8 November 2017
Food changes constantly, recalibrating itself against a shifting groundwork of societal trends, blending cultures, and personal taste. Even the process of making food is essentially just a controlled transformation, as we use heat, cooling, and time to bring ingredients to the desired consistency, flavor, and temperature.
On November 8th, E.A.T. visited the Science Museum of Western Virginia, in Roanoke, VA, to explore the many metamorphoses of food. Our event, Metamorphosis, took place on the top floor of the museum, immediately adjacent to the newly renovated Butterfly Garden.
Aided by the culinary talents of Chef Jeff Farmer (Fortunato & Lucky, Roanoke, VA) our goal was to investigate culinary transformations: everything from societal trends, to the evolutions of our own personal taste, to the changes that occur within our food during the cooking process (as happens with a steeped liquid, or broth).
As guests arrived and explored the space (who says you have to be a kid to get a kick out of the classic arcade games set up in the Pixel Play exhibit?) they were brought a drink made from one of the world’s oldest (and most “evolved”) spirits: Tequila.
Tequila and other agave-based alcoholic beverages, such as pulque and mezcal, have a long and diverse history. In fact, the godfather of agave liquors, pulque, which is a milky, viscous fermented beverage, has been enjoyed for over 2,000 years, often as part of religious and social ceremonies.
While our welcoming cocktail didn’t have quite this same symbolic weight, the Paloma cocktail is still a drink with a unique cultural significance. It’s incorporation of grapefruit and tequila has made it a very popular drink in the areas around the Rio Grande, where the Ruby Red Grapefruit was discovered in 1929.
In its own way, the Paloma is marking a distinct shift in cocktail trends globally as well. As tequila producers become more varied and seek to distinguish themselves from one another, they are looking for ways to get away from simply pouring shots and making the margaritas that are ubiquitous on any bar menu. Jordan Silbert, owner of Q Drinks, has gone on record saying that he thinks the Paloma will be the next drink to sweep through the bars of America à la Moscow Mule.
Whatever the case may be, the fruity bitterness of grapefruit soda, slight tang of limejuice, and buttery warmth of tequila provided a perfect jumpstart into our evening of culinary metamorphoses.
Chef Farmer used memories from his own food-experiences growing up as the backdrop for his menu. He wanted to demonstrate how his own view of food and cooking has evolved from childhood into his adult life as a professional chef.
Starting at the Head…
The first course was a play on one of the “delicacies” Chef Farmer avoided at all costs as a child: souse. If you’ve never had this “pickled head cheese” (whoever named this could have probably done a better job, in our humble opinion…), it is a salty, jiggling, savory terrine made from the head of a calf or pig.
Chef Farmer saved E.A.T.’s guests the pleasure of picking through a jellified decapitation by turning souse into a Pig’s Head Tortellini. Simply dressed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of chili powder, the homemade tortellini were a much more user-friendly version of souse. To be certain, turning souse into pasta demonstrated an aspect Chef Farmer’s own culinary metamorphosis, as his acquaintance with, and proficiency in Italian cuisine has become integral to his professional career.
Updating a Family Classic
Following this al dente opener, Chef Farmer turned to his family history for inspiration. As a nod to his Jewish grandparents, he decided to make a matzo ball soup for the second course.
Chef Farmer took dried chicken of the woods mushrooms, which he then pulverized to create the consommé in which his matzo balls were warmly suspended. Turning the mushrooms into a broth base, Chef Farmer gave his soup an exceptionally rustic and earthy quality. As the matzo balls continued to steep, they absorbed more of the robust broth, turning them into small umami sponges. Turning matzo meal, a bread-crumby, coarsely ground cereal into something juicy… if that’s not the distinct transformation of a morsel, I’m not sure what is.
Palate Cleanser: “Eat your Vegetables!”
Between this first and second section of the meal, Chef Farmer decided to offer a palate cleanser that was an ode to his parents’ constant cue to eat his vegetables. But, turning his childhood vegetable-anguish on its head, and in so doing getting the “last bite” if not the last word, he playfully turned what would normally be a salad into a Lettuce & Peach Champagne Vinaigrette Granita. Take that, Salads! You’ve been served (as a mid-course dessert) – Boom!
