In Praise of Garnish
John North Radway
Posted on July 20th, 2012
Eat More Kale, cry bumper stickers nationwide. Well, perhaps not nationwide. I can think of pockets of the continent’s interior where kale is all but excluded from the hot food bars that dribble and seethe with whatever chemical agent turns macaroni orange. The kale lobby in these regions is weak at best. Still, the vegetable appears from time to time as a leathery green, reasonably oil-resistant pad on which such delicacies as cocktail shrimp and dip bowls are arranged to draw out fleeting Ooos and Ahhs before they are mercilessly devoured.
Which leaves our friend kale lonely at best, smeared with a few bits of this and that. And you probably wish you hadn’t eaten quite so much of This and That, don’t you, because your gut is protesting that what you just subjected it to is in no way worthy of the title “appetizer.” You long for some refreshing roughage. There it sits, right in front of you—a generous bunch of delicious kale, ripped into plate-sized pieces, cool, hearty, chewy, and possibly even washed.
But you won’t eat it, will you?
Or maybe you will. If so, then you are one of the happy few who have realized that garnishes are not for decoration. Garnishes are to be devoured, raw, whole, unapologetically. Yes, your friends might give you funny looks or even use words like “disgusting.” Etiquette columns might accuse you of acting like a starved raven. In the worst of cases, the chef might come after you with a cleaver. But you know that it is all worth it, because no radish ever tastes so good as when it is bent into something resembling a lily, no orange rind is ever so sweet as when it has been soaking up good whiskey, and no kale is ever so dark and rich as when it has been lightly glazed with duck sauce and peppered with wanton crumbs.
I have been an inveterate garnish-eater since I was old enough to steal from friends’ plates. I see no reason to reform. I do not move in circles that require many sacrifices at the altar of arbitrary propriety, and if I have one friend who all but refuses to eat out with me because of this quirk— well, I have more than one friend.
I try to be tolerant of those who don’t agree with me, but it’s not always easy. I will never try to force anybody into peeling the kale off the bottom of the platter, but sometimes I do feel the need to intervene when the “garnish” is particularly exotic or intriguing. No horned melon or prickly pear should go untasted. A slice of persimmon floating in your drink is an invitation to eat a slice of persimmon. (You don’t say no to the persimmon). And if you “don’t like” maraschino cherries even when they are lovingly prepared by a months-long bath in brandy, then please: consider ordering a cocktail without one.
I have not produced many converts. Taboos run deep, and when people see me gnawing on a slice of raw lemon they often feel compelled not to emulate my behavior. Rarely, though, I will find a curious someone who might want to join me in my frivolities, to frolic in the freedom of shameless garnish-gobbling, if they could only overcome one slight reservation: “Is it really edible?”
And there, my friends, is the (garlic? sage?) rub. There is where I stammer, and look nervously down at the table, and begrudgingly admit the truth: sometimes I have no idea. Kale, fruits, and roots done into flowers are all an easy Yes, but once in a great while a plate contains an object that I cannot readily identify, and that is clearly on the plate for its visual rather than its culinary appeal. At this point I will usually stop trying to talk others into eating it. In an unwise fit of altruism I will pop it into my own mouth so that they might judge by my fate whether the answer was Yes or No. I have never gotten into serious trouble through this practice, though I have chewed up bits of wood (deceptive toothpicks) and plastic (false cabbage) in less upscale establishments. More often I am thrilled to discover some rare sort of ill-looking beet or the titillation of something pickled that never should have been. I don’t remember their names, even if I do ask the waiters and they do know the answer. But I remember how they taste: usually peculiar, often bitter, and seldom really worth eating except as a matter of principle.
So perhaps you don’t want to follow me down this dark road. But if you’re half convinced, perhaps one two anecdotes will tip the scales for you (or, err, garnish the plate? No…).
First. The basement of a crowded bar and grill in Allston, MA. A friend’s birthday shindig. Fourteen noisy humans, indistinguishable burgers, beer and a surprising amount of mead—a waiter’s nightmare. Hungry but obstinately refusing dinner, I spend the evening snatching the kale off of everyone’s plates, sometimes casually but sometimes frantically, desperately, as the waiter is about to take them away. The evening ends. The check comes. As does a surprise for me: a plateful of raw kale straight from the kitchen, on the house. We tip well.
Second. A classy retro bar in Cambridge, MA, half style, half kitsch, inventive cocktails. Third round rolls around. It’s getting late. One of us orders a concoction called the “Orient Express.” With unbearable wit another says to the waiter: “Can we get that with extra murder?” He chuckles politely, a few others groan, and we try to forget the rotten joke. But the waiter does not. He returns carrying not only the cocktail but also three olives on a skewer, onto which he has drawn little faces of violent death, Xs for eyes and tongues lolling out of strangulated frowns. We are thrilled, but he shuffles off before we can ask whether the faces are doodled on with something reasonably food-based or with, say, hideously toxic permanent ink. We all shrug. It’s too good to pass up.
We eat the olives. They are delicious.