October 25, 2010

A Balance of Color

The display of avocados in the grocery store was centered in the produce section near the front of the store and was tempting.
  This was probably odd given that the avocados were a green reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s light saber- not the dark, greenish brown of this delicious vegetable when ripe. Despite any lack of ripeness, the avocado always is appealing to me; it doesn’t take much to turn my thoughts to guacamole, avocado in a green salad, avocado scooped out of its shell with a spoon or avocado, havarti, tomato and cucumber on a baguette.  But what drew my attention to the avocado display were the items surrounding it.  They included: tortilla chips, spices and a miniature potato masher, which was obviously designed specifically to fit a smaller bowl that you might use to mash avocado.  The display was one of inspiration. ‘Look at this beautiful product! And here’s what you can do with it!’ And thoughtful marketing, of course. ‘Now that you are inspired, why don’t you buy these other things?’

Presentation is so important in the world of food. And presentation in this world can have several purposes, like the dual purposes of the avocado display- part marketing and part inspiration.  My first lesson in presentation was when I was waiting tables the summer out of high school.  The restaurant where I worked was a British pub that was in the process of transforming from what you might think of when you think of traditional British pub food to a more refined cuisine. With the hiring of a new chef, the entrees took on a more celebratory appeal as they were artfully constructed and presented food in such a way that made the recipient of the plate feel grand and fancy in not only ordering such a dinner but also in having the occasion to deconstruct it. I had never seen food prepared this way and looked forward to the nightly pre-dinner tastings for the staff.  This was obviously to educate us in what we were selling but I was never much of a waitress anyway and for me the tastings were more enjoyable than prep for sales. They made me feel like I was part of some opulent restaurant that really shared the essence of their food with their staff- white plates with portions centered in the middle, the food built up instead of out with garnishes and exact placements while the chef lectured on sauces, meats and how the dish was prepared. I loved it.

Part of the classic British fare was an emphasis on a massive selection of spirits- a variety of at least thirty beers on tap, 150 more in the bottle and a vast wine and scotch selection as well as other liquors.  Being fresh out of high school and having a limited experience of drink, I dreaded any questions or complicated liquor orders any diner might pose.  I also regarded the prospect of actually selling a bottle of wine as a double edged sword- it would boost the total bill therefore boosting my tip but I would have to formally present this bottle of wine to the table.

This fear of wine presentation developed late one night when there were two tables left in the restaurant and I was the only server left on duty.  One table was composed of the owner and a fellow restaurateur from town, a man who had a reputation for ogling young girls; the dread of serving the owner was now doubled by this man’s presence.  The other table ordered a bottle of wine that I dutifully brought and offered in the way that I remembered being instructed. I soon found out this was only partly in the way I had been instructed. At the other table, the owner also ordered a bottle of wine and when I came back with it, he quickly began a lesson on how to properly present wine, pointing out what I had done wrong at the previous table- present the bottle with it resting on the white napkin, label out and wait patiently while they approve of the label and taste, do not set the bottle on the table until you are finished opening and serving, set the cork near the person who ordered the wine, he went on as I stood patiently listening while trying to ignore the low gaze of his friend.  I was mortified by the experience. First, I like to be right, also that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’, that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’ and by your boss, that it is embarrassing to be corrected while ‘on stage’, by your boss and in front of a totally inappropriate, lecherous old man. After that I dreaded presenting wine but despite this, I thought more about the experience of food- that food was not simply about eating.  There is an art to food that can make it into an event. I have a hard time thinking of a better way to spend an evening than moving through a meal that from front to back is orchestrated as a beautiful event in which you and your friends or family are the main players. Presentation helps make that happen.

Since then I have paid more attention to the way I present what I am serving or even just eating on my own.  I recall Mrs. Fellows, my home economics teacher from middle school, counseling us that your dinner plate should have a balance of color. This was probably a lesson having to do in part with nutrition but also demanded some attention to detail. When I find myself looking at a dinner plate composed of yellows, whites and beiges, I think of her. One of my favorite breakfasts- shiny maple syrup drizzled over a contrasting angular and chunky cut peaches mixed with circular blueberries laid over plain cream top white yogurt- has something to do with how delicious the food is but also in how beautiful the bowl looks. A little bit of beauty makes the experience so much better. Whether the purpose is marketing, inspiration or celebration of eating, Mrs. Fellows, the designer of the avocado display and the owner of the pub are all right.  Food, as anything in life, is better when you slow down and add a little dash of well-intended beauty and thought.