Welcome to the third installment of Food Questions, where I investigate food-related subjects to satisfy my curiosity. Check out my previous posts on Catherine de’Medici and the history of arroz con gandules and Jollof rice.
Biting into a mature cheddar that crumbles into jagged shards, giving way to the irresistable firm cheese. Tiny white pinpoints tucked between the large firm curds tightly crunch, releasing that characteristic sharp flavor.
The tastebuds deep on both sides of my tongue tingle and light up, making my mouth water. A throb of pleasure radiates from my gums to the base of my spine. The shudder of furry pleasure is nothing short of orgasmic.
Nestle a morsel of that cheese into the pillowy crumb of a fresh baguette, and that rich texture with the tight crispness of the brown crust… This is one of my very favorite bites of food. The definition of deliciousness.
That sharp cheddar cheese is so damn good because it tastes salty and umami.
Umami is the mysterious fifth flavor, after salty, bitter, sweet, and sour. I remember hearing the news in 2001 that American researchers confirmed that we DO indeed have the ability to taste a fifth flavor–something the Japanese had first established nearly 100 years earlier. I was a teenage girl with food eternally on the mind, and was curious about this flavor. Through my clunky understanding of it, I got the impression that it was a just a “deeper” version of salty.
Today’s food question dives into the specifics of umami.
What exactly is umami?
Dipping crispy-fried potato wedges into tomato ketchup
Shaving a soft mound of Parmesan cheese over steaming, screamingly hot freshly drained pasta
Dabbing (or bathing, for some) your sushi in a dish of soy sauce
Adding salty anchovy fillets that dissolve into your rich puttanesca sauce
Using dashi stock (either bought powdered, or simmered from bonito flakes and kombu kelp) to give your miso soup the backbone of its heartiness and warmth
…If you’ve ever enjoyed any of these taste sensations, you have tasted umami. It is the umami flavor that gives these dishes their depth and richness of flavor, and what makes them so luscious and satisfying.
A dish without umami is one that makes you tilt your head and think “There’s something missing.”
Umami is a flavor that is not recognizable enough to know which ingredients contain it, but one that is sorely missed when absent.
The discovery of this flavor is credited to Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda after realizing the seaweed in his miso soup was the key ingredient to its tastiness.
Ikeda called this flavor “umami;””umai” is yummy/tasty; adding the noun ending “-mi” makes “umami” loosely translate to yumminess/tastiness.
This flavor is a bit slippery to describe, but it’s often called meaty, brothy, savory, and rich. Ingredients with umami are special add-ins that create an explosion of flavor.
It’s found in aged foods, like cured meats, fermented products, and ripe (often stinky) cheese. It’s also present in fresh foods like ripe tomatoes, milk, mushrooms, and even breast milk!
It’s the amino acid glutamate that’s responsible for this yumminess.
Umami can be created through using umami-rich ingredients, or by using heat to brown your food. This is called the Maillard reaction: when an ingredient is heated under the right conditions, carbohydrate molecules react with amino acids, which break down and produce a browning effect, giving birth to complex, meaty aromas. Imagine the difference in flavor between a sad, floppy boiled chicken breast and a juicy piece of meat carved from a crisp, roasted whole chicken.
Here are some more umami-rich ingredients, grouped into various cuisines sorted by country:
Glutamate came to be isolated from proteins in wheat gluten, distilling it into its purest form, called “aji no moto”–the stuff of flavor. It quickly came into commercial production in Japan and was sold as a flavor enhancer, much like salt and sugar.
Nowadays it’s mass-produced by growing bacteria that excrete the substance into liquid, from which MSG powder is produced.
Some of you may be skeptical about using MSG powder in your food. But as for the purported negative side effects of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (sweats, headaches, upset tummy, increased heart rate), research doesn’t seem to back it up.
That said, I never use it. While cooking, I have a distaste for relying too much on salt, sugar, or MSG–it feels like I’m cheating, grabbing an easy fix to make up for flavor I failed to cultivate during the cooking process.
