MENU MALARKEYPosted: February 29, 2012
STUDYING THE “BILL OF FARE” the other day in a country pub restaurant that had no conceivable right to the airs it so egregiously gave itself, I found roast pheasant with all the trimmings offered under the heading “From the Game Keeper’s Larder” and grilled Dover sole listed under “Catch of the Day”. I rarely eat in restaurants these days and afterwards wondered gloomily if the transatlantic style of menu writing might already be an Americanism as widely established over here as the deplorable use of “like” instead of “as if” or “as though”.
“Ah, the menu poetry of America”, exclaimed the late and much lamented Kenneth Allsop.
Ah, indeed: how colourful it is, how lyrical. Trawling through an archive of half a lifetime’s experience of American hotels and restaurants I am rewarded with a rich haul of reminders.“From the rivers and the seas”, says the menu from Dallas. “Succulent dawn catch…Pride of the Gulf Coast shrimps”. Under the heading “Sea fare” (deep in the heart of Texas) there are “Broiled rainbow trout from the icy mountain streams”.
Ah, the teasing of the appetite. The “tendersweet clams”, the “bountiful selection of fried fish, shrimp, scallops, crab and baked oyster” offered in the Mariner’s Seafood Platter, the temptation in Seafood Newburg, a “rare combination of shrimp and lobster baked in Newburg Sauce”. How the mouth waters! How the taste buds dilate! Here, “skillet style” in downtown Detroit is tender young chicken, “prepared according to an old Arkansas farm recipe, fried to a delicious golden brown with all natural flavours retained”. Here in Manhattan the “baked, sugar-cured ham, served with a delightful blending of wines and herbs”, the broiled lobster with “tangy lemon butter”, the “delicately aged rib of open-range beef ”.
In The Admiral’s Cabin of the Holiday Inn, Nashville, Tennessee (its logo a man-of-war in full sail), guests could dine off “choice-cut sirloin, broiled to order, served for two on a platter, garnished with chopped carrots and fresh-picked green peas”. Did the flagship of the fleet go to sea with beef on the hoof and grow bags on the deck?
Prime, choice, select, rare, fine, perfect: the dictionary is scoured for superlatives. From coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Florida, in The Arrow Head, The Angry Bear, The Brand H, The Golden Shovel, The Lucky Strike no literary holds are barred. From the lowly wayside diner to the city’s most fashionable restaurant where the walls are covered in raw silk and the wine lists in imitation red velvet, American menus proclaim the unsurpassed and illimitable virtues of the materials and cooks employed. And in order to ensure a proper appreciation on the customer’s part such predicatory extras as “You will delight in”, “You will be enchanted by”, “You will thoroughly enjoy” may well preface the description of the “Dish of the Day”.
It is the inevitable disillusion that is the real killer in so immoderate and unscrupulous a way with words. Take the simple word “fresh”. In the modern American catering vocabulary it may reasonably be taken to convey not old, not tinned, not reconstituted. It does not mean recently grown and gathered, or recently caught and conveyed to the dining table, or lately prepared from normally perishable ingredients in their natural, not artificially preserved, state. Or consider the claim “home cooking”. Night and day, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Colorado to the Rio Grande there are super-efficient, impeccably hygienic, computer-controlled installations turning out admirable confections nationally advertised as Ma This or That’s authentic, home-baked cakes and pies.
Is it all happening with us, too? Has it all already happened while I’ve not been looking? Though it was only lunchtime the other day, the Dover sole was lamentably tired after what must have been a long journey and the roast pheasant desiccated far beyond whatever the “gamey port wine sauce” might have been able to do for it. But for my companion’s restraining hand I might have gone looking for the keeper’s gun.