Whatever happened to our girl, "Gourmet"? She used to be so cute in those tight Calvin Klein jeans, sports bra, fake oyster necklace and dirty blond hair with the roots showing. I think I saw her on a milk carton recently saying she was last seen in 1993 summering in the Hamptons eating a Vegemite and Peanut Butter sandwich.
Gourmet used to be such a cool monicker to label our dining experience, talk about a restaurant or a particular chef, or the groceries we were paying too much for with the shiny gold foil wrapping. Let's look at the word for a minute. Gourmet comes from the word gourmand, kind of like gourmand's little sister, meaning to overexcessively enjoy food or drink. Some define gourmand to directly mean glutton. So how did gourmet get so cute? She used to wander around from bistro to bistro, a little hungover from too much Jagermeister, sprinkling her little fairy dust of pink peppercorns, shaved truffles, or grains of paradise on anyting from rissoto to salads, maybe a hunk of goat cheese, or maybe she'd spoon out a little cranberry chutney on your burger for good measure.
It turns out that gourmet just became more passe than, well, the word passe, for instance. Nobody really cared anymore that something was gourmet, they wanted a new fix, a new plateau to measure all other inferior dining experiences by, something they could write on their T-shirts. We came up with "Nouveau"--to satisfy our Frenchiness; we liked "Fusion" for a while, which basically meant anything tossed with an Asian ingredient; some settled for "Swanky", or even better, "Chic". Any of these words in front of a dish means you could now charge an extra eight dollars.
Gourmet was like the word natural, it just lost its meaning over time, due to overuse, over publication, and overindulgence. Natural used to mean that something was actually natural, in a state of nature, unprocessed, unfettered, un-messed with. But then slowly you would see things like "made with all natural ingredients", and those would include things like organic high fructose corn syrup and natural flavors (which are neurotoxic flavor enhancers, and the same as artifical flavors, just with the fancy word natural in front if them). You would start to see things like "made from beef raised on a natural diet", and further down the list you would see preservatives and sodium nitrate added for freshness! Then we started to realize that natural meant that we didn't really want to know what was really happening on that farm or in that factory, cause Nature certainly wasn't invited. We realized that we could walk by someone in the street who might be out on his luck and hasn't had much to eat or showered for a week, and we'd say something like "He sure smells natural". So natural was out.
I think what happened to Gourmet was late one night in 1993 in a back parking lot of what used to be Studio 54 in lower Manhattan, a raised White tent was put up and a hundred influential chefs wearing their White coats were in attendance to schmooze with Wolfgang Puck, as he brought out a hundred White Pizzas with White Sauce, White Asparagus, White Truffles, White Anchovies and White Cheese, and they all rejoiced one last time drink Weisbeer from Belgium, and said a glorius goodbye to Gourmet. She was never seen again. In fact I still refer to one of my favorite cookbooks by Annemarie Colbin, called "The Natural Gourmet", whenever I have a need to make something vegan or macrobiotic-ish for a client. This book was published in 1989, and probably one of the last times you ever saw those two words printed next to each other.
The truth is that you could always take a simple peasant dish and turn it into a gourmet dish by adding a twist, not always a fancy one either. Take macaroni and cheese and toss in anything from smoked trout to hot dogs, and you have now wowed the judges on "Said Addictive Cooking Competition Show". Sorry mom, but I did love the Chicken Ala King when I was eleven, I really did, I even had seconds--but there is nothing you could do to that dish to make it gourmet. You can't put a TV dinner into the food processor with blood orange syrup and pour it into the ice cream maker to win the dessert round on "Said Addictive Cooking Competition Show". Gourmet meant it had to make sense and elevate you a little bit. And make you feel a little guilty. You could have just ordered the burger.
Now they call it inventive, or good technique, with flair, when one of the sweaty chefs decides to add bacon into any dish on "Said Addictive Cooking Competition Show", when it wasn't in the basket. "Wow, says the middle chunky judge, wiping the drool of her face, I haven't had bacon since 10 am, he is a wizard with that frying pan. This is truly fusion gourmet!" Poor Gourmet, I hope she ended up on a nice farm out in the country where she can play with her nice friends, Fusion and Natural, and they can have picnics and play frisbee and tye-dye their Calvin Klein jeans and eat corn just picked that morning with a little truffle buter when no one is looking.