The Culinary Alice: Lit + Food Stylings by New B+B contributor Clara Cline

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After deciding to write about writing about food by writing with food, I realized I needed something as nonsensical and over-involved as the topic at hand for my first subject, which naturally led to perennial food classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What Pinterest won’t tell you is that the food in Alice in Wonderland goes well beyond the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and that our little heroine is completely preoccupied with food she probably shouldn’t be eating throughout the entire story. The very first thing she does when she falls down an infinite rabbit hole is grab a jar of marmalade off a floating shelf—and then is bummed out to find that it’s empty. It’s like the Victorian fantasy equivalent of when you get dumped and overdraft your bank account on the same day and go home to medicate yourself with Cheez-Its, but you can’t because a couple of days ago you put the box back in the cabinet empty rather than bothering to throw it in the trash. Because even though you mean well and are generally a good person, you never really make decisions in your best interest, and looking into that empty box (or jar, in Alice’s case), you are fully self-aware of how you ended up in this situation.

And this is Alice’s problem in a nutshell - she’s a good person, she thinks a lot about potential problems, but consistently does the wrong thing anyway. She finds an unmarked bottle and reminds herself that it would be a bad idea to drink from it since she’s heard so many terrible things about children and poison, but quickly heads off all her good advice at the pass by deciding that since it’s not clearly marked “POISON”, it’s probably fine. It’s not fine, but at least before she starts shrinking, she’s able to enjoy that it is “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast”. She’s high-fiving herself for being the right size to go out to see the gardens when she realizes she pulled a classic Alice move and forgot to grab the key off the table before drinking her garbage disposal-flavored shrinking cordial. Rather than taking a minute to think about how her decision-making has affected her current circumstances (to wit - crawling into a hole knowing she doesn’t know how to get back out, falling to center of earth, drinking from unmarked bottle and shrinking to ten inches), Alice eats a cake she finds in a box under the table. At this point, she knows that she has no idea what’s going to happen and doesn’t really care, and she spends the remainder of the book indiscriminately eating and drinking things and telling herself to stop crying. It’s the true story of everyone in their twenties.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure how well read the text actually is, which is such a shame because it’s just 101 pages long and hilarious, and likely to be appreciated even more if you’ve ever worked in a corporate environment. The real culinary highlight of Alice’s adventure is the Queen of Hearts’ trial. The Queen of Hearts is known as being an entirely unreasonable character, but the trial is over a grievance everyone can identify with - the Queen made tarts, someone else ate them, and now they need to lose their head for it. You might not agree with her reaction, but you can at least see where she’s coming from.

The court scene is loosely modeled off the modern day conference call - everyone’s pretending to work, people keep bringing up irrelevant things and saying they’re important, and there’s a tray of tarts in the middle of the room that no one is eating and Alice keeps wondering when they’ll get passed around. The Duchess’s cook makes a cameo appearance as witness to let the jurors know the tarts in question were mostly made of pepper, the Dormouse objects and says they were made of treacle, and the Mad Hatter brings his bread and butter to the witness stand because they interrupted him in the middle of his tea. The trial descends further into madness, and Alice snaps out of Wonderland by growing to her full size and yelling “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” which is number two on my list of “All-Time Best Ways to Quit Jobs” (number one being Hermey and Rudolph’s “We’re a Couple of Misfits” ballad from the Rudolph Christmas special).

Other culinary and party-planning tips via Wonderland:

- From the Duchess: Be liberal with pepper, and never allow your guests to glimpse the behind-the-scenes preparation of your féte.

- From the Mad Hatter: Grooming suggestions are appropriate fodder for conversation. For ease of preparation, determine how many petit fours and watercress tea sandwiches you’ll need for each guest, then replace that with an equal number of insults.

- From the Dormouse: Treacle is a life-sustaining food.

- From the White Rabbit: Timeliness is of utmost importance.

[Find more of Clara’s work here: http://www.claraworks.com/]

The Rogue Guide to Salt

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(Quick guide: the deeper the shade, the deeper our love!)

CHEF: Aaron Hoskins, The Rogue Gentlemen         

http://www.theroguegentlemen.com/

I realized recently that the number of different salts in my kitchen was drastically at odds with the tiny amount of salt knowledge existing in my brain. (I’m pretty sure I bought a few of them simply because they ‘looked fancy’.) I wanted some advice from a culinary badass, so I sat down with the incredibly gracious Aaron Hoskins to eat and talk.

