You want me to cook at your house? Ok, I’ll expect a few basic necessities, and I’ll be sorely disappointed. At a minimum, some tongs, a sharp knife, a reasonably-sized cutting board made of something besides tempered glass, some salt, and a small selection of oils and vinegars would suffice. What I would likely find is thin piece of plastic that, when unrolled, measures six by nine inches or so, a contraption you refer to as tongs which costed way too much at Williams Sonoma but fails at the task, a chipped-up Shun santoku lying naked and shivering in a drawer filled with cheaper knives, two ounces of expensive sea salt, and a lonely bottle of “Trader Giotto’s Aceto Balsamico di Modena.”
Well, it’s not totally alone—there’s little half pint of Filippo Berio light olive oil next to it, which is expected to fulfill all kitchen fat duties except moistening toast. Put all the rest aside: I can sharpen the knife on a brick, struggle by on this handkerchief of a cutting board, and purpose a serving spoon as tongs, but what will I acidulate the food with? Do you have lemons or limes? I’m gonna knock that plastic citrus fruit of musty old piss right outta your hands. This wine is so jammy and overripe it’s making Isabel Allende a little sick, so that’s out too.
That’s it, I’m not cooking here. Either you can cook for me, or we’re going out. Oh, wait, there’s a problem there too. I’d like to have a salad, but I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my fucking mind when the only option is “spring greens” (no matter the season) with balsamic vinaigrette. If they get the oil/vinegar balance right, which they never do, it’s slightly sweetened weeds with a compost garnish tossed in for laziness’ sake.
Way back in 1995 when I was introduced to that haughtiest of haute condiments, balsamic vinegar was already played. I know that because people were already reducing it to syrup to drizzle on everything from salmon to strawberries, with inconsistent effects. Little did I realize that within 10 years or so it would revolutionize the way American’s ate by removing every other vinegar from the average pantry, and establishing itself as the salad dressing of choice for people who like to think of themselves as way more sophisticated than those who slather creamy ranch onto shards of crispy, sweet iceberg. Please.
I’m only forty, and coming from one of those tres outré parts of town where ranch dressing might be scooped from bowls with whatever vehicle was available, including one’s dirty fingers, I don’t remember the first forays of the Modena invasion, because it wasn’t for the likes of me. But I imagine that it wasn’t for Joe Bourgeoisie—two buck chuck swiller, and slayer of the digital paperwork—either. Nowadays I imagine that just as Joe enjoys aceto balsamico on everything from baby weeds to Panera Asiago bread, those urchins from my neighborhood might sop it up with saltines and Spam.
Commodification is funny like that. It bestows a shadow of the flavor of wealth upon every member of society equally. Well, a shadow of the flavor of other people’s wealth. You can of course still get real, traditional balsamic if you’re willing to spend the money. Even Amazon has a few tradizionale‘s for $30 an ounce or so. I’d try Jim Dixon at Real Good Food though before I bought it from some stranger on Amazon.
So, do I hate balsamic for being commoditized and bastardized, the purity of the original cultural product being despoiled by the forces of industrialization and globalization? No, it’s really just about the salads, and the displacement effect, and the fact that it was never intended for this level of ubiquity. Balsamic is too sweet, too cloying to pull all the duties people expect from it. You need a range of acidifiers in a kitchen, and balsamic is the last one anyone should think about adding to the line up. Yet, for many contemporary Americans, balsamic is the beginning and the end of vinegar.
The underlying cultural biases that predicated this tsunami of sweet vinegar upon our shores could hardly have been more perfect. And it’s these very biases that I have spent much of my adulthood ineffectually railing against.
Americans, it is well known, like sweet stuff. All people like sweet stuff, sure, but Americans are increasingly never expected to outgrow this childhood bias toward the sweet, and away from the bitter and acidic elements of food and life alike. This is perhaps most evident in our adult beverages, where cocktails and coffee alike might be indistinguishable from a dessert treat. “Health foods” have mostly followed suit: fat is removed and replaced by sugar or sweeteners, to usually disgusting effect. Non-fat, heavily sweetened yogurt with fruit soaked in sugar syrup is not only not too healthy, it’s revolting. But god forbid anyone have to suffer the characteristic tang of yogurt.
Then commodity balsamic vinegar made it possible to take the growing up out of a salad.
Not to imply that sweetness never has any place in salad, far from it, but you can find balsamic vinaigrette on Greek salads now, and that just ain’t right (looking at you Double Mountain). Greek salad succeeds by tempering the interplay of vegetal and bitter flavors with salty and acidic ones. Many recipes eschew vinegar altogether, relying solely on generous amounts of olive oil, but red wine vinegar is the right choice if you like it with vinaigrette. And it goes on and on. From fake-ass yuppie bistros to the humblest of diners, be ready for balsamic vinaigrette.
Because Americans have a tendency to romanticize other cultures, especially wealthy cultures like those of Western Europe and Japan, we place a high value on their foods. Meanwhile we have a sense that while we mostly enjoy rolling around in the exudate of our own decaying culture, we shouldn’t do it all the time. We rely on cross-cultural infusions to keep ourselves healthy, and it’s best if those infusions come from equally hygienic folk, which is why the specter of taco trucks on every corner is still perceived as a threat by many people.
