Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Something old, something new (or vice versa)

Before I realized it was much more efficient to write on the web as opposed to emailing Word "essays" to everyone I know, I wrote this little screed on the problems with Scottish baking:

A Shortbread Recall, Please

…a lunatic’s rant by Jason ******

In the golden age of low-carb fitness this has probably become quite passé, but for me, the holiday season means eating myself into a coma. Breads, meats, cheeses, and of course sweets, I spend most of Thanksgiving through New Year’s gorging on varied and gluttonous combinations of the four-plus major food groups. This sort of eating is my biggest vice and greatest pleasure during an otherwise drab part of the year because yes, I am a Scrooge when it comes to Annual Gift Exchange Day.

Christmas just isn’t my thing but this year I have made a conscious effort to throw myself into the Holiday Spirit and participate on every level. I procured, inscribed, and mailed cards to friends and loved ones, purchased and personally wrapped innumerable gifts, and even helped to prepare the holiday meal over which I usually leave my parents to slave. Of all of the standard December/January traditions, all that remains on my holiday To-Do List is to reflect upon the year that has passed and life in general. So in a nod to my favorite holiday tradition, I have decided to reflect upon Food. In particular, a certain food that has recently drawn my ire and for which I cannot find any conceivable need for its continued existence. (I know it sounds silly but so is the notion of a jolly old fat man living it up in an Arctic tax haven.)

The next time you are at your parents’ or grandparents’ home take a look in the cupboards. Dig past the dried spaghetti, the canned vegetables, and the 32 boxes of Knox Blox that no one will ever make and I bet that you will stumble across a flannelled tin container at least two-thirds full of the shittiest dessert item ever known to man; that dry, crumbly bastard cousin to everything moist, sweet, and delicious; that soul-crushing “treat” you discovered in the pantry which turned out to be even nastier than the bar of baking chocolate you ate when you were six; the worst and most insulting gift you ever received from a coworker. I am of course speaking of shortbread cookies.

Not surprisingly, shortbread cookies were introduced to the world by the Scotts sometime around the 17th century. These are the same discriminating gourmands who also gave us the Scottish Egg (a hardboiled egg wrapped in sausage, dipped in batter, and deep fried) and Haggis (sheep’s lung, heart, and liver, stuffed into said sheep’s stomach and slow-boiled until just right). Now why the world, or at least North America, has taken to indulging in this long line of Scottish culinary tragedies I simply cannot understand.

I can certainly appreciate the roots of the shortbread cookie. It is a simple food that can easily be made from modest ingredients. At a time when items like sugar, chocolate, vanilla, and molasses were at a premium the thought of a tasty treat like a chocolate chip cookie was pretty far out. So, making the best of a bad situation some inventive homemaker took whatever he or she could (lots of butter, flour, nuts, and the tiniest bit of sugar), baked it until it was bone dry, and ended up with something resembling a cookie. Considering the times it was probably quite a treat. But times have changed and so have the costs of common kitchen commodities. While 17th century Scotland may have held the shortbread recipe in high regard, today I equate it to something like wringing a bar rag into a shot glass. Yeah you’ve got all the ingredients for a “cocktail,” but I sure as hell wouldn’t order one.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think shortbread cookies taste bad per se. They certainly cannot be as awful as I imagine Haggis is. It’s just that quite frankly I think they suck. Honestly, when offered dessert is a shortbread cookie the first thing that pops into your head? Is some mealy glob of crumbs no sweeter than a Triscuit what you would ask for? Do you crave a Christmas treat that tastes like half-a-stick of margarine bashed into a Saltine and that leaves you with the a level of dry-mouth typically reserved for potheads and Bedouin castaways? That certainly isn’t my idea of holiday goodness.

The point of this exercise is that I think the time of the shortbread cookie has passed. We now have a wonderfully diverse array of sweets available to us: chocolates and cakes, cookie and brownies, ice cream and fudge, they are all there for the taking and at the same price as a tin of Walker’s Shortbread. There is no need for us to subject ourselves to such boring fare. Times have changed and our use for the shortbread economy of scale has gone the way of the dodo.

As a people we have seen the unjust errors of our society and have risen up to cast them aside. Unspeakable practices such as slavery, child labor, and Dodgeball have haunted us for millennia but it was this Great Nation that stood up and shouted “No more!” But we have long lain dormant and it is now time to take to the charge once again. Seek out your shortbread cookies and throw them in the faces of grandmothers and supervisors everywhere who would try to pass them off as gifts and treats. Grind those bland shards of oven rind under your heels and cast them back into the dirt they so resemble in color and texture. Send into oblivion the history’s worst cookie.

Let us welcome in a new era of holiday desserts that will be moist, sweet, and most of all, shortbread-free.


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