant luxury.
Champagne and caviar are rather wonderful, but the last time I tasted pheasant under glass it bore a striking resemblance to dried-out chicken. A lot of luxury foods, in fact, sound a whole lot better than they taste. The following, for example:
1. Abalone: "And tonight we have something very special. . . . " When a waiter begins on this approach, you can almost bet it's going to be abalone. And that it's going to cost a small fortune. And that you're going to be disappointed.
For years I thought I was merely the victim of poor cooking. Then one day a friend went diving for abalone. Now, I thought, I will discover what all the hoopla is about. We cooked it right there on the beach, I took a first excited bite . . . and my face fell. It wasn't bad, you understand, but this impeccably fresh abalone was every bit as tough and tasteless as what I'd been served in restaurants all along.
2. Black Truffles: It was the pig that did it. . . . In a wonderful mystery story by Patricia Highsmith, a porcine hunter, enraged by the fact that he never got to eat any of the truffles he unearthed, one day decided to do away with his master.
Had he been my pig, this would never have happened. As far as I'm concerned, he would have been welcome to eat his fill. I've never understood the mystique that makes otherwise sane people pay obscene sums of money for black lumps that look like coal and taste like smoked tires.
Black truffles do, however, have an appealing toothiness. Which makes the fact that restaurant-goers are willing to spend outrageous sums for canned black truffles that have lost both their bite and their flavor even more puzzling. And the appeal of canned black truffle shavings , which some restaurants consume by the case in an effort to add dollars to dishes, leaves me completely at a loss.
This does not, let me hasten to add, in any way reflect upon white truffles, which are, as far as I'm concerned, among the wonders of the world.
3. Eggs Benedict: What a way to start the day! Rich rich with rich on a soggy roll.
One day around the turn of the century, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, a regular at Delmonico's restaurant in New York, became bored with the menu. The maitre d' asked what she might suggest for lunch, the two put their heads together, and eggs Benedict were born.
All well and good. But why, three-quarters of a century later, we should still consider the recipe of a rich, bored and overfed woman a good idea is a mystery to me. Mrs. Benedict took ham and eggs and put them on a toasted muffin, thereby making the muffin sort of wet and crunchless. She then covered the whole thing with a sauce made of still more eggs and butter. Eat it in the morning and you're likely to be uncomfortable for most of the day. And yet, millions do.
4. Food on fire: We continue to consider it highly romantic when our dishes are doused with alcohol and set on fire. Why this should be so continues to baffle me.
Already cooked when it comes out of the kitchen, the stuff is then plunked into a pan and cooked again. This is decidedly too much of a good thing. Worse, the waiters are usually grumpy while they do this (it's a lot of time and trouble and rarely leads to bigger tips), so they keep looking over their shoulders and ordering their minions off to other tables. Meanwhile, they barely pay attention to what they are doing; one waiter of my acquaintance was so annoyed at being forced into flames that he inadvertently poured a lot of brandy into the pan, thereby setting fire to the curtains.
And, in the end, what do you have? A dish with the ghost of good liquor and none of its punch.
5. Gourmet Pizza: Once upon a time, pizza was a delicious dish eaten by poor people in Naples. It consisted of bread baked with tomatoes. A few centuries went by. Then, in 1889, in honor of the visit of Queen Margherita of Naples, a great innovation was introduced. Mozzarella cheese was sprinkled on the top--and pizza Margherita became the toast of the town.
Pizza came to America and turned into pizza pie. It got bigger--and bolder. New ingredients suddenly sprouted on the top. It was still a delicious dish.
But then the humble pizza began to have pretentions. It moved uptown to a better address and started calling itself Gourmet Pizza. It received a great deal of attention; it was interviewed a lot. Suddenly, ordinary onions were no longer enough. "Make mine Maui," says Mr. Gourmet Pizza in the latest profile.
I can live with barbecued chicken pizza. Lox and cream cheese pizza is something I can swallow. But I recently received news of what is being touted as "the newest and most exciting pizza in town". And when pizza starts dressing up in Belluga 000 caviar ("made with cream cheese, chopped onions and capers"), I say it's gone too far.