Thursday, June 28, 2012

What's For Dinner? Part I

The photograph to your left was the inspiration for this post. The plate contains lasagna, chicken tetrazzini, some kind of gumbo? (rice with sausage), and scalloped potatoes. It was the entree at the home of a Viennese singer who very graciously hosted us; this was preceded by a soup and followed by a sweet dessert with a little buzz. All the food tasted very good...but that's all there was. Have you figured out yet what was missing? There were nothing green, no vegetables.

Several of us had noticed this patter to dinner: soup, meat + starch, dessert. If there were any vegetables, they served as garnish, as with the entree from Budapest below, of cheesy breaded chicken breast, french fries, white rice, a piece of lettuce, and a curly-Q of shaved carrot. (I ate everything but the fries. Dessert came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; good thing I didn't have to sing right after that--I don't know how the rest of them did it without getting phlegmy!)

Now, I am familiar with this Central European menu, since it comes up in my dissertation research. The soup is to stimulate the appetite. The meat + starch are the main event (calories, protein, carbohydrates). According to at least one physiologist, the purpose of dessert is that the sugar helps with gastric motility and therefore digestion of the dinner just eaten. Fruits and vegetables are good for appearance  and variety, both of which stimulate appetite, but too many--especially raw--burden the digestive system with indigestible cellulose. The low nutritional worth of fruits, at least, can be increased by cooking them down with sugar into compote. This is, as you can see, a pre-vitamin paradigm.

I knew about this way of eating, and yet I was surprised to experience it consistently in Budapest and Vienna at our restaurant dinners. Granted, we were served hot meals in the evening of the kind that Central Europeans traditionally ate/eat in the middle of the day (~1pm). Fruits and vegetables are normal parts of the two cold meals at the beginning and end of the day, which generally consist of bread or rolls, meats, cheeses, bread-spreads, pickles, and maybe hard-boiled eggs. But when I mentioned this to my (American) mother-in-law, she told me that her (Austrian) mother-in-law had been of the opinion that a proper large meal of the kind our hostess served us should include three meats and a starch!*

Look, honey: parsley counts as a vegetable, right?
Wienerschnitzel and potatoes in Vienna

*--This must be a national formula, as while at a food conference in Preston a year ago, I learned about the British "meat and two veg" formula, both of which I suppose are analogous to the American Midwestern stereotype of "meat and potatoes."

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