Garnishes by Sylvia McKeown
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Lest We Forget The Garnish

Oft forgot or tossed aside with a distasteful scorn comparable to that of a jilted lover, the garnish is not held in high esteem as it once was. Nor is it given a place of honour on the plate. No more gravitas for the garnish as seen in the days of the 1970s brown flower-patterned plate, piled high with crustless sandwiches topped with olive-spiked toothpicks. Gone are the days of my childhood; where one would find a somewhat wilted sprig of parsley on one’s Wimpy chips.

I must admit that I too spent many years treating edible adornments with indifference only for it to give way unto joy and ultimately heartache. For my story with the world of garnishes cannot be recalled without calling upon the bittersweet moments of a past love. I stood within the bounds of a Barnes and Noble store in the heart of the “Big City,” Chicago clutching a copy of Julia Child’s magnum opus: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The motion picture Julie and Julia had just come out and theatre woman Meryl Streep’s performance was delightful and nuanced enough to not only inspire but to drown out the annoyance that was the character Julie Powell.

But I digress – and am back in the store where I stood clutching the book, full of love and wonder on my birthday. I was promised by my love that I may have any book my heart desired save one – a Robert Mapplethorpe book, which apparently bore too many phallic images for my companion’s appetite. Although such pettiness stung it mattered not as my new love for French culinary excellence shone brighter than portrayals of 1970s-captured visions of bondaged men and their plentiful penises.

It is in that book that I learnt the ways of garnishing and more specifically how to carve a mushroom to fancy up one’s plate. I admit that to this day I am incapable of glancing upon a vegetable that has been beautified without thinking of those delicately illustrated instructional images of those farcical French fungi. And so when I gaze upon any garnish made with care, it leads me to recollect those happier times and naturally to the recall memories of heartbreak when my love and I parted ways, via electronic mail whilst standing in the middle of an antique market place. Thrown aside, I was, ironically, like a suspiciously old, carved-up cucumber.

Heartache and lost love temporarily dissuaded me from using my bird beaked knife to mark a tomato into a rose. It seemed to be a throwback towards a Thursday which I did not wish to dwell upon. And yet here in the present I find myself in chef school with said pairing knife in hand transforming a lowly carrot into spirals.

It is at school where I learnt of Auguste Escoffier, noted as the “Father of Modern Cuisine.” In his classic text Basic Elements of Fine Cookery he asserts that the garnish is the principle accompaniment, not just an adornment. He goes on to explain that one does not simply douse one’s meal in mountains of greenery but rather that one should use but a single branch or sprig to denote elegance. Furthermore, when done splendidly, the garnish should add an additional note of flavour or texture, and more often than not, should be completely edible.

So yes, my dear, we should be eating that parsley. It actually helps to temper the odour of garlic that escapes your lips so often when consuming French cuisine, or anything else deliciously pungent for that matter. Snack upon those cucumber carvings of “grass” betwixt your ginger and wasabi at your local sushi establishment to bring forth that burst of freshness to balance out the tart cleanliness of the ginger.

And it is so that I call upon this time for us to reclaim the garnish as more than random edible flowers left untouched on the plate. It is time for us to think of beautifully manicured vegetables and thoughtfully placed herbs as beauty in their own right. Be bold, appreciate and munch. This is my creed and my ode. May it be so.

Sylvia McKeown wrote this story in a bygone era. 

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