The best worst food of all time

There are plenty of dinner parties to which I'm thankful I wasn't invited. I'm glad I never found myself in the French court of the 14th century, where hypnotised chickens were scared into life at the table. It's OK with me that I missed the 17th-century English wedding fashion of crafting a ''bride's pye'' with lamb's testicles and cockscombs.

I feel fortunate I wasn't scraping for meals in the Great Depression, filling up on chicken-free ''creamed chicken'' made from onions and oatmeal. And I've no problem with missing the Jello cookery of the 1960s, in which tinned vegetables, jelly and a flan mould were combined to alarming, quivering effect.

Despite the culinary bullets I've dodged, there are tables at which I've sat, supped and regretted. There was the pungent Turkish tripe soup, a famed hangover cure, which even my dutiful drunkenness couldn't make delicious. In Memphis I ate an Elvis-size peanut butter, bacon and banana fried sandwich that left me all shook up with a dirty, dirty feeling. And I'll always remember a Hong Kong seafood restaurant where a coterie of suits ate a not-drowning-waving live lobster.

The history of food, like fashion, is scattered with the regrettable, the unfortunate and the outright disgusting. Piped avocado with glazed salmon mousse, I'm looking at you. But, just like leg warmers and shoulder pads, dishes we swore we would never eat again have a habit of coming back to seduce us. Sometimes it's ironic (or at least that's what I tell myself when I wear Ugg boots in public or scoff a newfangled prawn cocktail). Often it's nostalgic and occasionally it's just more fun because it's terribly wrong.

Nouvelle cuisine, the 1970s food movement that people love to hate, is often mocked for its minuscule portions and mad combinations: an oyster, a sliver of mango, a dot of curry sauce on a massive white plate. ''It was hugely important, but it did become a bad joke,'' food writer Rita Erlich says. Nouvelle cuisine was important because it took classic French haute cuisine and made it lighter, more balanced and pleasingly pretty.

The joke was when it went too far. ''The French chefs of the day pushed the boundaries and explored flavours,'' Erlich says. ''Perhaps they put raspberries with veal because they were looking for acidity. But then people started putting raspberries with everything just because they looked really pretty. It all went wrong when people thought that anything would do.''

Melbourne chef Andrew Blake shudders when he recalls a 1980s dish in this vein, a chicken stir-fry with raisins and Sambuca mayonnaise. ''Nouvelle cuisine really was an abomination,'' he says. ''I think some chefs even had protractors in their tool kits.'' On the other hand, he says, it forced a new way of thinking that led to an era of food as artistry.

Erlich has other bugbears. ''In the 1970s, I hated garlic bread made with rubbery bread, garlic powder and margarine,'' she says.

She didn't mind sun-dried tomatoes when they first appeared in Australian delis in the '80s, but she quickly became sick of them. ''The early ones were quite thrilling but, as they became more common, you usually got a faintly tomato-flavoured and very chewy leather,'' she says. Familiarity bred fierce contempt. ''They came with absolutely everything: stuffed into a chicken breast, chopped in salads, on beef, everywhere!''

Avocado was another ingredient that was shoehorned into unfortunate places. Surely it wasn't just me eating fettucine with chicken, avocado and, god help me, sun-dried tomatoes and cream? And while we're in the confessional booth, I also piled avocado and smoked salmon on pizza before deciding the bitterness of mushy molten avocado wasn't pleasing.

''Cooked avocado is like having a mouthful of two-cent coins,'' says the NSW Restaurant and Catering Association chair of judges, Stewart White. (In defence of the avocado, modern varieties can successfully be used warm and in baked goods.) White also despised ''the stack'', the 1990s trend in which chefs strove to defy gravity. ''They would build this [Leaning] Tower of Pisa,'' he laments. ''Everything was piled so high, the waiters could only carry one dish at a time.''

White is also happy to rail against ''gourmet'' pizza (''A pizza should be what a pizza is, simple!'') and truffle oil (''I was always over truffle oil'') and cup cakes (''I wish they would lay down and die'').

Erez Gordon, the owner of Bistro Bruno and Crown Street Assembly, cheerfully admits he revisits the '70s at his own dinner parties. ''I don't mind the old Coon and cabanossi on toothpicks sticking in a half grapefruit,'' he says. ''Everyone laughs, but I guarantee it's always the first thing to go.'' He won't go so far as to embrace nostalgia for fried brie or camembert. ''People out there are still happily deep-frying wedges of camembert. If I looked hard enough, I could walk out tomorrow and dine on hot camembert with plum jam.''

Erlich wouldn't deign to join him. ''It should never have been invented and it still lurks,'' she says. ''Terrible cheese, encased in breadcrumbs, fried in oil that isn't quite hot enough. It's really disgusting.'' If she ever sees it on an online menu she invokes an instant ban. ''I won't go to that restaurant. Ever.''

Having to categorise cuisine blends as ''fusion'' was something Gordon grew to hate while working at Melbourne's pigeonhole-resistant Jacques Reymond. ''I'm glad we don't need to do that any more,'' he says. ''We don't need to say it's Euro-Nippon or Sino-Adriatic because I think people now are more interested in the chef's ideas, in trusting the chef.''

Not everything about the current landscape pleases him though. ''Is the skid mark gone?'' he asks. ''That dollop of something on the plate that the chef pushes a spoon through to create something artistic … it reminds me of an unsavoury laundry item. I'd be glad if that's over and done with.''

Erlich has similar thoughts. ''Those smears and swirls make me wonder if there was an accident on the plate. Some experimenting should be done privately - consenting adults only.''

MasterChef host and Fenix chef Gary Mehigan has a lasting affection for most easy-to-mock trends. ''It doesn't matter how wacky or seemingly irrelevant, these things always drop something into the everyday thinking of a chef,'' he says.

In the '80s, caught up in the aftershocks of nouvelle cuisine, Mehigan worked with chefs who completely eschewed butter and flour. ''We would thicken sauces with eggplant puree,'' he says. ''At the time, I thought it was so silly, but those ideas have fed into the lighter, purer food we are doing today.''

Mehigan was never a big exponent of molecular gastronomy, but he's worked with some of its biggest enthusiasts. ''There have to be people who will put themselves out there and challenge the boundaries,'' he says. ''The dangerous thing is that some young chef then puts vanilla foam on a steak and it's so terribly wrong.''

But he thinks the worst excesses of molecular gastronomy have been reined in. ''It's now morphed into something cleaner,'' he says. ''Those ridiculous foams now become denser, textural elements that are worked into a delicious dessert.''

Making the most of food fashions means knowing when to let go. ''Trends are fun but, if you take the clothing trend of solid colours as an example, we might end up losing the bright-pink trousers but keeping the mauve ones,'' he says, thinking of no one in particular.

''We pick and choose and hopefully we end up with the things that are good.''

From: The Age

The story The best worst food of all time first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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