The salts: pink Himalayan (medium grain), French grey velvet (very fine), smoked Maldon (the classic coarse diamond shape), Sel de Guerande (medium grain), fleur de sel (fine grain).

The salt vehicles: Victory Farms heirloom tomatoes, RG’s homemade brioche and unsalted butter, pan-roasted Manakintowne shishito peppers.

Aaron’s insights are pretty fantastic, and so very useful to the home cook. Or the food geek. Or the amateur scientist. Here’s what he had to say during our taste test:

HEIRLOOM TOMATO

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Pink Himalayan: The very light, small granules put it closer to an iodized salt, you don’t pick up texture or heavy minerality with this one.

French grey velvet: Great minerality. I also like this one with fatty things – helps cut through richness that would stick to your tongue, pulls deep flavor out of things like bone marrow and helps you taste the beef and iron and all the things that make marrow as unctuous and wonderful as it is.

Smoked Maldon: I love regular Maldon for pretty much everything. What’s cool about Maldon is that the flakes are so big that they sit on top; it’s not the greatest thing to season with when cooking because it doesn’t break down, but it’s great to add flavor and texture at the end.

Sel de Guerande: This one’s mild and takes a second to hit you. I feel like I’d season everything with it – you don’t get the granule punch, you just get the saltiness blended into what your’e eating. Cool thing about salt: it suppresses bitterness. Tomatoes taste extra sweet with just salt and pepper on them.

Fleur de sel: This tastes more like ocean salt than the others do, especially against the tomato acid. I like the size of the granule – a little smaller, more manageable than typical fleur de sel.

Favorite: Maldon or fleur de sel.

BRIOCHE AND BUTTER

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Pink Himalayan: Again, really light. Nice with the butter because you can really taste it; not too overpowering.

French grey velvet: Really, really good. Obviously heavier than the pink salt – but the minerality also really works with the butter. Adds an almost grassy, earthy taste, or at least it amps that up in the butter. Which is, along the chain of things, basically made of grass.

Smoked Maldon: The smoke isn’t overpowering at all, it’s actually really mild and works really nicely – and I love the texture. Maldon has a really bright pop to it – it’s salty, but it’s not like a spoonful of salt. The crystals take a long time to break down so that you get to taste the layers in what you’re eating.

Sel de Guerande: I’m trying to think what the smell reminds me of – it’s almost chemical. Maybe the magnesium content. Metallic. This is very mild, again, small grains and not overly noticeable as a texture, a good everyday salt. I don’t get much of the minerally, magnesium taste on it. Just the smell. Salt’s everywhere – it really changes based on where you get it – from mines, from the oceans. France is known for their salt, although I think about half the world’s salt comes from the US.

Fleur de sel: The small crystals have a very strong, oceanlike saltiness on the butter; again, you can tell it was harvested from the ocean. This one’s much more useable than most fleur de sel because the crystals are smaller. Fleur de sel crystals are usually round, diamond shaped crystals which can be hard to eat, like biting into  a little rock as opposed to a thin sheet like the Maldon.

Favorite: Either grey velvet or Guerande. Brioche has a hard bitter crust because the sugar is caramelized so far – the Guerande really helped mellow that out.

SHISHITO PEPPERS

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Pink Himalayan: Too mild. I don’t know if works well with something like shishitos. I got a lot of char and astringency in that bite. It would be really nice on raw seafood, a crudo, because it’s subtle.

French grey velvet: It really masks the bitterness! I like that. Brings out that touch of sweetness from the maillard reaction, the chemical process of caramelization.

Smoked Maldon: When we make these here, I cook them with kosher and finish them with plain Maldon. This is how I’m used to tasting them, by far my favorite of the finishing heavier salts.

Sel de Guerande: Nice as well – combining this with Maldon would be the perfect type and amount of salt for me.

Fleur de sel: A lot more pungent – in this situation, I liked it. It’s more combined with the shishito flavor, which has to do with the size of the grain.

Winner: The Maldon or the grey velvet; the fine grey salt adds an almost umami-esque thing. One of my favorite flavors, the lingering earthiness.

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(Aaron making orecchiette.)