Vanilla

Anything flavoured vanilla is thought of almost as being unflavoured. Often foods like vanilla ice cream or yoghurt are considered to be plain, not flavoured.

While people go crazy over chocolate flavoured delights, not many people seem to share the same level of enthusiasm for vanilla.

In computer terminology, a vanilla version of something is basic, pared down, default set up. More interesting versions get names like chocolate or mocha, as if vanilla is somehow flavourless compared to those two.

Vanilla’s reputation is further sullied by it being part of “Vanilla Ice,” the stage name taken by early nineties rap icon Robert Van Winkle. As he fell from fame and into notoriety, his stage name became the punch line to many jokes.

Vanilla is considered plain and boring. It’s ordinary and unexciting. It’s bland and white. It’s not funky or soulful, it’s dull old vanilla.

But wait – vanilla isn’t that. In fact, it’s almost the complete opposite.

First, the name. Vanilla comes from the Latin word vagina, meaning sheath or pod. It’s thought that it was named either because some early botanist looked at a vanilla pod and it reminded him of a vagina, or because it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. (Just imagine if plants were still named that way. “Oh look, I’ve planted a Mighty Shaft of Desire next to the roses!”)

That puts an interesting twist on this quote by porn actress Annabel Chong, who once slept with 251 men in ten hours, “I can’t speak for all the women in the world, but I am sure there are certain women out there who have a part of their sexuality that’s not vanilla, that’s not polite.”

Then there’s the vanilla equalling white thing. Ever seen a vanilla bean pod? It’s dark, dark brown; almost black. There’s nothing plain or white about it.

And the flavour; the rich, dark, smouldering and sensuous flavour almost seems to evoke the steamy tropical heat of the countries it’s grown in.

Vanilla compliments and enhances the flavours of many other foods. It’s been used with chocolate to give smooth, mellow tones, since the 16th century. It blends especially well with dairy products, giving us such delightful treats as vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla may still be thought of by some as plain and boring, but really it’s rich and sensual and exotic, full of hidden surprises.

The 2002 Food Show

I turned the corner and almost recoiled in horror. There was a dorky DJ playing boring dance music and he was surrounded by bowls of fruit-flavoured chewy sweets. Around the booth were very serious looking men in yellow t-shirts putting stickers with the product’s logo onto all the mousy women they could lure into their kingdom of sugar. Ah yeah, it was 2002 Food Show.

I wasn’t planning to go, but there I was, wandering the halls of the Auckland Showgrounds, stabbing bite sized chunks of food with a toothpick. Fortunately none of the other stands had gimmicks quite as spectacularly awful as the DJ. Really nice people, often the owners of small companies, staffed most stands.

The usual Food Show crowd was there. The old people who stick with the familiar (i.e. cheese), the nervous women who keep coming back for chocolate samples, the men who try and get as drunk as they can on tiny plastic cups of wine, and, yeah, people like me who feel a need to say “mmm” after trying something.

There was plenty of organic stuff. Now it’s no longer the small companies that are getting into it. Big food companies are launching organic lines of products.

Mothers Against Genetic Engineering were there. It was a scary, high-pressure stand. One of the mothers was having a calm conversation with someone she appeared to know, when she stopped mid-sentence, blurted out “here’s some information about GE!” and thrust a brochure at a passing guy. She later handed me a bumper sticker “for your car!”

As I walked around sampling various foods, I somehow felt that if people were going to give me free samples of their products that I should express some sort of enjoyment or gratitude. “Mmmm,” I’d say with a mouth full of tofu sausage. “That’s good!” On numerous occasions I’d say, “very smooth flavour”. I’m not sure what that means, but I used it to describe olive oil, chocolates, fruitcake, yoghurt and aioli (oh, aioli is this year’s hummus.).

It was hard to fake enthusiasm for the stuff that didn’t taste so good. Fortunately most of that was products of large companies, things like Indian curry sauces (with very little spice and a weird jelly-like texture), muffin mixes that looked and smelt good but mysteriously had very little flavour, and some really boring tomato pasta sauce that would probably only be appreciated by old people on bland diets.

