Renaissance of indulgent dining9/16/2015
When it comes to food choices, so much has changed for the better here the last 50 years that it’s tempting to think we live a golden age of culinary indulgence — unless you’ve read Suetonius. That second-century Roman writer described a class of decadent foodies like no one today. The favorite dish of emperor Vitellus was composed of pike liver, pheasant and peacock brains, peacock and flamingo tongues, and eel sperm. Those luxury ingredients came from the far frontiers of the empire. Suetonius’ contemporary Livy linked the invention of gourmet cuisine to Roman imperialism, dating the first chefs to 187 BC, following the conquest of Gaul. In “Satyricon” we read that these chefs were adept at preparing foods that looked like something else — penis-shaped saffron cakes, pigeon-shaped lard, fish-shaped cow’s belly, etc. Other rich Romans liked to serve animals from trophic level 5 (the top of the predator food chain where humans rate 2.21) — lions, crocodiles, etc. Even slaves were given expensive wines.
For all its technological progress, the second half of the 20th century was a relative dark age of culinary diversity in Iowa. Des Moines restaurant menus from the early century show a city that loved things that became almost unknown after World War II — tongue, turtle soup, etc. Multiple fish markets carried exotic fish that were gone from Des Moines by 1960. In Iowa, food diversity was plowed under and replaced with two row crops — corn and soybeans, rotated to prevent a Dust Bowl reoccurrence. The adventurous palate was also sacrificed. Avocados were not introduced in Des Moines supermarkets until the 1970s. Mangos came in the 1980s.
Two recent events gave me hope that things are getting more interesting here. I visited Irina’s recently for a bargain happy hour with Baltika blackened shrimp; mussels in olive oil, butter Chardonay and garlic, with fresh Paremsan and herbs; calamari; and crab cakes. Owner Irina Khartchenko showed me photos of a special dinner the restaurant had prepared the previous weekend. Featured were two things that were mentioned above but rarely seen anywhere in Iowa these days. Turtle soup, according to Khartchenko, is a diligent process. “You have to cook the meat twice, once in salted vegetable stock to remove the swamp flavor. Then in rich stock.” The restaurant’s dish was made with 22 pounds of turtle meat and lasted less than half an hour on a buffet table.
The star of that table, though, was a 42-pound crocodile. Irina’s version was skinned, except for its head, and smoked in an oak wood barbecue. It was plated with a two-liter bottle of vodka in its mouth, to show off teeth and jaws one does not see every day. She said the meat was so tender that guests quickly returned to devour every morsel. “It tasted nothing like alligator. It’s much tenderer, too,” she explained.
Flashdine celebrated its fifth anniversary in Des Moines earlier this month on the “red carpet” of Cowles Commons. More than 200 people turned out, many dressed all in white. Most tables were covered with white cloths and some seats were, too. One group of picnickers served an all-white menu: white turkey, white bean salad, cauliflower, dinner rolls and white cake. White wine was served, and all dishes were plated on white china. That same group erected a gazebo draped in sheer white cloth. White lilies, hydrangeas and sweet autumn clematis kept the white theme at dozens of tables. Some broke its monotony with runners made of moss, plus pearls, seashells and bird cages.
Food spreads highlighted the glories of Iowa in September — heirloom tomato salads, arugula, sweet corn and especially heirloom melons with prosciutto. One chef prepared whole Lake Superior trout by sautéing them in orange and grapefruit juices with butter.
Side Dishes: The World Food & Music Festival (Sept. 18-20 on Walnut Bridge) will feature 53 food vendors representing 22 countries. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.