On being ... a smarty pants

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the things I always read in the Saturday Toronto Star is the “ethics” column. I put the quotation marks because I’m really not sure why it’s considered to be about ethics, other than that the author happens to be a minister. (The only reason I know he is one is because I Googled him once. Whether he’s a minister really isn’t crucial to me or, I imagine, to most other readers.)

The column is usually about a topic submitted by a reader. The columnist’s responses often read like a cross between something you’d find in Dear Abby and Miss Manners. More than half the time I agree with him, but I often find it most interesting when I don’t agree with him because that’s when I find he makes points that give me something to think about.

If I had a complaint about the column, it’s that sometimes I find the topics kind of trivial. A recent column is a prime example. The question came from a woman who was irritated that her local grocery store keeps the baby formula behind the counter. She wanted to know if it was “wrong” of the store to make shoppers have to ask for baby formula.

As you might imagine, I found the topic a bit less weighty than other ethical issues (ok, I thought it was stupid), but the columnist answered it sincerely and, I think, with a great deal of aplomb. Indeed, he mentioned a parallel that I immediately thought of: the fact that many drugstores keep things like razors and disposable cameras behind the counter. He reasoned, as did I, that such items are probably relatively more expensive and that they are probably prime targets for shoplifters.

The columnist’s conclusion was that, though it may be inconvenient to have to ask for things kept the behind the counter, the merchant has the right to look after his bottom line and to try to deter theft. I agreed completely with his response and hoped that future columns would delve into something more interesting and ethically charged.

I don’t remember what the topic was a couple weeks later, but I definitely remember a post script that referred to readers’ responses to the column about the behind-the-counter baby formula. Well, it seems many wrote to offer an explanation for why baby formula is a high theft item: apparently it is used to cut cocaine in the drug trade. Can you imagine that? Well, me either! And it was clearly news to our minister cum columnist.

As a fellow columnist, I immediately felt bad for him for having to admit to missing what is likely the real reason for the merchant’s decision about the baby formula. But on a further moment’s reflection, I realized that most readers -- like me -- can easily forgive the columnist because using baby formula to cut cocaine is certainly not something most of us would know, or even dream of.

The post script also made me re-think the merits of the reader’s letter. Though I originally found her question silly, my reason for thinking that was because I was pretty confident I knew the reason the store kept the baby formula behind the counter. And, to be honest, I didn’t think it took a rocket scientist to figure that out.

But, in thinking more about it, I realize the woman was simply looking for an explanation for something that was irritating and that seemed senseless. I don’t know about you, but I do that all the time -- it’s kind of a coping mechanism. Often, once I get over my initial irritation, if I can figure out why a rule might have been put in place, even if the reason doesn’t seem that important (as compared to however put out I am by it), I find it easier to abide by the rule.

And, I must say, after years of practice and experience, I think I’ve become pretty good at figuring out the motives for different rules. So, when the woman complained about having to ask for the baby formula, I immediately figured out a reason that seemed obvious to me -- and I couldn’t imagine why the woman hadn’t figured it out too. But then, rather like a child being put in her place by an adult saying, “you think you’re pretty clever, don’t you, smarty pants?”, came the surprising news about the “other” use for baby formula. Indeed, the cocaine connection seems about as crazy as the idea of the underwear bomber, who we have to thank for the ridiculous-seeming rules about liquids on planes.

From now on, whenever I conclude that a rule is just ridiculous, I’m going to try to remind myself of the baby formula and cocaine story. After all, no matter how clever or worldly-wise I think I am, there are just some things I can’t even imagine….

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a visceral reaction

By Ingrid Sapona

I was going to title this: On being … soft porn-like, but given my recent concerns about anti-spam laws, I thought the better of it. (Not to mention that I didn’t want to shock my mother too much. As it is, I’m hoping she’s not fainted reading this first paragraph.)