But there was also some really delicious stuff. I really enjoyed the Del Monte Gold pineapple, Cinnamon Twist’s Chocolatta drink, Fresh and Fruity’s baby and toddler banana custard, Leader Brand broccolini (that was really good) and the Monteith’s pilsner. I was also delighted to find some real pretzels, big ones, not those little mini snack ones.

But best thing I tasted was from the sparsely decorated Cambrian Meats stand. A friendly fellow was cooking some cubes of beef on a portable barbecue. It smelled really good. He served up the meat on a dish; I took a toothpick, got a piece and tried it. It was tender and had a nice, full flavour. That little cube of meat was delicious. And not a DJ in sight.

Tales of Bad Bagels

I like bagels. No matter what dodgy cafe I’m in (“New!!! Cappochino Machine!!!! Real coffee’s!!!”), bagels are usually a safe bet. I say usually, because I’ve had some bad bagel experiences. Let me share them with you.

Raglan I

This was my first bad bagel experience. It’s not as bad as the others, but as it was my first, it seemed the worst.

I was staying in Raglan and I went to a cafe for breakfast and ordered a toasted bagel with jam. When it arrived I was taken aback. For a start, it was white and bagels are normally a golden brown colour. And unlike proper bagels it didn’t have a hard outside, it was soft. I took a bit and realised that what I had been served as not a bagel, but a donut-shaped bread roll. Real bagels do not have any fat in the dough, and are boiled before they are baked. This was obviously just made from standard bread roll dough, and had not been boiled first.

But it tasted ok, so I ate it. However, as I moved onto the second half I noticed a sliver of onion stuck to the side of it. It appeared the grill hadn’t been cleaned between doing a heart attack breakfast special and toasting my bagel.

Wellington

In Wellington over summer, I stopped off at a supermarket to pick up a few things for lunch, including a bagel. I walked over to a park and sat down to eat.

Now, because bagels are boiled before they are baked, they get a sort of glossy, shiney surface. The bagel I had bought was, like the first Raglan bagel, made from regular bread roll dough, but it had also had a glaze applied to the top to give it the appearance of a regular bagel. There were even dribble marks where it had run down the side.

I stared at it for a while, unsure of what to do with it. It reminded me of those t-shirts that have a tuxedo printed on them. It’s not the real thing, and shouldn’t pretend to be.

Raglan II

An absolute bagel classic is with lox (smoked salmon!) and a schmear of cream cheese. I was at another Raglan cafe and ordered that for brunch. When it came there was instead a bagel with smoked salmon slices and cream cheese. However, rather than a schmear of cream cheese, there was instead a one centimetre thick slice of cream cheese.

Who made that? What were they thinking? Did they think they were making a smoked salmon cheesecake, or an eskimo pie bagel? Did they think smoked salmon tasted really bad and were trying to drown out the flavour with enough cream cheese for a dozen bagels? Or perhaps they thought I needed more dairy in my diet?

Whatever the logic behind the cream cheese behemoth that was lurking between the two bagel halves, I wasn’t going to eat it. I removed most of the cream cheese, and rebuilt it with just enough to taste good with the bagel and salmon. It wasn’t too bad.

Hummus Fest

The Food Show was on this weekend. It claimed to be, “For people who love eating, drinking, cooking and entertaining.” That didn’t sound like me, but as it was a food show I figured there would be lots of free samples, so I decided it would obviously be perfect to go to.

Three-bloody-dollars for parking. Ten-bloody-dollars admission. At that price, I had better be getting thirteen dollars worth of goodies.

Upon arrival, I entered the exhibition hall and started to wander around. I fought my way through a sea of old ladies in search of free stuff. Oh, there were lots of free goodies. But there seemed to be a lot of places giving out the same sorts of free samples. After much investigation, I found that most of the samples could be put in one of these categories.

* Wine
* Hummus
* Cheese
* Coffee and tea
* Hummus
* Jams
* Healthy drinks
* Sauces
* Hummus
* Breads
* Instant meals
* Hummus

I don’t know why there was such an extraordinary amount of hummus. Even stands that didn’t seem to have any apparent connection with hummus had samples of it (“It slices carrots, onions, leeks, tomatoes, hummus…”) It was almost as if hummus was the magical sex appeal that could get people excited.

