Feeding Frenzy

A professional gastronaut feeds the blogosphere with tales of his culinary adventures - sometimes on-the-job, sometimes just-for-the-hell-of-it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Small Dishes

It is 1989. I sit in a comfortable chair in a bar not far from the Parque de Retiro in Madrid. I drink a glass of red Rioja and munch olives. The air smells of fresh-grilled sardines, of garlic, of ripe cheese. The earthy taste of Tortilla Española lingers in my mouth. Just now I wonder why I would ever want to leave this place.

I did leave it, of course, and came home to the United States. I came home to our stodgy, entrée-centered food culture. Perhaps we have a puritanical fear of the pleasures of the table or perhaps we are too busy to take the time to enjoy those pleasures. Either way, we have for most of our culinary history kept a pretty efficient table. I use the word “efficient” in the most pejorative way possible.

Until fairly recently, we focused our menus upon dishes that filled us up quickly. Meat and potatoes loomed large in the American kitchen. Convenience foods not only answered the needs of the busy cook, they also ensured that dining was orderly and fast. We are less concerned with how these things taste than with how much time they take out of our lives. It is no accident that the United States is the home of fast food, of the power bar, of Lunchables.

Never mind. A cure for our irrational fear of the slow and delicious is here. It has been in our midst, in restaurants and homes, in a small and unobtrusive way for many years, but its proponents are starting to get noisy. Count me as being among them.

A small digression: There is a thing that happens at buffets – weddings, corporate receptions, birthday parties, it doesn’t matter. It happens at buffets. When we open the buffet line to the guests, they rush at it like starving aquarium fish at the first sign of brine shrimp. They dash through, piling up salads and meat and potatoes (and whatever else they might find) on huge plates. The huge plates are intended to comfort the hungry.

The guests line up at once as though they believe that this is the only moment in which their appetites may be satisfied. There is a feeding frenzy, I’m afraid. It isn’t social or particularly pleasurable. It is, I suppose, expedient. It gets the eating part out of the way quickly so that everyone can move on to the next part of the event. I will set aside, for the moment, that it is “the eating part” that usually is the most expensive part of any event. It seems illogical to me that people should want to rush through it.

What if, instead of the mad dash to get the food in and over with, we had a paradigm shift and decided that eating could be part of the entire evening? What if, in addition to the shaking of hands and the dancing and the speeches, we also shared foods that woke our senses, lifted our spirits and enhanced the moment? What if the “eating part” wasn’t an obstacle to be overcome, but a seamless part of the experience of spending this time with those we love or, at least, like fairly well? What if we conspired to get rid of food lines at our celebrations?

There are, all over Seattle, a number of restaurants that feature not so much different foods (we have all gotten fairly used to seeing regional or “ethnic” foods) but different approaches to dining. These places are serving everything from Tapas (from Spain) to Dim Sum (from China), Salgadihnos (from Brazil) to Mezes (from the Middle East and North Africa) – sometimes all in one place.

All of these are “small dish” foods. They allow us to consider (and order) foods on a morsel-by-morsel basis. We just had the plate of assorted cheeses? Hmmm… perhaps something with marinated vegetables might be good now. And then perhaps a small gratin of wild mushrooms. Then maybe a truffled broth.

The point is that this style of eating allows us to respond to our appetites in a small, incremental way, in a sensual way. And, interestingly enough, nearly all of these traditions come from cultures with warm climates where life is of necessity slower, less efficient. The food is fresh and prepared on the spot. You have to wait for it. You want to wait for it. And while you wait, you talk to your friends, you nuzzle your lover, you sip your wine, you watch the pretty people pass on the sidewalk, you savor the memory of the dish you just sampled.

There are a few catering companies, like ourselves, for instance, that have taken to heart this approach to dining and are presenting events which discourage or even disable the horde mentality of most buffet events. We do this in a number of ways:

  • We take a moment at the outset of the evening to educate the guests as to the sort of dining experience they can expect
  • We split the buffet into several tables
  • We offer only smaller plates, 6 or 8 inches at most
  • We periodically add fresh all-new items to the buffets and remove old ones
  • We mark the dishes with attractive signs that clearly explain each that the guests encounter
  • We are less concerned with ensuring that each guest gets one of each menu item and more concerned with providing a truly engaging diversity of menu items
  • Each menu item fits the definition of a “small dish” food – it can be eaten in a matter of a few yummy bites

A little prosaic, yes. Sorry it reads so much like a textbook. But that’s basically our manifesto, our game plan for taking the lifelessness out of event dining. And it works. We have done a number of weddings and corporate events in this manner and in every case people responded as though they had never really eaten before, as though totally surprised that event dining could be a source of pleasure instead of merely being a chore to be gotten out of the way.

It’s the way eating should always be.


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