MAD DOG: Food Police, Help!
It's hard to find purity in food these days. Not purity in the safety and cleanliness meaning of the word. That's pretty much assured since we have people like the Health Department, Department of Agriculture, FDA, and the Busybodies of America looking out for our welfare. In fact, if anything we need to keep them in check, since if it was up to them our food would be so squeaky clean we wouldn't want to eat it.Remember a year or so ago when they passed a law in California outlawing Caesar salad made with raw eggs? Luckily less hardboiled minds prevailed and it was later revised so now you can get a real Caesar salad as long as the waiter or waitress gets your prior approval. In triplicate. Unfortunately this means you have to bring your lawyer to dinner with you to review the release form. On the bright though, eating Caesar salad in restaurants has become the hottest diet aid sweeping the state, since it turns out most people lose their appetite when a lawyer's sitting at the dinner table with them.No, my concern isn't with the health purity of food, it's with the ethnic purity. I'm afraid that with the way current cooking trends are going, the line between ethnic cuisines is blurring faster than an eye chart after a bottle of tequila. America may be the melting pot of the world, but that doesn't mean it's necessary to throw anything that's handy into the double boiler, does it? This is, after all, the same cooking method that led us to Slim Jims, Spam, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Cereal.This culinary miscegenation is pretty much a restaurant phenomenon. At home, people still seem to be perfectly content to keep the boiling bag spinach souffle separate from the microwave French toast and apart from the Toast-R-Pasta. But go out to eat and it's another thing altogether.The biggest of these combo trends may be Pan-Pacific cooking, which earned its name because chefs calmly throw anything they want in the pan and people will not only eat it, but will stand in line and pay big bucks to do so. Pan-Horrific was the original, more accurate title, but lucky for them the marketing people prevailed.Pan-Pacific shouldn't be confused with side-by-side menus, like the Chinese-Japanese restaurant I recently came across. No, the idea here is to mix and match any and all Asian food items in the same dish so you end up with things like sushi egg foo young over soba noodles in green curry sauce (patent pending). I'm not sure what it is about Asian food that brings this urge out in chefs, but I suspect it stems from the American thinking that anything eaten with chopsticks is more or less the same thing anyway.Pizza has also become fair game. Gone are the simple days of sausage, mushroom, or maybe even the Zen pizza, "one with everything." Now you can get your pie topped with barbecue chicken, lamb curry, and Thai noodles in peanut sauce. Luckily it's easy to spot these restaurants since their signs proudly proclaim that they have gourmet pizza, which is an oxymoron that ranks right up there with quality network TV.Then we have those wonderful food items which Mexicans have been calling burritos since the first Mayan Bell restaurant opened, oh, about a thousand years ago, only now they've been reincarnated under the name wraps. At least that's what they call them when they fill them with Caesar salad, corned beef and cabbage, and chicken soup with matzo balls, all things which god wouldn't have created had he known someone would end up stuffing them in a tortilla.And bagels, now there's an area where cross-pollination has achieved new heights. Or is that lows? Bagels now come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins ice cream (and I suspect they share test kitchens). While luckily they haven't started making bagels mixed with other ethnic foods -- not that I've seen, anyway -- they've certainly blurred the line between bread, pastry, and candy. I'm not being a total purist about this -- though I could since my mother claims I teethed on stale bagels -- but wouldn't it be better if they spent their time doing something more useful than dreaming up bizarre bagel flavors like pumpkin-pesto-carob-swirl? You know, like say, learn how to make a decent bagel?If this cross-pollination trend continues we can expect to see restaurants opening up featuring a whole slew of new food styles, like NATO-Fusion cooking (schnitzel pizza, escargot and kidney pie, and back-bacon borscht), Mexi-bird (a charming buffet featuring tacos, gravlax, and lutefisk mole), and those ubiquitous California combo Chinese Food/Donut shops which will go totally hog wild by selling sweet and sour donut holes.Interestingly, all of this comes at a time when the Associated Press reports that chefs are increasingly up in arms about the Americanization of food. They're upset because French dressing shouldn't be creamy and made with tomatoes. They claim pepperoni pizza is a shuck since there isn't any such thing as pepperoni in Italy. And they bemoan the fortune cookies we get at the end of Chinese meals because, well, they're an American invention.Make up your minds, Chefs of America. Which will it be, purity or total fusion? Gee, it's enough to make you drown your sorrows in a loaf of Wonderbread and a jar of Cheez-Wiz.