Then out of the hummus one stand caught my eye. A giant sign with “M.O.M. MICHELE’S ORGANIC MEAL” stood out. This is the description of the “M.O.M.” from the show programme:

“A delicious meal. Three organic meats and four organic vegetables beautifully layered and baked and delivered to your door.”

From that it sounds ok. Like it might be quite enjoyable. I was in the free sample mood and was about to taste a slice of M.O.M. when I looked at it.

Imagine stripy spam. Like, a red stripe, a white stripe, a green strip, and some brownish stripes. It looked really unappealing. It was like the sort of food you’d expect to have to eat if it was the year 2000 and the cybertronic warlords had taken over the earth, forcing the few remaining humans underground to exist on a diet of M.O.M. as that’s the only thing that can be cultivated underground.

However, as I didn’t taste it I don’t know if its flavour matched its appeal. It might be really delicious, so I’ll attempt to give M.O.M. the benefit of the doubt.

In the end I had sampled so many goodies (and there were some goodies – kia ora to Wild Appetite’s chocolate paté) that I was really full. I had also managed to acquire three coffee bags and five tea bags, a sachet of olive oil, some garlic salt and a scone.

Later in the day I was at the supermarket doing my weekly shopping and found myself in front of the refrigerated goods section. There it was. Row after row of hummus. I bought a pot of chargrilled capsicum hummus. It rules.

Mince: Food of the Gods

I was at the supermarket checkout. Ahead of me in line was a young man and a woman, possibly boyfriend and girlfriend. They were loading their groceries on the counter. I noticed a big tray of mince (or ground beef, or ground cow muscle), a bag of frozen mixed vegetables and a few cans of some tomato concoction.

I immediately imagined what would be cooked. Stick the mince in a frying pan, add the tomato stuff and a cup full of vegetables and serve on a plate of rehydrated spaghetti. Dinner’s ready.

The man and woman standing in line had blank, bored expressions on their faces. I got the feeling that their purchases were pretty standard. Every week they probably trudged along to the supermarket, bought the same food, went home and cooked it and sat in front of the TV watching Shortland Street eating their meal (well, that’s how I like to imagine it).

That’s so sad. If I’m going to eat meat, it’s going to have to be a lot more interesting than mince. I would rather be a vegetarian than eat mince. In fact, vegetarians are probably healthier and have a better diet than mince-eaters (not that I am sufficiently knowledgeable on such matters, but it sounds right). From what I know about meat, mince is all the off cuts and bits of cow that can’t be sold as they are, ground up. It’s cheap, it’s meat, but that doesn’t make it right.

And then there’s frozen vegetables. I don’t know if a bag o’ frozen veges is cheaper than buying it fresh (growing your own stuff would be pretty damn cheap), but personally, I much rather prefer vegetables that don’t come in one centimetre square cubes.

I used to think that all pasta was dehydrated, that that was its natural state. But I have since discovered that such a wonderful invention as fresh pasta exists. If actual, real, freshly made spaghetti took on a stick of dried out spaghetti, it would kick its ass.

But put it all together and a dish which gets affectionately known as “spaghetti Bolognese” is created. I remember being served such a dish when I was young. The tomato sauce was stuff that Mum made. It was very bland, just tomato and nothing else, and it was very very watery. So there’s be a plate with some greasy, slimy mince, spaghetti and this sauce would get poured over the top. It made me crave the excitement and originality that the menu at McDonald’s offered.

So why is this dish so popular? Probably because it’s quick to make and doesn’t cost much. But it’s not an enjoyable meal (at least I don’t think it is). It’s for people who feel they should provide something resembling a “good square meal”. It’s food for the sake of food. It’s like flavour, appearance and nutritional value don’t count, it’s just following a check list of stuff that can be thrown together as something to eat.

I’m sure that it is possible to make a wonderful spaghetti, meat, tomato and vegetable dish, but that sort of things isn’t happening a lot.