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November 20, 2007

The Weary Epicurean—November 20, 2007

At one point or another, I have heard every sort of establishment, from the local gyro shop to true haute cuisine, described as serving “gourmet comfort food” (GCF). It is, in my opinion, one of the laziest expressions in use within that already decadently languorous literary form: the restaurant review.

What nondescript, ubiquitous flavor could possibly be described by this near-meaningless phrase? What technique, beyond the bare application of heat to formerly living matter, could possibly be in use at every level of cuisine, in every country in the world?

Generally, nowadays, all the reviewer really means when he uses the GCF formulation is that white truffle oil—expensive food’s version of MSG—has been stirred into virtually everything on the menu. This is a sort of “comfort-plus” interpretation of GCF: Take a recipe one usually buys frozen in a microwave-ready package, add an expensive ingredient, and jack up the price.

I thoroughly resent this style of cooking. It panders to the lowest common denominator in the good cooking clientele: the folks who really wouldn’t mind eating a big steaming bowl of gruel. Reviewers should not give in to this expensive baby food; they should be critics, not crickets. The only thing that makes this stuff “gourmet” is the price tag and their tacit approval.

And, honestly, don’t you feel just a little bit cheated when someone brings you out a chicken fried steak with mushroom gravy and charges $24.95, no matter what the reviewer said? Actually, don’t you kind of want to go kick him? Just a little? Even if you are a food-coward?

Then there’s the GCF that’s actually just good Southern cooking. Well and good—we came up with that; it’s kind of neat, isn’t it? But refer to it as such. There is this mistaken idea in the northern United States that everyone in the South, from El Paso, Texas, to Chevy Chase, Maryland, lives on boiled greens, fried chicken, and black-eyed peas.

Actually, Southern cooking is fascinating in its regional variations, from the almost Eastern specificity and delicacy of a North Carolina 20-plus-dish dinner, to the tapas-style Creole finger food you find in nearly every bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. We’d have better Southern restaurants up here if reviewers would try a little harder to identify the lineage of what they’re eating, instead of calling anything American, spicy, and/or fried “gourmet comfort food.”

Now, everyone knows what comfort food is because everyone knows what makes food comforting: familiarity. Comfort food is the food you know, the food you’re used to.

If you’re French, that might mean a good old rustic plate of escargot à la bourguignonne. If you’re an Italian peasant from the Piedmont, it probably involves truffles. If you’re from Chicago, it’s a Polish or a brat.

The flavors of these foods are comforting to us because they recall pleasant memories and sensations, not because they’re inventive or new. Gourmet comfort food, then, should never be surprising, per se. It should be a deeper and profounder experience of something you really knew about all along.

The task of the chef who cooks gourmet comfort food is precisely the opposite of what these freaks who stir white truffle oil into mashed potatoes seem to think it is. They shouldn’t be trying to “make the old new,” they should be trying to make the old older, more ancient, more wise.

Now, that said, I am about to give you a recipe that I consider gourmet comfort food—but, obviously, if it’s not a taste you grew up with, that’s not really what it is. I tried to choose one of the most ubiquitous Americana foods I could, but, obviously, I’m from somewhere you’re not and vice versa, so this might not quite work for you. But I hope it does.

The Perfect BLT

1/2-lb slab bacon cut into 1/4”-thick slices

1 whole bulb garlic, about 12 cloves

8 slices of good, thick sourdough bread

4–6 tbsps of mayonnaise, preferably homemade

4 large heirloom tomatoes

1 handful radicchio

1 handful baby spinach

Balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the nice, thick rashers of bacon on a rack in a tray in the center of the oven. Smash the bulb of garlic once on the counter top, then throw it in the oven, too. After about 25 minutes, the bacon should be cooked and the garlic softened to goop, but you have to watch them—you want to get them at just the right moment. Meanwhile toast the bread and very thinly slice the tomatoes. When the rashers are done, take them out and let some of the fat drip off. Separate the cloves of garlic and squish the soft parts into a bowl. Add the mayonnaise, combine with a wooden spoon, and spread on the bread slices. Add the salad greens and the tomatoes to half of the slices and season them. Toss on a little balsamic, pile on the bacon, and make four sandwiches. Turn the sandwiches upside down right before you serve them, so that the balsamic starts dripping the other way and never makes it through the bread. Cut them across the middle at a bias with a sharp knife, so you end up with neat little triangles. Perfect.