Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Gastropub / Gastropig: Eating High on the Hog

Before the 1990s, if you wanted to eat in a public house, you had “pub grub.” After the 1990s, if you wanted to go to a pub to eat, you went to a “gastropub.” The kind of traditional foods one could previously find in a pub — the pub grub — were homely and nostalgic nods to what you’d get at home, ideally, if your wife was your mother and it was 1950: Ploughman’s Lunch, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasties and the like. In other words, foods that filled your stomach and went well with beer. Fine dining establishments wouldn’t be caught dead serving this sort of common food, and they certainly wouldn’t refer to it as “grub,” a term reserved for casually prepared food one eats on the fly. What the gastropub did was to conjoin those two worlds, bringing the quality of fine dining to bear on the preparation of those much-beloved common foods, so that they could be consumed with ease in a shabby-chic environment — the pub. Naturally, the pub itself also underwent a sort of reverse gentrification, which emphasized the value of the antique environment over the tired utilitarian in all things from furniture to decoration to lighting. The stuff the pub is built of (worn brick, wood) is as visible as what the food is made of. In short, the gastropub morphed into the Apollonian Ideal of one’s local — the kind tourists see in coffee table books about English villages but which had become hard to find.

The rise of the gastropub went hand-in-hand with two culinary revolutions, each feeding the other. One was the locally-sourced and organic food movement, which, in focusing on smaller, independent crops, was able to re-introduce the kinds of fruits and vegetables that big agriculture could not produce — the kinds of delicate salad leaves and baby veggies one could grow in a garden, but not in a field. The gastropub could proudly display the origins of its ingredients on its chalkboard, giving the customer (or punter?) a sense of place if not merely the sense that they are eating responsibly. The other was the increasing acceptance of “snout to tail” restaurants whose menus revolved around the parts of an animal not usually considered something one would pay good money for.  It has become cool to have developed a taste for offal and bits and pieces — not simply because it suggests an adventurous palate, but because it appeals to those who want to say they are part of the cutting edge, whatever that may be. Only the “in” crowd would know what caché a reservation at St. John holds. At such places, rich men eat like poor ones; that is to say, they pay through the nose for noses.

 The butcher has regained the respect and visibility he once had when one bought meat from a butcher shop, because his expertise allows him to dismantle an animal in such a way as to make use of all its parts for human consumption. I use the masculine pronoun, though one sees far more women in the profession today. A woman engaging in butchery – wielding a big knife — is sexy in a somehow sexier way that a woman wielding a big knife to cut up an animal didn’t used to be.

But all this is not new — it never is. In 1773, it was the women who were charged with making ends meet — literally, making the ends of an animal meet their needs, because protein was scarce. Making these odds and ends palatable involves the addition of a lot of flavoring ingredients — herbs and spices — as can be seen in this recipe for Palates, Noses and Lips. The only difference between this recipe and a hot dog is that here the parts are served whole, whereas the hot dog has been cast of the proverbial “pink slime” rendered by intense puréeing.

You might not think you are eating such old-fashioned food when you chow down on a ballpark frank, but you are: it’s the same palates, noses and lips in a different shape, a different place. Though it might not seem like it, you are in fact eating high on the hog.

The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary, John Nott, 1773

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