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When Aluminum Plates Were Cool

September 05, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How changeable is taste. In the mid-19th century, when aluminum was rare and fantastically expensive, Napoleon III served his most honored guests' meals on aluminum plates, while the B-list had to be content with gold or silver ones.

Well into the 20th century, chicken was a luxury meat because of the labor involved in plucking its feathers. Those were the days when chicken was a dish for Sunday dinner, and Henri IV proudly promised the 16th century French "a chicken in every pot."

Rice was also expensive (in Europe, at any rate), and 18th and 19th century French chefs created fancy dishes like riz a l'imperatrice , an elaborate rice pudding enriched with custard, whipped cream and fruit, served in a charlotte mold.

Today, if you combined those once-fashionable elements--chicken, rice, aluminum--Americans would think you were just serving a TV dinner.

The all-time fall was taken by bone marrow, which was a favorite human food from Paleolithic times right up until the 1930s, when you could still breakfast on toast topped with beef marrow at many a fancy restaurant. The medieval Arabs even had recipes for making faux marrow when you didn't have enough of the real stuff to serve your guests.

In case you ever need to know, by the way, here's how you counterfeit marrow: Mix fat with some liver, boil it in narrow copper tubes, let them cool and serve the contents. (And you were wondering what marrow tastes like, and how we moderns could have lost our taste for it.)

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