Mark Bittman's January 6th article in the New York Times, "Fresh Start for the New Year? Let's Begin in the Kitchen, about the essentials of a great, cook-ready pantry, is a must-read for anyone who fancies him or herself a kitchen whiz. For me and my other ex-pro pals (and, of course, passionate home cooks) most of his wisdom is a given - we were beaten into acquiescence by culinary school and later by food movements and food evangelists we've worshipped, adopted and, sometime later, abandoned.
Much has already been said about Bittman's list* -- bloggers have remarked on their own pantries (for the record, mine does not exist - all of it is packed in boxes, discarded, or passed on to appreciative friends. In packing up the pantry, I found at least four different versions of pimenton - hot, sweet, regional, bulk, tinned and jarred. Slightly excessive, no?) and taken pictures to share with the rest of the foodie blogosphere. I'd like to add a couple more pantry staples - European cultured butter (Plugra will do in a flash), chicken fat, which I keep in the freezer, and coconut fat. All are delightfully saturated and, according to conventional wisdom, will lead to a life of angioplasties if you make it past menopause (I'm with the Weston A Price folks on this one, though I'm very moderate in my use. I've never met a naturally saturated fat I didn't like and they most certainly did not shorten the lives of the women in my family, all of whom lived past 90. But anyway).
What excited me the most about Bittman's list was his outright rejection of canned, grated "Parmesan" - the fat vehicle for salt that is but the faintest shadow of its inspiration, Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Italian "king" of cheese.
Even in my darkest days, when money was in short supply and I had to trim the extras from my life, I could always find enough change to purchase a wedge of Parm. Though I could no longer afford the trendy Vacche Rosse or the four year old Guffanti-selected mountain-pastured Parmigiano-Reggiano I favored when I was still in the cheese biz, I could still scrape together enough change to buy the just-cut-from-the-wheel wedges at the local specialty markets. The $9 I spent was a worthwhile investment: I could stretch a wedge for months, and every single shaving was a savory gift that enhanced so much of what it touched. I kept the rinds around to season stock, or, when my dog was especially good, as a treat for her (they're chewy and don't cause her indigestion). There was no way I'd consider trading down; I'd even convinced my mother to abandon the green shaker of shame after I'd introduced her to the simple joys of the real thing.
Later on, when I was internet dating, I'd routinely list Parmigiano-Reggiano as one of the things I could not live without. I made it clear to prospective paramours that the green can was verboten in my life, much as drug use and children are for some internet match seekers. I thought it would be an effective filter.
Imagine how thrilled I was when, via the same website, I found a foodie who seemed to share my passion for things edible. As I dug deeper, I found a few surprises: rarely patronized farmers' markets because of high prices, yet always dined out at lunch time, spending about the same amount; he could be indiscriminate in his appetites; and, hardest for me to reconcile, he still purchased and enjoyed "Parmesan", the shelf-stable and pre-grated scourge.
I found this out quite accidentally. During a trip to Target to pick up something that must have seemed very important at the time - and of which I have no recollection now - he casually reached over to a display of green cheese and tried to add a cylinder to the cart. I grabbed it out of his hands (thinking he was joking) and put it back on the shelf. Much acrimony ensued. The more I pleaded with him to give up the can and turn to the wedge, the more he dug in his heels. We reached an impasse: I was hopelessly controlling and a snob, he was relentlessly, proudly pedestrian.
Our relationship soon faltered. Perhaps because of the cheese, perhaps because the row over cheese highlighted something more fundamentally incompatible between us. No mind - Parmigiano-Reggiano is still in my life, adding flavor and texture and joy nearly every day.
*(I do have to take issue with Bittman's assesment that dried parsley and basil are useless: in the cuisine of the early 20th century Italian immigrant - 'red sauce Italian', they play a huge role and lend a certain flavor you cannot achieve with fresh herbs)