The Golden Age of Crudités

The term comes from the French crudité, meaning rawness, yet its culinary use — always plural — is of recent vintage, first surfacing in 20th-century France. The American chef James Beard, inspired by a “bouquet of crudités” he was served at a restaurant there, included a recipe for it (“green onions, radishes, celery, tiny artichokes, asparagus, turnips, carrots — all raw”) in a 1965 cookbook, although the foreign term was just a matter of chicness, since he had already advocated for vegetables and dip as hors d’oeuvres as early as the 1940s. By the 1980s, The New York Times was printing recipes for it, and the preferred first course of restaurants in southern France had made its way to New York power-lunch spots. But could Beard have ever anticipated crudités as sculpture or terrarium? What we once ate begrudgingly now makes us gawk, even swoon — and we pay handsomely for it. So have raw vegetables changed, or have we?

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Porcini, portobello, chanterelle, oyster, white beech and trumpet mushrooms.

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Photograph by Patricia Heal. Styled by Michael Reynolds

THE HUMAN BRAIN is a hungry beast. Scientists have calculated that our earliest ancestors would have had to eat raw vegetables nonstop for nine hours a day just to fuel it. For early humans with limited tools, a vegetarian diet just wasn’t efficient. The tipping point in evolution came some two and a half million years ago, when our distant progenitors started consuming more meat; over time, their brains grew bigger. Perhaps we absorbed this lesson too well. Vegetables, despite their nutritional value, have long been a sideshow for much of our species. (Certainly in the West; countries in Asia and Africa have longstanding produce-eating traditions, due in part to the intersections of climate and religion.) Ancient Romans ate a kind of ur-salad, the word derived from the Latin for salt, with which lettuces were brined. But by the 16th century, the English Tudors were obliterating them in long-simmered stews.

There have always been mavericks who disapproved of eating meat, like Saint Catherine of Siena who, in the 14th century, disavowed all food but raw vegetables. The American minister Sylvester Graham, in 1830s Massachusetts, likewise denounced meat as devilish, devising a diet centered on Graham bread (his forerunner to the Graham cracker and that other form of perdition, s’mores). A decade later in that state, Amos Bronson Alcott founded a vegan commune called Fruitlands with nine adults and five children, including his 10-year-old daughter, the future novelist Louisa May Alcott. They favored raw vegetables so as not to cook away the plants’ “life force.” By winter the experiment was over: The Alcotts had to be sheltered and fed by neighbors.

Nonetheless, toward the end of the 19th century, vegetables started gaining space on American tables, as such then-exotics as olives and celery began to be imported from warmer climates. Upton Sinclair’s 1905 exposé of the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle,” was intended to radicalize the public against free-market capitalism, but instead inspired many to shun meat. (“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he wrote.) Interest in vegetables waned during the two world wars, when meat was so scarce it was coveted as a luxury. (Hitler’s reputation for being a vegetarian didn’t do much for the cause.)

But with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s came a rejection of factory-farming and a longing to realign our relationship with nature. The Berkeley chef Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 as a canteen for her activist friends; now she’s an éminence grise of sustainable agriculture, and her once fringe vision — in which the choice of what to eat is as much political as it is personal — is mainstream, if not yet fully realized.

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Heirloom carrots.

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Patricia Heal. Styled by Michael Reynolds

TODAY’S RESURGENCE OF crudités is, then, largely an outgrowth of the farm-to-table movement and its obsession with provenance, which anointed small farms as brand names and their products as premium goods. We fetishize turnips with stems still attached, twists of carrot ending in long wispy threads, cucumbers with rutted, pitted surfaces.

Still, for all the pious injunctions to “respect the ingredient,” the crux of crudités remains the dip. The Italian version is bagna cauda, literally a “hot bath” of olive oil and anchovies, while the Swiss favor cheese fondue, turning vegetables into vessels of texture. In perhaps the greatest impudence, at the idiosyncratic San Francisco supper club Lazy Bear, diners receive a crock of bone marrow fondue, while Vicia takes a meta approach, pairing root vegetables with pesto made from their leaves.

Perhaps what crudités offer is a corrective to the recent frenzy for meat and fat, when foie gras was piped into doughnuts and menus were stocked with slabs of pork belly. (While gardening has increased — a third of American households now grow their own vegetables — so have domestic sales of pork, up 20 percent since 2011.) Indeed, in the hunter-gatherer hierarchy, the rewards of hunting have always taken precedence over those of gathering: Meat is a main course and vegetables an addendum, even in our current phase of celebrating crudités. Both roles demand intimate knowledge of the land, but stalking an animal and taking its life means going out into the world, while picking berries in the woods or tending a garden is domestic (that is, women’s) work, and valued less. The advent of the New Nordic food movement upended this by glamorizing foraging as a form of hunting, seeking out never-known corners of the wild.

So it’s worth noting that these haute crudités tend to pop up at expensive restaurants run by white male chefs. It takes a certain amount of confidence, even privilege, to ask diners to pay as much as $40 for some vegetables, whether slapped on a board or meticulously arranged with tweezers. Because no matter the display, the vegetables are meant to taste like they’ve just been separated from the ground, and in that case, why do we need a chef at all? Michael Gallina, the chef of Vicia, argues that crudités are a form of advocacy: He wants diners to taste “the care that goes into growing” the vegetables, in soil that has been taken “out of production for weeks or months” to return nutrients to it, at a sacrifice of “growing crops that can earn top dollar.”

Framed like this, raw vegetables are no less luxury goods than dry-aged steaks. The closer they cleave to their origins, the more valuable they are. What they offer is that most elusive of qualities: honesty. Their beauty comes entirely from within; it can’t be enhanced or faked. That’s both a comfort and a rarity in a world dominated by the ersatz and the airbrushed, of novelty food trends like rainbow-dyed bagels and super-size soup dumplings, or sci-fi kitchen experiments involving mortadella foam and edible balloons. Gallina says that Naked Vegetables is “one of the riskiest dishes we serve — and the one that makes us most proud.”

The most exciting chefs don’t just please us; they teach us something. They introduce new ingredients, flavors and possibilities, or reframe forgotten ones. I still remember, from more than a decade ago — long before any of these iced, overgrown bowls of radishes and asparagus appeared — a dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., which began with carrots from the farm surrounding the restaurant, pierced into a row of nails on a wooden block. The spikes looked sharp and dangerous, like something out of “Spartacus,” and I wondered if the carrots could compete. But when I plucked one and took a bite, it tasted of half-fulfilled sweetness and turned earth, like no carrot I’d ever known. At the same time, it was just a carrot, and suddenly that was enough.

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