I’m more in favor of coaxing in umami flavor on my own terms: browning meat bones, using mushrooms, roasting tomatoes, grating Parmesan into my risotto, using fish sauce in my seaweed soup…
So, the next time you’re scratching your head in the kitchen, thinking your dish isn’t quite right, resist the urge to grab for salt. If you think it needs a li’l extra somethin’, pump up the umami.
I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
This is the first post of a new series in which I investigate food-related questions that pique my interest. While I plan to conduct research to look more deeply into these subjects, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m not a scholar, just a layperson with a sense of curiosity.
Feel free to comment with additional resources, information, or suggestions for future food questions. Here we go!
Today’s question is born from an offhand comment by Clarissa Dickson Wright (one-half of the British cooking duo, the Two Fat Ladies, who greatly shaped my curiosity and appreciation of food):
“Catherine de’ Medici, who taught the French how to cook”
Who the heck was that? Is that true?, I wondered as a young adolescent. Clarissa made the statement with such unquestionable authority (or maybe it was the British accent), I always considered there to be a kernel of truth.
Now living in France, I have the great privilege to be able to taste and investigate French gastronomy for myself. I can learn firsthand about French food tradition, so refined and richly delicious.
Of course, French cooking techniques transformed the way the Western world sees food, and it is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for a reason. That said, there is, without a doubt, there is a profound stink of arrogance and hoity-toitiness that can be off-putting. The endless fascination and reverence can be alienating to a dabbler such as myself. I’m not in a position to denigrate this grand tradition, but come on. French cuisine can come across as elitist, and there is an insufferableness with which enthusiasts genuflect before it, and sniff at “less refined” cuisines.
The idea that the culinary juggernaut of French cuisine didn’t spontaneously generate in a vacuum, dreamed up by a pompous French moustache-twirler, is sexy and intriguing. The question of Catherine de’ Medici’s influence is one that has been scratching my ear ever since I moved to France, and began to learn to appreciate the rich complexity of French food tradition.
The question that sits at the heart of my fascination, be it in in food, history, folklore, psychology, or otherwise is: What is the origin story?
Where did this achievement in human excellence and creativity stem from?
Let’s dive in.
14th-century French cuisine was known for quantity, without the same refinement and quality we associate with it today. Imagine large free-for-all banquets where people ate with their hands. How terribly unelegant. But with the beginning of the Renaissance, alongside the same ol’ innovations we all read about in history class, came another important cultural offshoot: the development of food preparation techniques.
Ah, the Renaissance. It’s difficult to talk about it without mentioning the Medici, a powerful Florentine dynasty that held a 300-year-influence that spanned through the Renaissance, and who notably financed great artists and thinkers like Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli. And like any dynasty, they married their children off to foreigners to solidify their power.
Enter Catherine. A woman whose story unfurls more and more mystery, intrigue, and drama, the deeper you dig. Married to Henry of Orléans, later King Henry II, who snubbed her in favor of an older woman, Diane of Poitiers. (That said, even if her husband wasn’t exactly thrilled by her, they still conceived ten children, nine of which she outlived. Her last remaining son, Henry III, died in the same year she did.) A woman with a deep appreciation for good food, Catherine held a fascination with the occult and astrology. Widowed into power, she was the reviled Italian-born Queen of France, quelle horreur!
23 October 1533. 14-year-old Catherine arrived in Marseilles, in a grand display of finery, with procession of horses, accompanied by twelve demoiselles, clad in silk of gold and silver. The great finery in her trousseau included a lavish collection of silk and lace, precious gemstones and opulent jewelry.
She was married to Henry of Orléans the following day, and thereby became a royal duchess. It is said that the excessive displays of decadence extended to the great banquet held after the wedding, and the masquerade ball-turned-orgy after the teenaged couple’s departure to their nuptial chambers.
Hey, they knew how to party.
Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, had brokered her marriage to Henry, promising an alliance with King Francis, along with a certain amount of land and a sizeable dowry. Unfortunately, a year after the wedding, the Pope died, having only paid part of her dowry. Effectively, his death left Catherine with no political value to King Francis I.
Not known for her looks, nor her political clout, she had to appeal to her father-in-law’s strong appetite for beauty. It’s said that she made up for her lack of looks with her charm, wit, intellect, and skills in dancing and hunting. She’s credited with bringing the side-saddle to France, supposedly to show off her well-shaped calves. She’s also said to have introduced pantaloons as undergarments, so as to preserve her modesty under a footman’s roving eye while descending from horseback.
Later, she was known for her enormous appetite for rich food–a 16th century gourmande, she was. Perhaps it was an overindulgence in artichokes and puff pastry that gave her that double chin later in life. Legend has it that when she was presented with tobacco from the New World in 1560, she crushed into a powder and found it intriguing enough to introduce to the French people. Other innovations allegedly popularized by Catherine de’ Medici include the folding fan and the handkerchief.
Overall, sources seem to be conflicted on the precise list of novelties that Catherine brought to the French. From what I’ve read, it’s safe to assume that she brought the fork with her to France and popularized its use. She also brought a team of fine Italian cooks and master pastrymakers who probably showed those French cooks a thing or two. With respect to crediting her introducing ingredients to France, such as broccoli, lettuce, and spinach, and savoy cabbages, there is more doubt.
It’s also known that along the French Riviera, individual Italian dishes crossed over, but not an entire style of cooking. The Greeks introduced the olive to Provence, and perhaps even the famed Marseillais dish, bouillabaisse.
It’s not possible to conclude that Catherine de’ Medici “taught the French how to cook,” but her influence seems to be one factor that catalyzed a push toward culinary refinement. Her arrival in France coincided with several other important revelations at the time, notably the flood of new ingredients coming in from the New World.
I’d like to think that we have Catherine de’ Medici to thank every time we crunch into spinach-and-artichoke filled puff pastry triangles at a cocktail party, sipping fine wine and hoping things pick up and get spicier. And after someone kills their fifth glass of Cab, takes their shirt off and starts howling at the full moon, we smile and remember that life is here for us to savor.
Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. Phoenix, 2003.
O’Neill, Molly. “Quel Shock! The Italianization Of French Cuisine.” NYTimes.com. Published 5 October 1994. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Oulton, Randal. “Catherine de Medici.” CooksInfo.com. Published 01 August 2005; revised 17 November 2012. Accessed 10/26/2017.
Root, Waverly. The Food of France. Vintage Books Edition, May 1992.
Eyes closed, breathe deep
Ashamed confusion, deflect
Look askance instead.
Self-absolved, no duty to try
Intellectual curiosity is dead.
Autopilot, flapping jaw
Blabbing to a wall
Deaf ears, blind eyes
Why am I here at all?
Disinterest plus passivity
Birth of escape fantasy
Hubby at the wheel
Elope to the absurd
To where words pay for meals.
“Attention, all passengers for the 11:20 train for _____. Due to–”
A herd of elephants trumpets by.
“…we regret to inform you that there will be a significant delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Bouncing into the information office, I see the usual old dogs at their post, along with one grizzled unfamiliar face.
“Hello! I’m meant to take the train at 11:20, but I didn’t catch the reason for the delay…?”
I try to speak as naturally as possible, but my accent gives me away. My French is like a dog wearing a hat: innocuously unnatural.
Tired, deliberate, his response lacks all pretense of social niceties:
It does not concern you.
Excuse me, but I have the impression that it was just announced.
It. Does not. Con-cern. You.
His tone adds, “Fucking foreigner.”
His stern face dully chastises me, through deep frown lines and a graying smoker’s pallor. Maybe he always talks to women like this. Maybe he’s sick and miserable, and needs to vomit his misery onto others. Maybe his dog just died, and his boss made him roll into work today anyway. Maybe his partner is terminally ill, and he’s angry at the world. Maybe he’s just a Grade-A asshole.