Chef Farmer home-made the champagne vinegar he used to create the frozen vinaigrette, emphasizing yet another transformation, which was about five months in the making. Slightly sour-sweet, the tang of the granita and the temperature shock of the shaved ice reawakened the palates of E.A.T.’s guests as we headed into arguably the most decadent course of the evening.
Haute Cuisine Soul Food (?!)
One of the most recognizable, and controversial luxury food items, foie gras, is a staple on many a fine-dining menu. For Chef Farmer, this dish has become one of his favorites, as his palate has been refined from his youth into adulthood. He reimagined this classic dish in a Southern style, adding a familiar staple of Southern cuisine, and playing with the idea of “breakfast for dinner.”
In his presentation, the typical brioche companion to foie gras was replaced by a different baked good, which bridges the gap between bread and pastry: a buttermilk biscuit. (There’s actually a word for the baked goods that blur the line between sweet dessert and traditional breads: “viennoiseries.” For more information about this pastry-like hybrid breadstuff, click here.) This flaky addition cradled the freshly seared foie gras. To finish it off, the whole concoction was gently drizzled with a maple syrup reduction.
In a culinary climate continually searching for the next “sweet + salty” flavor combination, foie gras and maple syrup has to be a top contender. The dish was decidedly “warm,” not only in that the temperature resulted in the foie gras melting softly on the tongue, but also in that the aromas and flavors were welcoming, inviting, and accessible.
A Proper Kid’s Meal
Following our brief journey into the opulence of haute cuisine with the foie gras, Chef Farmer brought us back down to earth with a childhood classic: Frank ‘n Beans. However, this particular rendition of “beanie weenies” was perhaps a bit more refined than one might find on your typical children’s menu. Chef Farmer prepared a home-made rabbit sausage, which was served alongside a butter bean ragout.
Fitting into the theme of hearty, rustic, and earthy components, the dish evoked a sense of familiarity. Chef Farmer showed how even the most simple and commonplace childhood dishes can be elevated to suit a more discerning palate.
Sweet End to the Harvest
Our final course of the evening was a Sweet Corn Semifreddo & Hot Pepper Brownie Sundae. Using sweet corn, Chef Farmer emphasized one of the many metamorphoses that exist in nature.
Sweet corn is the result of a natural mutation that takes place in the genes that control the corn’s natural conversion of sugar to starch. As opposed to all other corn varieties, which are harvested in the dry, “dent” stage and used as a grain, sweet corn is harvested before it fully matures, while the kernels are still plump and milky, and prepared as a vegetable.
Again turning a vegetable into a dessert, Chef Farmer triumphed over the nutritional commands of his youth. The gentle heat of the brownie accentuated the natural sweetness of the corn; the semifreddo provided a cooling counterpoint to the spice of the chocolate. Perfect culinary symbiosis.
By reframing his family history, personal background, and classic childhood foodstuffs for E.A.T.’s guests, Chef Farmer demonstrated the ongoing “conversation” of food. Our personal preferences are constantly evolving, and balancing the continual development of our palates against the nostalgia of familiar tastes is no easy task.
By drawing out the similarities and differences between the food we have learned to enjoy, the food lost to our childhoods, and the food has remained constant throughout our lives, not only are we able to paint a reasonable picture of our development over time, but also we can better understand our cultural context and those around us. Food is a brilliant barometer of our ongoing metamorphoses, as individuals, and as a society at large.
As guests filtered out of the Science Museum considering their own culinary metamorphoses, the ding and flash of the Pixel Play exhibit faded into the night. All in all, it was a beautiful night spent at a museum celebrated for its ability to spur creative thinking, new perspectives, and fun.
It might be argued that the most important metamorphosis we can experience is that which involves the way we think, changing our view of the world around us. At least in terms of our relationship to food, this evening was a great success in this regard.
To keep up with the Science Museum of Western Virginia, and support their mission to “make science and technology accessible to all people by being an outstanding regional institution that ignites and nurtures life-long learning,” sign up for SMWV’s mailing list to receive updates!
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And finally, special thanks to Chef Jeff Farmer, who shared with us his culinary vision, personal background, and professional metamorphosis over the course of our meal.
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