It’s no secret that I love good food and cooking, but a couple incidents this past week have made me wonder if, by comparison to others, I have an unnatural interest in gourmet food and all that goes into preparing it. The first incident was a near obsession I felt wanting to know the secret to the most unusual (and simply divine) salad I had the other day at a new café.

I love salads and have them often -- at home and in restaurants. These days it’s easy to come by exquisite salad greens, so chefs have to be more creative to really stand out in the salad department. To me, for a salad to be noteworthy it has to feature an interesting combination of ingredients and a dressing that’s more than just a well-balanced drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, the amount of dressing is crucial.

When I ordered the salad, the server explained that day’s special ingredients: wild rice, walnuts, Gouda, and raisins. (I suspect she was mainly warning me in case I had a nut allergy.) When the salad arrived, two things struck me: first, it looked beautiful -- it was sprinkled with bright coloured nasturtium petals and topped with a few wispy ribbons of heirloom carrots. Second, and more intriguing, it looked like the chef forgot the salad dressing, since none of the greens had any tell-tale oil sheen.

Well, the salad was perfection. No ingredient overpowered or dominated, and each bite had an interesting combination of tastes and textures and the seemingly invisible dressing was delicious. When the server returned, I expressed my amazement and asked what the dressing was made of and how it could look as though there wasn’t any. She didn’t understand my bewilderment and she simply repeated the menu’s description for it: brown butter vinaigrette. Though I was hoping for more information, her reminder of the menu description was helpful, as I then realized that some of the greens had a slight dullness, which could have been the milk solids that separate when butter is melted (which is necessary to make brown butter).

When I got home I made a bee-line to the internet and began searching for a brown butter vinaigrette recipe. There were a few, but they all sounded more like sauces for fish -- certainly not light enough for salad. Ultimately, figuring I had nothing to lose, I wrote the restaurant (a real letter, not an e-mail) asking for the recipe. Unfortunately, no word so far, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that they’ll respond.

Obsessing about the salad dressing probably sounds pretty innocent and not that unusual, but when considered along with my fascination with a PBS show I happened to record called “Chefs of Toronto”, I must admit, my interest in gourmet food preparation might not be normal.

The show, which was produced by the Buffalo PBS station, was low-budget and was clearly meant more to showcase Toronto than to appeal to viewers interested in cooking. There was no host or emcee, just short segments featuring different well-known chefs standing in their own kitchens quickly demonstrating how they make one of their signature dishes. They didn’t really give recipes (certainly no specifics regarding measures or quantities) -- they simply described the key steps and showed how they plate the item.

I’ve always felt that what really differentiate chefs from good cooks are the care chefs take with food presentation and their artistic use of colourful, unique, and flavourful sauces when plating things. Indeed, I think that sauces are to culinary prowess what colour and light were to the Impressionists.

Watching a chef delicately place each individual piece of greens on a salad plate, and then add a dab of this sauce or a drizzle of that was simply inspiring. And watching another chef gently center a piece of fish atop a smooth sauce, and then spoon two or three other sauces elsewhere on the plate before topping it with a dash of julienned vegetable to add texture and colour left me drooling.

And I was simply riveted by one chef’s demonstration of how he makes gnocchi. Instead of making a potato-based dough, he used choux pastry (which is traditional cream puff dough). And, if that wasn’t unusual enough, instead of butter for the pastry, he used fat he drained from frying double-smoked bacon, which he ultimately used in the dough. Can you imagine? I know, me either! But the pièce de résistance had to be how he piped little nuggets of the dough right into a pot of boiling water. (I won’t tell you how many times I hit replay on that segment alone.)

Until I waxed poetic to a few friends about the salad dressing and watching the plating techniques and the gnocchi making demo, I didn’t really think there was anything odd about my interest or enthusiasm. But, the more I talked about these things, the clearer it became that my reaction to this stuff isn’t like others’ – mine is definitely visceral.

I don’t know… should I get help? Maybe…

Or maybe should I just consider enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona