Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Birthday Elizabeth David!

In honor of the birthday of the great British cookbook writer Elizabeth David (who was born on this day in 1913), I thought I’d write about “The Great Garlic Press Controversy.” In a 1986 issue of Tatler magazine, David wrote an entire essay called “Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless.” Her essay was published as part of a review of John Tovey's book, Feast of Vegetables. Her remarks follow because no one does scathing better than Elizabeth David. (Tovey was flamboyant British pre-Food Network celebrity TV chef.)

“It is when we get to the subject of garlic that I really warm to Mr. Tovey. What he has to say about its preparation is alone with the price of his book. The passage should be reproduced in large type, framed and sold in gift shops for the enlightenment of gadget-minded cooks the length and breadth of the land. In the manner of those pious thoughts which once adorned the walls of cottage parlors, proclaiming that God is Love, or Drink is the Pick-me-up which lets you down, Mr Tovey's text is concise and to the point. Readers, heed him please: I give full marks to the purveyors of garlic presses for being utterly useless objects."

David continues: “I'd go further than that. I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic, their effect being precisely the reverse of what people who buy them believe will be the case. Squeezing the juice out of garlic doesn't reduce its potency; it concentrates it and intensifies the smell. I have often wondered how it is that people who have once used one of these diabolical instruments don't notice this and forthwith throw the thing in the dustbin. Perhaps, they do but don't admit it.

Now here's John Tovey again. The consistency you're looking for when adding garlic to a dish is "mushy and paste-like." Agreed. It is quickly achieved by crushing a peeled clove lightly with the back edge of a really heavy knife blade. Press a scrap of salt into the squashed garlic. That's all. Quicker, surely than getting the garlic press out of the drawer, let alone using it and cleaning it. As a one-time kitchen-shop owner who in the past has frequently, and usually vainly, attempted to dissuade a customer from buying a garlic press, I am of course aware that advice not to buy a gadget which someone has resolved to waste their money on is usually resented as bossy, ignorant, and interfering. At least now I am not alone. “

David goes to the mat again later in the book in her recipe for Lemon and Garlic Sauce or Marinade for Grilled Chicken: “Garlic is obviously a potent ingredient. It should not be an acrid one which it becomes when the juices only are extracted by the crushing action of the garlic press.”

Elizabeth David's Lemon and Garlic Marinade for Grilled Chicken

Small (1 lb.) chicken
12 cloves of garlic
3-4 T. lemon juice
2 T. olive oil
Salt (to taste)

1. Mash garlic cloves with salt until mushy and paste-like. Stir in lemon juice, then whisk in olive oil. Marinate chicken for several hours before grilling.

The debate over whether or not to use a garlic press is the culinary equivalent of the evolution debate. Tempers flare and opinions fly, like edicts from warring gods.

The garlic press is relatively recent invention, coming onto the scene in the 1950s. Advocates argue that a garlic press breaks more of the clove’s cell walls giving the garlic a lighter, more delicate flavor. The editors at Cooks Illustrated believe that "a good garlic press can break down cloves more finely and evenly than an average cook using a knife, which means better distribution of garlic flavor throughout any given dish.”

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, Julia Child declares the garlic press a “wonderful invention.” Later, in In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs published in 1995, she returns to the garlic press issue in her instructions for making garlic puree. She writes, “The garlic press will do the job, but a garlic press, at least among certain of the food cognoscenti, is absolutely a no-no-non-object used only by non-people and non-cooks. Thus it behooves us all to know of and to be able to execute this perfect hand technique, which actually is fast and easy when you have several cloves of garlic that need the treatment.” Child had far harsher words for garlic powder, declaring it “most definitely spurned, scorned despised, and abominated among cooks in the know.”

An extreme, but unethical fan of the garlic press is Tory MP James Arbuthnot. During the British MP expense scandals, it was revealed that he had claimed £43.56 for three "four piece garlic peeling and cutting sets" from shopping channel QVC. When challenged, the unrepentant MP replied, “They tend to break.”

The opponents of the garlic press are a more vociferous bunch and probably much more fun to have a drink with. Not surprisingly, Anthony Bourdain has strong feelings about the press as well as the criminal misuse of garlic. He called garlic presses “disgusting abominations” and says “I don't know what that junk is that squeezes out of the end of those things, but it ain't garlic." Iron Chef Michael Symon admits he wants to "kill the guy who invented the garlic press." Food Network star (and culinary geek) Alton Brown seconds David declaring them “utterly, completely, magnificently useless.”

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse sees no reason to waste money on a garlic press or any other fancy gadgets. She recommends using a mortal and pestle to make a garlic puree and offers The French Grandmother’s Fork Method: Press the tines of a fork against a cutting board. Then rub a garlic clove back and forth over the tines to make a quick garlic paste.

Happy Boxing Day!

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Blogger CC said...

I love that you are taking on the garlic press controversy. For the record, I agree that they are an abomination. - CC

December 30, 2010 at 5:43 PM  
Blogger Robin Cherry said...

Roger, Thanks for the information on Lunch with Elizabeth David and Carolyn, I agree completely.

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