I have a good Argentinean friend who was a wife of a top executive of a major, multinational industrial company. She also has great taste.
Once, many years ago, she and her husband spent several days as a guest of a wealthy client of her husband’s company at his home in Martinique, a former French colony in the West Indies. Even in the 1960s it was still renowned for its great charm and beauty, as well as its unique cuisine—a blend of French, Creole, African and even East Indian styles, using fresh fish, shellfish, local fruits, vegetables and herbs. In a word, fantastic.
One day she noticed how especially delicious the host’s meal had been—the rice was particularly tasty and of a unique quality she’d never experienced. She was amazed! The next day she was served an omelette, and later on a luncheon dish, both of which included a special cheese she’d not tasted before. She described it to me as “luxurious”. This was someone who had been fortunate to enjoy fine food the world over.
On the last day of her stay, she couldn’t help herself to ask her host if she might know the identity of the rice and cheese. The owner asked his cook to talk to my friend, and being “fellow cooks”, the two ladies met later and got into it, as they say.
The cook presented my friend with a box of rice called “Uncle Ben’s”. My friend wasn’t familiar with it, having not yet lived in the US. She made a special note of it, and the orange-colored box with the handsome portrait of the African-American gentleman on the top. She was mystified. In fact, she was more surprised that it was not a special variety from India or China, than that it was from the US. She recalls being impressed that the Americans had produced such a delicious rice.
Then she asked about the cheese. She didn’t know it—or anything about it. It was a completely new experience. It was so exotic to her that she had never tasted anything even remotely like it. The cook presented her with a square chunk in a silver wrapper. Later the host told her that he had it brought in by friends who visited him from the US. He said they’d keep it cold and then put a couple of little bricks in their bags when they flew in. “Philadelphia Cream Cheese”. The host was proud that my friend had enjoyed his food. He was French; he knew what she talking about when she was describing how uniquely delicious the rice and cheese were.
Later my friend and her husband were transferred from their home in Argentina to the US. She has never forgotten the bemused expressions of the other wives, mostly American, when she told her story about the phenomenal discoveries she had made in Martinique. Of course, they did not quite “get it”. But when my friend had them over for dinner at her home, they marveled at the dishes she cooked with these ingredients.
This story reminded me of a similar experience I had in Costa Rica in the early 1980s. I was on an extended stay—several weeks—and, whenever I was “free” (translation: lonely), I would stop off at a high-end hamburger joint (San Jose was full of them in those days, and they were very good. Americans had not yet streamed in to the country in masses and ruined them). I would relieve my boredom with a drink called “Jungle Fever”, if I remember correctly, or something like that. It was extraordinarily delicious and I had never tasted anything quite like it. I’d sit on the patio overlooking the lights of the city and forget my blues, mostly work-related, fortunately. “This is wrong, that is wrong.” But soon the beauty of the view, and the uncanny concoction of the lime and whatever else would make me “mellow”, as people used to call it in those days. Jungle Fever would arrive at the table before, during and even after the large, juicy hamburger. It was a long stay.
On one of my last visits, I went over to the long bar (Costa Ricans have splendid bars, even in rural cantinas). I asked the bartender about my, by then, good old companion, “Jungle Fever”. He presented me with a bottle of Southern Comfort. My friend was a combination of bourbon, peach liqueur and a copious amount of the local lime juice, freshly squeezed. Very well chilled and in a chilled glass over large ice cubes. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind, Southern Comfort was a rather low-end alcoholic beverage. No more! “God, I love this country,” I thought to myself, referring to the US.
The question, in the case of both my Argentinean friend and me, is whether we had fallen into a sort of “Alice In Wonderland” version of a blind taste test. I have heard of this happening before. Symphony orchestras use curtains when they audition new musicians. Blind wine tastings produce often surprising results, the most famous being the 1976 tasting in Paris of French versus Napa Valley wines, which the latter won, hands down.
Somewhat related, I should mention—and I don’t want to make a big point of it—that we hosted for lunch five editors from Organic Gardening magazine in 2004. We included a blind taste test: “Brandywine” versus “Brandy Boy”, new for that year. “Brandy Boy” triumphed, 4 to 1.
The most interesting moment of the day was how upset I got—for just a couple of minutes or so—that “Brandy Boy” hadn’t won 5 to 0. I kept it to myself, of course. It lasted only briefly, but my disappointment surprised me. I thought, “Why am I so upset? We won!”
Such is life. Such is the sin of ambition, more precisely. As soon as you get something good, you turn it into something bad. “I want it all !”
Finally, thank you very much for your patronage of Heronswood.
Happy New Year !