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Ruminations On An American Palate
One Food Writer's Breakfast; Strange Chinese Chicken Naming Conventions
by Fred Ferretti

There can be no meal that compares, I am utterly certain you will agree, with the hearty American breakfast. Substantial, nourishing, rife with potential energy — the meal that keys our day. In recent months I have come gradually to appreciate again the hearty breakfast as a meal we ought not to avoid, or neglect. At the same time I wish fervidly not only to be a modern person but to be considered one — a fellow on the cusp of current gastronomic developments; one aware of the new enzyme baths amid the vineyards of Sonoma and of America's new Alpine cuisine; one who keeps pace; one who watches with care his cholesterol and sodium levels, his sugar and fat contents. Hearty but healthy is what I crave.

So, the other morning, after my usual glass of cold breakfast drink (ice water in which I dissolve "orange-flavored crystals") I poured some cooking oil into my favorite skillet and heated it up: actually an oil that was not oil but an imitation made with locust bean gum. In another pan I misted a layer of the cooking spray I prefer because of its nutritive constituents (corn oil, grain alcohol, artificial color, and a "propellant" which I assume is wonderful for getting a leg up on the day) and its "natural butter flavor."

I put a couple of "lite links," little truncated lengths of rice and sausage meat, in the sizzling locust bean gum and poured into the sprayed pan some "no cholesterol egg product" made from corn oil, water, and egg whites.

I had decided this particular morning to forgo one of the other hearty breakfasts I favor, "artificially flavored blueberry waffles," which fortunately contain no blueberries and therefore will not endanger my glucose level, but I did cook up some potatoes, from a package that informed me the dried slices were just as good as those newly cut and, besides, had "sodium bisulfite added to protect color." I dismissed a passing notion that perhaps these might send my sodium level over the top because I had flavored my "egg product" omelet with a salt alternative (a flavorsome mix of potassium chloride, potassium bitartrate, adipic and furmaric acids, and mineral oil) that I was assured was "sodium free," even though it contained about five milligrams of sodium per serving.

As my eggs and sausages cooked, I poured boiling water into a cup, creating coffee out of some brown crystals. I added milk substitute made from soybeans, malted cereal extract, seaweed, and sea salt and just a touch of aspartame to sweeten it.

Breakfast was ready.

Oops, except for the toast.

I slipped two slices of "lite" white into the toaster slots and, when they had browned and popped up, squeezed some imitation butter onto them, "butter" made from vegetable oil paste colored with beta carotene.

Now, breakfast was ready.

I sprinkled just a soupçon of "nature's own" monosodium glutamate over my breakfast plate, just to bring up its flavor a bit, and then I ate. Everything. Heartily. I drank my coffee and felt myself prepared to face the day, secure in the awareness that I had managed to ingest more than my minimum daily requirements of America's chemical industry.

There I was again, allowing myself to become perturbed about some more of the current absurdities circulating among foodies: things such as a recent presentation that paired "favorite wines with frozen gourmet dinners;" or reports of a growing "debate" over whether food on plates should either be colorful or nourishing; or those promises from New England of exquisite foods approaching two-star Michelin quality at the very least-cooked, encased in plastic sacks, frozen, and made table-ready simply by dropping the bags into boiling water, things like that, when my friend the dietitian called to ask me if I had given any thought to raw food.

"Of course," I answered. "All the time."

"I didn't call so you could be funny," he said. "Name some."

"Sushi," I replied. "Sashimi. A lot of other kinds of fish I've been eating lately that are supposed to be cooked but are really raw, warmed. How about Carpaccio? Parma ham? Bresaola? Bundnerfleisch?"

"Those are meats," he said. "How about vegetables?"

"Raw eggs," I responded. "When you have a Caesar salad. Did you know you have raw eggs in a Caesar salad?"

He said he knew because he was a dietitian, then asked again.

"Have you thought about vegetables?"

"And seviche. Seviche is raw. Herring is raw."

"They're pickled," he said. "About vegetables."

"Clams," I countered. "Oysters."

"Enough! Think about vegetables."

"Okay," I said. "Salads, except when they're warmed. Mushrooms, tomatoes. May I count garnishes? Parsley, carrots, scallions, all those cute baby vegetables. And how about gazpacho? That's raw soup."

"You have the idea," my friend said.

"The reason I asked is that I went into a restaurant the other day and had a lunch of raw fish, raw beef, and raw vegetables. And I wondered, what do they need chefs for if they don't have to cook?"

It's a thought. Perhaps we should also be thinking about interior decorators as integral members of kitchen brigades?

I am not very good at gardening. In fact, I am probably the only person in the world who has not been able to grow a tomato. I have grown tomato plants — lovely, climbing, leafy tomato plants — none of which has ever produced tomatoes. Nevertheless, it is in these months of greenness, that I think about gardening and planting, and that perhaps it will be in the next spring and summer that I will at last grow something besides weeds and dandelions, which I seem to be able to do quite successfully without significant effort.

