I remember my Dad telling me, when I turned up my nose at some canned peas, “Don’t worry about what it tastes like. It’s just fuel”. (My Dad also drank Old Moxie and claimed to like it, which tells you something about his palate).This was New England in the 1950’s, when TV dinners promised a hip future of standardized, sanitized consumption, and wine was just a cheap beverage consumed by the bedraggled, lost souls snoozing under the pier on the river.
Of course food was not always merely fuel, even for “practical” folk like my father. Thanksgiving was an occasion for much praising of Aunt Emma’s mince meat pie, a dubious concoction of venison, dried fruits and baking spices, served after a desiccated turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole baked with cream of mushroom soup. It was all enthusiastically consumed with much gratitude and good cheer. Food symbolized sharing, family continuity, and cohesiveness, but none of this had much to do with flavor. Only those magical moments—the pure joy of an ice cream cone after pitching hay in summer heat or a warming soup after digging out from under a blizzard—were akin to pleasures of the palate, but they were more a matter of biological readjustment than a response to flavor. In mid-20th Century United States, the connoisseur was an eccentric, flavor a minority taste.
Times have changed. Today, conversations about food and wine multiply on the Internet like radioactive rabbits. Food magazines explain how to entice every molecule of flavor from the freshest ingredients available and trumpet the virtues of exotic ingredients that would have made our parents cringe. And tonight all across the country home cooks will be hoping their kale, cornbread, hazelnut, and chorizo stuffing will pass muster.
I wish everyone a Thanksgiving full of sharing, gratitude, celebration—and lots and lots of flavor.