aesthetics food and drink philosophy Societies

Why Haven’t Americans Figured Out How to Serve Hot Food?

In the time I lived in Korea I noticed a fantastic innovation at their restaurants.  Food was brought to the table simmering in these big steel cookers for everyone to browse from.
I was amazed how these not only kept the food hot, they even had an adjustable heat dial anyone at the table could use.

Such a marvellous invention would be unthinkable, revolutionary in stodgy, joyless American culture that takes greatest pride in its prolish junk food.

When it comes to American food, a piping hot meal is one of life’s challenges.
Everything gets served in complete portions on individual plates made of thick, cold ceramic, completely open to the air.  Everyone takes great care to eat as isolated individuals, avoiding any appearance of sharing from the same source.(that would be disgusting)  Browsing from a collective pot is taboo.  Just watching a people at meal time offers great insight into how they see the world on the most visceral level!
By the time people begin to eat, especially if there’s prayer before eating, even the mashed potatoes are starting to get cold.
I never really understood what a truly hot meal was until I went to some other countries where thick sauces, flaky crusts were common, served in the same container it was baked in hot from the oven, served in cast iron cookware or thick pots with small openings or lids to hold in the heat.  It was never the same again to just eat off of a cold plate that hadn’t even been warmed up.  It’s barbaric, really.  Cold food would offend even cave people cooking over their fires.  Actually, cooking over with a fire in the remote woods is far superior to eating off a cold plate.  There’s a radiant glow of heat that warms your face when you take those foil wrapped baked potatoes and pork loin from the embers of the fire.  Something about really hot food revives the spirit even as cold, soggy food chills the mood, even down to the tips of the toes.
In the States, I still often eat out of the hot pan I cooked in instead of serving onto a plate when making food for myself.  I’ll bring a chair right up to the stove and keep the heat on low as I eat.  If I take it into another room, I keep a lid on until the moment I’m about to eat and enjoy the ebullient rush of hot, delicious-smelling steam rising into my face before I dig in.  But even this is often difficult in America since almost all cookware I encounter is designed to get damaged if it’s so much as touched with silverware.  What backwards and alien customs!

I guess I feel that one of the main reasons to even bother to have a society is to make life pleasant for people.  It’s part of the implicit Contract that motivates us to cooperate with a social order at all.
First a people figures out how to invent a perfectly piping hot meal and then worry about surplus activities like missions into space.
It’s perverse in a way that the most wealthy populations on earth haven’t figured out how to apply sustained heat to their food or contain heat with insulation.
Perhaps it’s the Calvinist, Puritanical disdain for joy in this life that leads to such apathy.
Or is it misguided “enlightenment” empiricism? It has the same calories or nutrients served hot or ice cold after all.
Or is it simply a secular religion of competition and money-making that leaves no place for enjoying the smaller things that make life worth living to begin with?

I suspect it is a combination of all these that impede a culture known for innovation from serving food in containers that have a heat source and adjustable dial.  These are after all the same people who take toasters for granted.

By Giovanni Dannato

In 1547 I was burnt at the stake in Rome for my pernicious pamphlet proclaiming that the heavens were not filled with a profusion of aether, but rather an extensive vacuum.
Now, the phlogiston that composed my being has re-manifested centuries in the future so that I may continue the task that was inconveniently disrupted so long ago.
Now, I live in Rome on the very street where I (and others) were publicly burnt. To this day, the street is known as what I would translate as 'Heretic's Way'. My charming residence is number 6 on this old road. Please, do come inside and pay me a visit; I should be delighted to spew out endless pedagoguery to one and all...

4 replies on “Why Haven’t Americans Figured Out How to Serve Hot Food?”

Very true. Here in Canada, the better restaurants do heat up the plates at least. And at the Chinese restaurants, communal eating style is common. Otherwise, the closest thing we have is pizza, where everyone grabs a slice from the same carboard box.

On an unrelated topic, have you ever made 100% rye sourdough bread? How did you solve the gumminess problem? More hydration of the flour? Was the bread strong enough to use for sandwiches?

Been having fun with rocket stoves, have a sourdough culture started, but gumminess is an issue. Hope it doesn’t take 100 experiments to get it right.

Pizza is one of the few American foods that is good at staying hot, hence its enormous popularity.
It’s a legacy of food brought over by Southern Italians that holds in the heat with the use of thick tomato sauce and melted cheese. Likewise with spaghetti, lasagna, etc.

I used to make sourdough bread with my own starter all the time. Even considered turning it into a business for awhile, but found out fast the profit to effort ratio is bad and getting licenses and tiptoeing around food regulations is worse.

Rye is a challenge to work with because it has little gluten in it. Even in the best of times you’re not going to get a huge rise out of 100% rye sourdough.
If it’s turning out gooey for you, that’s because it’s not cooked all the way through. For an especially dense loaf like a rye bread, you want to reduce the oven temperature and let it cook slow. If the temperature is too, high, the outside gets hard too early and then starts burning while the interior is still soggy.
I remember taking a few tries to get the hydration right for rye. Kneading isn’t that straightforward because of lack of gluten. If not wet enough it doesn’t stick together well, if too wet, it becomes a slop that doesn’t rise at all. So it has to be perfect to get the best rise you can. Just measure how much water you use each time and you’ll home in on the right value for the flour you’re using.

I never used it in sandwiches. Sourdough rye was so good slathered with butter and raw honey that I never used it for anything else.

As an alternative to eating out of the pan you could heat your plate up by turning it upside down and placing it ontop of the pan in which you food (rice, pasta, veg or whatever) is cooking for a few minutes. That way the plate will get heated without any extra hassle. I do just that when cooking beans on toast.

Another useful trick during the cold winters is to heat your mug up before filling it with tea/coffee by holding it upside down over the kettle spout as the kettle is boiling. Thus the steam will heat the mug and stop your drink getting colder quicker.

As for the Korean method of heating the dinner at the table, in the USA you could use a simple electric hotplate instead of using hot coals or gas.

Ok, I’ll experiment with more hydration and less temperature. If you go to the right deli, a pastrami and rye on 100% rye bread is delicious. Soft, warm, and comforting. Once I get the recipe right, I’ll experiment with “double baked” rye. Several sources are saying to bake, then wait, and the gumminess clears up. Also some are saying that the heat needs to be high, to get the dough up through the amylase temperature range as fast as possible. I’m guessing that with double baked rye, the gumminess has time to clear up, then the final 20% bake warms it up and gives it a harder crust, so you get that “fresh out of the oven” sensation.

In Finland, they’d bake the years supply of rye bread in a day or two, then store it in the rafters. Lots of RS3 resistant starch. Bread was tough, but it didn’t go moldy, lasted all year. High in Vitamin C too.

I wonder if the dwarf bread in Lord of the Rings was inspired by rye bread. Delicious, nutrient dense, and lasts forever.

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