I have never been in even the meanest, lowest streetside cafe in Paris — or anywhere in France — and gotten anything but the most perfect omelet. Smooth, creamy, buttery and eggy. There’s magic in a perfect omelet.
The most bored counterman in the least prepossessing dive in the 13th arrondissement knows how to do it to a T.
On the other hand, I’ve never had an omelet made in the U.S. that wasn’t a close cousin to a vinyl floor tile. Overcooked, dry, tough and tasteless.
“It’s the law,” my wife says. “They have to cook it to a certain temperature to kill the germs.”
I’m sure she’s right, but that’s only part of the problem: Most Americans have never tasted what an omelet can be, and therefore, don’t miss it. Our idea of an omelet over on this side of the waters is an arid eggy mass filled with onions, bell peppers, ham and orange cheese. The more compost that you can stuff into the poor thing, the better — mostly to mask the miserable taste of the desiccated egg.
One can lament our health laws that make it nearly impossible to find unpasteurized milk and make it impossible to import European cheeses. And I’m sure there are laws that require the refrigeration of raw eggs in American restaurants. No Frenchman would refrigerate his eggs. Ruins them.
We fear germs too much, despite the increasing scientific evidence that germs — even pathogens — play an important part in maintaining the health of the human organism.
But more important than our fetish for antisepsis is the lack of regard most Americans seem to have for the pleasures of the senses. Food with actual flavor is not an important consideration for appetites dulled by too much salt, too much sugar and almost no sense on the palate of texture.
Hence, our plastic omelets.
And it isn’t just our eggs we ruin, of course. I recently had the misfortune to taste some packaged macaroni and cheese that my granddaughters were eating. Mac and cheese is one of the most popular lunches found in the average teenage menu. Why this should be is a mystery: The food was appalling. The so-called “cheese” was a chemical yellow powder dumped into the hot, cooked noodles. It tasted like something excreted from one of those cancer factories along the lower Mississippi just south of Baton Rouge. I’m sure it would have glowed a science-fiction green under ultra-violet light. Never again.
Our steaks are chemically tenderized, our bread is gummy and flavorless — best used as a pencil eraser — our beer is yellow seltzer, and our gigantic chicken breasts have had all their flavor bred out of them.
If you have your flavor buds trained at the local franchise restaurant, it is no wonder you think American food is food the way it is supposed to be. It is not.
There is a trend toward better food, at least among the suburban and city affluent, and you can find more varieties of fruit and vegetable at the local supermarket than you ever could before, but a good deal of this is indeed just trendiness. The locovore movement, the raw food movement, the organic food movement.
But mostly it has just meant that you have even more diced veggies stuffed into your inedible omelet. The folded vinyl tile is bursting with exotic ingredients.
It isn’t fancy filling that makes an omelet good; it is the omelet itself, and failing that, nothing will help.
On a recent “Top Chef” TV program I came across while channel surfing, chef Wolfgang Puck gave a task to his contestants: Make an omelet.
He explained that when he had been 18 and beginning in the kitchen, his master of cuisine had given him this test and he had failed. He practiced and practiced until he could make an acceptable omelet. He was now using the same test on the new aspirants.
But no. Not really. Instead, the contestants spent the 45 minutes alloted to them not on making a good omelet, but on coming up with an unbelievable variety of complicated fillings to tart the omelets up, leaving almost not a thought to the egg itself. The results looked like a nouveau riche idea of haute cuisine.
And that is the problem. With the rise of a foodie culture, the result is not better food, but rather a lusting after exotic ingredients, a desire to make a tart with medlar fruit and Cambozola blue cheese, topped with macadamia nuts and matsutake mushrooms macerated in rainwater Madeira.
While it is a delight to see so many new varieties of food available at the supermarket, I suspect the result is not better food, but rather a modern recreation of Trimalchio’s feast. Where are the sparrow tongues and live birds sewn into roast pork?
It is the gastronomic version of thinking that hookers are the model for beauty and fashion.
So, we become caught as a culture between jello salad with mayonnaise and tournedos Rossini. In either case, little thought is given to the gout, the taste, the pleasure for the tongue and palate.
And so back to the humble omelet. A good omelet is simple food made well. It is a lesson: Incredible dinners can still be made from potatoes, chuck roast and cabbage. Prepared well with care and thought, our food should not only nourish, but delight the senses and make us happy to be alive for this meal in front of us.