Just as Good?

Some cooks make the mistake of buying a higher-quality cut of meat or vegetable than is necessary. This is wasteful and can actually ruin the dish being cooked. Appropriate trade-offs for health-conscious individuals are also discussed.

Just as Good?

It used to be money, now it’s fat grams, and it has always been time — the ground for the “just as good” syndrome. Thirty years ago the commercials were for margarine (“Tastes just like butter, for half the price”) and for store-bought pastries (“Just like homemade”). Now they’re for everything from fat-free pretzels (which always were fat-free, only now they can boast about it) to fat-free potato chips to (an oxymoron if ever there was one) fat-free sour cream, and for microwavable dinners (“Gourmet meals in minutes”). James Burnham –philosopher, polemicist, NR founding editor, and occasional cook –made the answer one of his laws: “Just as good, isn’t.”

Like most laws, though, this one can be misunderstood and misapplied. As it is by the home cooks who are very proud of not accepting inferior substitutes, but forget to ask: Good for what? What am I going to use the ingredient for, and what qualities does that dish need?

  • I think of the woman in the supermarket, instructing her nearly grown daughter on cuts of meat. “That looks good,” said the girl, pointing to a beautiful thick chuck roast. “Hmph! I feed that to the dogs,” said mama, who evidently knew nothing of the joys of properly braised beef, a specialty of my mother’s own.
  • I trust that woman didn’t try to make beef stew out of filet mignon — but then again, she no doubt also looked down upon stew. Less excusable — because as a craftsman he had a duty to be knowledgeable — was the butcher who, upon being asked for pork stew meat, persuaded me that meat cut from the loin would be miles better than what I was used to.
  • Leaving aside the exorbitant price, it wasn’t. Loin is simply too tender to stand up to longcooking. I didn’t try pork stew again until I found a butcher who got the entire carcass from the wholesale market, instead of the “choice cuts” sealed in packets somewhere in Iowa.

“Lesser”

The disdain for “lesser” cuts of meat has been exacerbated now by health concerns — if you want a dish that’s just about pure cholesterol, try fried brains — but surely it stems initially from squeamishness. When most people were still on the farm or not far removed from it, it was pretty hard to blink the fact that the piece of meat on your plate had been a part of a living animal. But once the great majority of people were living in cities or suburbs – and especially once the majority of them were shopping not from a butcher but from a supermarket, where the meat was already neatly cut and wrapped in cellophane, and the shopper never had to see a whole carcass being broken up – it became much easier to ignore the connections. Ground beef, even a steak or a roast, looks like meat. But move in toward the center of the torso or out toward the extremities, and things start looking like what they were on the animal; a heart looks like a heart, an ox-tail like a tail, pig’s feet like hooves.

The misapplication of “Just as good, isn’t,” goes for fruits and vegetables too, and indeed for practically anything else you can use in cooking. (Trying to use fine, delicate cake flour to make pasta or bread would result not in superior pasta or bread, but in disaster.)

The wonderful Trentacoste brothers – who until their retirement ran a grocery store in Manhattan that had not changed materially from the way their father had set it up before they were born in the first decade of this century — were sticklers on this point. Asked for mushrooms, or tomatoes, or turnips, their first question — truculently if it was Tony behind the counter, kindly if it was Charlie — would be, “What are you going to use it for?” I was too timid to shoot back, “What do you care?” If I had so replied, I would have got the answer that was eventually given more chattily, once we had come to know each other: If you want to flute mushrooms to garnish a steak, they have to be perfect. If you’re slicing or quartering them into a stew, or chopping them for duxelles, they can have blemishes, which you’ll cut out, and we’ll charge you less for the blemished ones.

The same goes double for tomatoes, since so often the ripest, richest tomatoes will have a bruise or an insect bite somewhere, or will have a gnarly, lined top. Unless the appearance really matters — say, for broiled tomato halves, or tomatoes stuffed with tuna — there is no reason on earth to reject a tomato because of blemishes.

Cookbooks and Magazine Articles

  • Of course, the search for inappropriate levels of quality is in part a reaction to some nasty tricks played on an uninformed public in the past. When the interest in European cuisines first spread among a wide audience after the war, thanks to Clementine and Mastering the Art of French Cooking and early James Beard, some enterprising winemakers started selling “cooking wine” and, worse yet, “cooking sherry.”
  • The next round of cookbooks and magazine articles had to point out, with greater or lesser degrees of asperity depending on the writer’s temperament, that there is no such thing as “cooking wine”: there is wine that is fit to drink and wine that is not.
  • As Michael Field patiently explained, when anything containing alcoholis used in cooking, the alcohol is cooked away, and it is only the flavor that remains; so if the flavor is poor or downright offensive, the dish will be worse than if it contained no wine or spirits at all. But on the other hand, it would be worse than unnecessary, it would be seriously wasteful, to use a premier grand cru in cooking even if one were as rich as a Greek shipowner’s son. Serve the great wine by all means if you can afford it, but don’t use it in the boeuf bourguignonne.

Cookbooks and Magazine Articles

When it comes to modern health consciousness, we see the just-as-good syndrome in its straight-up form — but we also see people making informed accommodations. And one man’s culinary death sentence is another’s sensible trade-off. Jack, who loves his thick, juicy steaks, will pay for them by substituting 8-calorie-a-serving frozen yogurt for ice cream. Christine, known among Los Angeles restaurateurs as the lady with the hats and two desserts, will eat the barest of broiled fish and butterless vegetables in order to leave herself free for her favorite course. This kind of freedom of choice may be hard to explain to a Frenchman (Paul Bocuse has been uncompromising in his strictures on such trade-offs) but it is, or should be, the American way.

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