So I sat and I thought. I thought about blue corn, so that maybe I could make tortillas like everybody in Berkeley and Dallas is doing. Or radicchio, so that I could decorate my salads the way they do in Los Angeles. Or Bibb lettuce, which is used in, on, or around most of New York's dinner plates. I discarded all of these notions eventually because I felt, I knew, that by the time I got them growing, their time in the culinary parade would be past. Then, one recent evening, I began thumbing through an interesting book, The Magical and Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs, by Richard Alan Miller, and suddenly I realized that I had found the perfect use for my garden.

But what was I to grow?

Yohimbe requires jungle forests, like those in the Cameroons, the book said, and, whereas I had a thicket out back, it was not quite a rain-forest tangle. Yage, a pleasant vine that occasions very interesting things, would not do because it had to be grown in Brazil, and fo-ti-tieng, was native to Asia. Guarana, from Venezuela, would not grow in my garden, nor would iboga, the bark of which is quite popular in Gabon, nor would kava kava, which seems to thrive in the Sandwich Islands.

I could try betel nuts, I thought, or muira puama, but after thinking about them and explaining their use to my neighbors I decided against them. How about ginseng? I thought. Everybody loves ginseng. Too common. Sweet flag, which sprouts in Texas? Maybe. Thorn apple? Not really,

Then I happened upon the perfect plant for my garden.

Wild lettuce.

It grows throughout North America, I read, and when cultivated and handled properly it will take you up the "seven rungs of the Jacob's ladder of consciousness," to a stage that "represents the spiritual unity of mystical marriage, which is an internal union with one's own higher self."

Now that's what I call a salad!

For those of my countrymen who are having the trembles over our forced march into the metric system, let me offer surcease. Think, just think, of having to cope with the following measurements form an 1859 book entitled The Corner Cupboard:

1 pottle= 2 quarts 1 coomb= 4 bushels 1 wey= 40 bushels 1 last= 80 bushels 1 firkin= 9 gallons 1 butt= 108 gallons 1 anker= 10 gallons (only of brandy) 1 runlet= 18 gallons 1 pipe= 2 hogsheads, or 1 butt 1 tierce= 42 gallons 1 puncheon= 84 gallons

Imagine being required to compute how many pottles there are in a pipe? Be content with your millimeters and hectares, your liters and grams.

Table For Two

"Have you any idea how many generals there are, or were in the Chinese Army?" I asked my wife the other morning in the kitchen as she was spooning mounds of cut-up mushrooms, onions and preserved mustard greens into the cavity of a roasting chicken.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Generals," I repeated. "It seems to me there is, or was, an excess of generals in China, and all these officers, seem to have chicken dishes named for them. So I was wondering if you knew how many of these there were and if they were all genuine, the generals I mean. I would also like to know why you don't cook General Ching's Chicken or General Tso's Chicken or General Gau's Chicken or General King's Chicken, or any of those other chickens named for Hunanese generals. Seems to me that everybody, absolutely everybody I know eats General Tsao's Chicken or General Taso's Chicken. My goodness, even the Glatt Kosher China Shalom has a General Tsao's Chicken and the Empire has General Tseng's Historic Chicken. Every American, it seems to me, is eating a dish named for some Chinese general. Why can't we have some general's chicken?"

My wife looked back at me from over her shoulder. She exhaled the sort of sigh she reserves for those times when she believes I am frivolous. "I am preparing a chicken," she said. "A Beggar's Chicken, not a general's chicken. I do not make general's chickens."

"Why not?"

"Because I like Beggar's Chicken and you like Beggar's Chicken, and I am confused by all those generals' chickens. I think they're fictitious, the generals, I mean. If you were a general would you like a chicken named after you? How would you feel if you were General Patton and somebody decided to make up a dish called General Patton's Chicken? Tell me."

"I wouldn't like it," I replied.

"Of course you wouldn't like it. No general wants to be associated with chicken. None of the generals in my family have chickens named after them."

"You have generals as relatives?" I asked.

"Of course," my wife replied. "There was my uncle General Chan. He was in the Air Force. Three stars at least. He was French-trained, but there was no chicken named for him. Do you think my Uncle Chan would have stood for it?"

"I guess not."

"Nor would my Uncle Yim. He was an Army general. There is no General Yim's Chicken as far as I know. I hope there never is. My uncle would not have approved of that."

"I suppose not."

"Now you know why I will not cook chickens named for generals," my wife said. "It would be an insult to my uncles."

"We cannot have that," I said.

"No," my wife agreed. "And I don't care what sort of chicken our friends cook. In THIS house we have Beggar's Chicken. If you wish I can change the name to Rich and Noble Chicken, or even Brave Chicken. Would that please you?"

"Yes it would," I replied.

"Done," said my wife. "Tell your friends we only have Brave Chicken in our house."

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