Reflections on Rotten Food
- Alan Divack Oct 14, 1999 10:16 PM
Excuse the length of these musings, but I think that the garum discussions were very interesting, and I hope they will continue. I thought, however, that I would start a new thread, because the one on Garum, semi-putrid shellfish, etc, has gotten so long. All cultures eat rotten foods. It is both a way of preservation, and of enhancing flavors, though these are often very acquired tastes. Frank McGee has a great discussion of this in his book in a sectional called "Aversion to Cheese." He writes that by allowing certain, somewhat more benign micro-organisms to act on food and begin to break it down, more harmful microbes have a difficult time of establishing themselves, thus preserving the food. It is easier to keep a cheese that milk; or fermented fish paste than fresh fish. By breaking down some of the proteins, etc., a whole host of aromas and flavors are released, some of them quite strong.
I also think that it is not only food, but salt that needs preserving. We grew up with Morton's "If it rains, it pours" but in tropical climes, salt is apt to be a magnet for all kinds of moisture and things in it. There is a great passage about this in Naipaul's A House for MR.Biswas. The Indian family visits the house of Mr. Biswas' Anglo boss, and the boy is very impressed with the fine salt that pours freely -- not something generally avaailble in the caribbean. Perhaps putrid salty things -- fish sauce, soy sauce, cheese, kishik, are a way of transporting salt in some tasty form, and one that ultimately gives shape to a cuisine. I wonder if the uses of garum/liquamen in Ancient Rome are all that different from that of parmiggiano regianno cheese today?
All cultures use this kind of preservation in some degree or other. The aversion of most Americans to the range of preserved fish flavors in other, particularly Asian, cuisines, is matched by their aversion to many of our preserved foods, esp. cheese. Once, I was in a Cambodian house, and smelled the most pungent rotting fish smell I have ever smelled in my life. It was a fermented fish paste, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. "Cambodian cheese," my hosts explained. These are apparently tastes best and most easily acquired at a relatively young age -- though how many of us chowhounds began to relish fish sauce and fermented shrimp sauce before our 20s?
I remember being at a pot luck dinner, where one of the Chinese guests reacted violently to the macaroni and cheese. "Why would anyone want to ruin a good dish of noodles with salty, rotten milk?" Not that different than our first reactions to a Southeast Asian shrimp paste. And even how many of us will dip some fried meat into shrimp sauce thinned only with a bit of lime, as much as we may relish these flavors when disguised a bit.
I'll go a little further in singing odes to noble rot:
Much of our classic French, European and even American cuisine is firmly grounded in the principles of decomposition and decay. Wild game birds--served at optimum state--are left to hang by the neck on the front porch until the body drops off. Dry-aged beef is usually about five weeks in the cooler, getting fuzzy and stanky. Rosette, Parma ham, Smithfield ham, etc all hang longer than you might like to think about. Cassoulet, rillette, confit, pate--are all products designed to be preserved without benefit of refrigeration--kept covered in fat in a dark corner of a cellar. Wine, creme fraiche, sun-dried tomatoes, salt cod, yogurt are all the results of letting food deliberately lie around, dry or ferment.And is there anything better than an unpasteurized Stilton? I dunno..I think that the ingestion of small amounts of even harmful bacteria and microorganisms are probably a good thing--in our antibiotic-weaned, pre-packaged irradiated food-fed society-- How you gonna enjoy the food in some Mexican backwater--if you have no resistance? The very spices and seasonings that form the basis of cuisine as we know it--were treasured back in the old days--not so much because people liked the taste-but because to own salt, pepper, and spices meant you could project military power over long distances. So, coming to terms with rot--dealing with it in innovative and hopefully tasty ways--is hardly just an Eastern phenomenom. Beef jerky anyone?
re: Anthony Bourdain
Well put. Some flavors, like aged beef, cured meats, etc. become so much a part of our gastronomic ambience that we are not even aware of the role of decomposition in their composition.
I guess the point that I was trying to make is that it is certainly not an eastern thing, just that it can be very difficult to become accustomed to the complex, putrid flavors favored by other cultures, while at the same time we are not fully conscious of the role of rot in our own diet.
I was just thinking this morning, what is the difference between fermentation and rotting? Do you know if these are the same process? It seems like fermented foods are usually vegetable -- beer, bread, sour bean curd -- and rotten foods are usually animal or animal products -- aged beef, blue cheese, fish paste. Is the difference yeast vs. bacteria?
Indeed, this practice has also infected our favorite beverages, particularly beer and wine. The lambic beers of Belgium infected with the local micro-organisms produces a beer that folks either love or hate. Barnyard is the phrase usually attributed to the aroma. Also found in older red burgundies and0 Rhone wines.
Also the noble rot Botrytis that produces Reislings and *sigh* Sauternes.
There is also the lactobacillus that infects certain weisse beers that gives then a mouth puckering tartness
I am sure in the case of these beverages, the original occurance was unintentional and unknown. When folks first made wine and beer they obviously didn't know about these things. So, why let it happen now that we know how to prevent it? Tastes good.
re: Hubert Plummer
Hubey, I suppose that the reason we have to acquire a taste for sour, funky beers and stinky cheeses is related to our natural defense mechanisms that tell us that bitter stuff is poison, for example. At least people are always telling me we have these mechanisms. But I can't say I've ever seen any science behind these assertions.