“Chew your food!” I am sure we can all remember hearing that from our mother and grandmother along with: “close the door, wipe your feet, wash your hands”. It was part of Parent 101 to state those requirements of existence sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes simply because it sounded right. Human nature, for a rebellious adolescent was to ignore those directives or seek out an escape from their core meaning.
Restaurants accommodated that rebellious streak in various, creative ways: doors with automatic closers, advanced technology floor mats that suck the dirt off your shoes while you walk, latex gloves for staff to use in lieu of washing your hands 50 times a day (if I had only bought stock in latex 30 years ago), and food that requires very little effort to digest (chewing is such a waste of energy).
I can remember a steakhouse chain in the 60’s and 70’s called Bo…..za (named for the home of Hoss, Little Joe and Hop Sing) that advertised: “our steaks melt in your mouth” (steaks are not suppose to melt in your mouth). This chain used some type of tenderizing agent for their less than prime cuts of meat.
Real bread in the 50’s and 60’s became “wonder bread” designed to build strong bodies with a product pretty much void of texture and real nutritional value. The product was “manufactured” to be light, soft and white. Jell-O was the dessert of the decade (available in a variety of colors) – nothing to chew and if you work at it the gelatin might eventually melt in your mouth, French fries were made from cooked and extruded potatoes, hamburger buns were as light as pillows, and our shellfish became Surimi made from pureed and extruded fish stuff. Shape it, paint it to look like crab or lobster and voila – shellfish without the work.
What had we become? Were we a society of wimps who couldn’t even chew our food, wipe our feet, or close the door behind us? In the process we lost our ability to truly “taste” food. An important part of taste is experiencing the natural textures of a product and chewing brings out the flavor. Without chewing, we might as well just give up and drink Ensure. Webster offers a variety of synonyms for “chew” and none of them go beyond the physical process: to munch, chomp, champ, crunch, nibble, gnaw, consume. What these words fail to point out is that chewing is an enjoyable part of the experience of eating. Chewing certainly, as we all probably realize, helps in and begins the process of digestion, but more vividly begins the process of sending flavor signals to the brain. Chewing and taste do go hand in hand.
Fortunately, over the past 20 years chewing has experienced a come back as part of the American food experience. We have returned to the future and relish in the process of chewing wood-fired pizzas and intensely flavored artisan breads. Gone are the chemical meat tenderizers in steakhouses as we enjoy the fact that even Kobe beef must connect with the jaw to build the experience. Customers wait in lines to purchase those fantastic New York bagels and work hard at tearing and chewing this wonderful boiled and baked extraordinary (tough by design) hand food. Even fast food restaurants are trading in their ground and fabricated chicken nuggets for real pieces of whole meat. We “chew” a great red wine to build the full mouth attack on this beverage of the gods and have returned to “under-cooking” fresh vegetables, as they should be to preserve their color, crunch and nutritional value.
Thankfully we have come to our senses (I think chefs, dietitians and farmers had a lot to do with it) before we found ourselves without a need for teeth and absent any way to distinguish true flavor. Put the straws away, bring the steak knives out of storage, make sure your serrated knife is sharp enough to work through that dense and flavorful artisan bread, build up those jaw muscles and get ready to taste and savor food the way it was meant to be. “Chew your food” – now it makes sense.