10,000 maybes, and it’s likely that not one is correct. Whatever the reason, it is irrelevant. I know I will meet him again, in countless other forms.
My friendly demeanor melts away, and with a bite in my voice, I thank him for the information and bid him good day. I resist the burning urge to flip him off as I turn on my heel and escape.
My logical mind is outraged: I’m not to be cowed by one passive-aggressive backhanded comment. What nerve he’s got, shirking social conventions of politeness! How dare he! A brute like that shan’t speak to me in such a ghastly manner! I’ve a mind to dress him down!
Someone tell that big talk to the pressure in my chest that’s feeding the fire in my throat. Angry tears boil over. I wish for thicker skin, for French that could cut, for some witty Bette Davis-style comebacks: grace with a touch of disdain. Yes, if only I had a sharper tongue! Then these people wouldn’t mistreat me; they’d respect my invisible anti-bullshit forcefield. I feel infantilized, maladjusted, incapable of survival in this world filled with Grade-A assholes.
I speedwalk away, hiccuping pathetic tears, hating myself. The more I walk, though, the more the burning subsides. What am I doing? Is my core this easily swayed by an external force? Why do I need to wait until I’ve become the Perfect Me to be acceptable? No, I’m deserving of respect now, first and foremost from myself, because I can’t count on anyone to fork it over automatically.
One more experience under my belt, one more internal growth spurt. Ready for the next meeting with another manifestation of that unbearable condescension that I despise. Next time, every time, I don’t want to be so quick to minimize myself. There will always be another grating external force. I’m learning that it will sway me only if I allow it to.
A very efficient woman buzzes around me, her motherly gray bangs swaying with every maneuver. “Considering your age, we’re going to perform the scan, as well as an ultrasound.” You’d think she was twittering around the kitchen, baking cookies for her grandkids. Instead, she’s buffing the space-age machine that towers imposingly over us. High technology that cows me into submission. My kaleidoscopic internal world is irrelevant in this sterile, colorless examination room.
I’m standing topless, hands behind my back. A mannequin with foldable, poseable limbs. Expert hands guide the lead apron across my lower body. She manipulates me, tucking my breasts between the plates. The top plate is transparent, and she sends it down with a tap of her foot. My glands, impossibly flat.
No joy, sensuality, life. Still youthful and pert, they haven’t yet known the searching mouth of a suckling baby. They’ve never produced milk, never given life. Under this fluorescent light, they’re no longer fleshly beautiful symbols of my femininity or fertility. Here, they’re just a piece of meat, in a clinical setting. Like a sample in a petri dish, ready for fastidious, detached scientific observation.
Next room, another machine. Doctor enters. Arms up, supine. The ultrasound wand glides over my sore mountains. He stares at the screen, and I twist my neck up to watch along. He pauses at the sight of each furry black cloud. Two clicks measure them. Glide, click-click.
“You have benign cysts. It’s common, one in three women has them. They may get inflamed and sore, so we’ll keep an eye on them. There is nothing cancerous here.”
He wishes me a good-day, and doesn’t even shake my hand. I suppose it’s not medical protocol to shake a patient’s hand after you’ve prodded about and scrutinized the ins and outs of her funbags.
White coattails flap crisply out the door. I scrape the viscous gel off my chest and dress myself. Strange. Just beyond that door, I’m expected to observe a modicum of physical modesty, yet my rainbow voice can come back. Here, I am reticent in my nudity.
Back into the clean, fluorescent lobby, where I melt into a bucket chair. Vacant. Depleted.
The secretary mispronounces my name, and I answer anyway.
I take my charts, and the smile I give her feels awkwardly distorted.
I step out of the cool white clinic and back into the searing, chartreuse summer air. Breathe deep, hiccup. Sweet tears of relief. My weak protest mantra “I’m too young for this” that had marched so defiantly through my head has dissolved, overtaken by my mother’s insistent wisdom: “Check yourself regularly!”
I’m glad I listened.
Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.