Prior to World War II, Italian food right down to the garlic was thought of as impure and unhealthy, just like the ditch-digging Italians themselves. As congress sought to restrict the influx of southern Europeans in the early 20th century, little Italys (Italies? Italy’s?) began to dry up, and better-off Italians moved to the suburbs. Have you been to Long Island? Even the Irish think they’re Italian there. So you saw Italian-American food, the immigrant adaptations of Sicilian and Calabrian food, move into the mainstream.
In 1912 Mabel Earl Mcginnis’s Simple Italian Cooking, became the first Italian cookbook published in the US. Mcginnis wrote under the pseudonym Antonia Isola to seem piú autentica! She was apparently pretty legit though, as she had lived in Rome for some years when the book was published. Then in the 1950’s, Angelo Pellegrini, first generation immigrant who made good by becoming an English professor, but who also made his own wine, slaughtered his own chickens, hunted his own mushrooms, and grew his own artichokes, showed the West Coast that Italians could be pretty alright. Let’s not forget Ada Boni, whose 1969 tome, Italian Regional Cooking, is where I turn first when I need some Mediterranean inspiration. But it was Marcella Hazan who brought Italian food from Italy to the mainstream in the 60’s and 70’s. And it was Hazan who claims to have introduced Chuck Williams, of Williams Sonoma fame, to balsamic, which they began importing way back in 1977. And it is Hazan who wants us to stop with the balsamic vinegar already.
But what will we do? How will we be fancy? We won’t be fancy. We will be functional, which is more important. We won’t “gild the nothingness,” as we have done for so long. First, we will build something to gild.
If you can have one vinegar, make it white distilled. Mostly you just need that clean, crisp acidity to accentuate the food, without trying to muck it up with it’s own character. You know how it is when you just need someone to do a job and not imbue it with their personal flair? History is rife with parables to this effect. Remember the little boy who was supposed to just watch the sheep, but chose to dye them all day-glo, and the villagers ran him out of town? Remember the chicken who sowed, reaped, threshed and ground the wheat, then tried to invent a new kind of bread that turned out to be totally inedible? What about the hare who raced the turtle and won because he dedicated himself to running in a straight line from start to finish? So yeah, coleslaw, American potato salad, cucumber salad, all of these call for white distilled. By adding garlic and oregano and a hit of mustard, we have the base for a serviceable vinaigrette, Italian dressing as I like to call it. Sweetness, if we need it, can come from white granulated sugar. Tragic, I know.
If you can have two vinegars, make the second a red wine vinegar. Whatever is fine. Lots of taste tests out there settle on the cheapest one. Pompeian is like two bucks a bottle, so there’s no excuse to not have a bottle. But they aren’t all the same. When I’m feeling flush, Real Good Food carries Katz vinegars, which are made in the Orleans method. Orleans method means that a low-alcohol wine is allowed to slowly ferment in wood barrels until it becomes vinegar, which usually takes one to three months. Only a third or so of the fully fermented vinegar is siphoned off, leaving the older vinegar to inoculate the fresh addition, and adding a layer of aged complexity to each batch. The resulting wine vinegars retain the fruity characteristics of the parent wine, and are nearly incomparable to the cheaper stuff you can buy by the gallon. How is that other vinegar made? By supercharging the acetobacter and wine mixture with lots of oxygen, allowing a batch of vinegar to be produced in as little as six hours!
Then you need some white wine vinegar, for your mignonette sauce, your fish and chicken, and your salads with fruit. Some apple cider vinegar is nice for a rustic German/American touch: wilted spinach and or dandelion salad, and german potato salad benefit from the tannic character of the classic. I like Bragg’s, but I usually buy Aunt Patty’s organic because it comes in gallon jugs.
If you can afford five vinegars, you’ll want some sherry vinegar. And if you haven’t been out to a nice restaurant since 1998, you will want to learn about sherry vinegar, which has the potential at this point to become as popular and ubiquitous as balsamic. Traditionally, sherry that had turned to vinegar was given away or even dumped, but now it’s even got its own Denominación de Origen Protegida, governmental recognition as being the product of a particular place, and rules regulating its production. The slightly sweet, vaguely earthy and smokey character of vinagre de Jerez makes it more complex than most wine vinegar, but still subtle enough for versatility. I use it to acidify, for example, roasted vegetables, or a root vegetable soup, on arugula or watercress or friseé salad where it beats down the bitter spiciness a little. I also use it with sherry itself, shallots, a little garlic, and some cayenne, in a gastrique (vinegar/sugar/spice reduction) for gazpacho.
Then there are the esoteric vinegars. We once stayed at a farmstead in Southern Oregon where the owner, an old hippie named Dave, made his own fruit wines. After Dave poured the wine off he let the fruit flies at the must and dregs for a while, then he added water and let it ferment again into fruit vinegar. The fruit flies, he explained, carry the acetobacter. By this devil-may-care method, Dave produced all manner of house-made fruit vinegars: plum, blackberry, apple, raspberry, and so on. What a tremendous pantry that old hippie had.
Assuming you want to buy something, try maple vinegar, or banyuls vinegar (super fancy), or honey wine vinegar, or a dark malt vinegar, sugar cane vinegar, coconut vinegar, tomato vinegar, birch vinegar, pomegranate vinegar, banana vinegar, black vinegar, strawberry vinegar…I could go on. But don’t buy infused vinegars. You know how to make infused vinegar, and you know it ain’t hard. A universe of vinegar beckons—I beckon. Together we beckon in tandem. I want to cook for you, but we need a foundation of acidulation to even begin.