Stupid things are sometimes far more compelling to me than smart ones. For instance, I seldom think about the themes in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s epic Three Colors trilogy, but to this day I don’t understand why, in The Blues Brothers, the Good Ol’ Boys arrive at Bob’s Country Bunker at 3 a.m., ready to play a show in the middle of the night. Likewise, I can’t stop thinking about the idiocy that is the latest viral food meme, the 100 Foods to Eat Before You Die list that keeps bubbling up on Facebook.
The list, which has been ricocheting around for several months, looks like it took about six minutes to think up. You could have created the whole thing while listening to “Aqualung.” It’s simply a bunch of unconnected foods, listed alphabetically, without any kind of qualifier. Oh, I’ve had a piece of supermarket sushi; therefore I can cross No. 31, eel, off my list. What’s next? Eggs Benedict. The fact that almost any food can be wonderful or inedible, depending on where it came from, how old it is, who cooked it and approximately 800 other factors, seems not to have occurred to the person who wrote it, or to the millions of people who have passed it along viral social media. It’s the list of a chain-gang prisoner who never expects to have anything but salt pork and hardtack for the rest of his days. But it got me thinking.
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In the 1980s, a man named E.D. Hirsch had a best seller called Cultural Literacy. In the book were a number of key referents that every literate person was expected to know — who Emma Bovary was, what a catch-22 was and so on. I think that there probably are certain culinary dishes so universally admired, and so much a part of our global heritage, that you should be considered something of a rube if you haven’t eaten them. I don’t have room here to submit 100, but I’ve thought about it and come up with seven. The list excludes geographically scarce delicacies like Scottish langoustines or Umbrian truffles, which are magnificent, but by no means the stuff without which a life can be called incomplete. And weird or hard-to-like dishes are out too: the world is full of acquired tastes, but nobody regrets on their deathbed not having eaten more durian. These foods listed below, however, are the ones you should eat often and rely on for your happiness and sustenance. You need to have the good version of them before you die — or sooner.
Hot fresh bread. Freshly baked bread, still hot and liberally slathered with salted butter, is one of the best experiences the world affords. And it’s something that a lot of people never experience. Hell, even I only rarely experience it. We buy sliced bread in bags, or whole breads from supermarket bakeries, but hardly ever get to feel it, pull at it, smell it, and burn our hands on it when it’s fresh. And it’s never the same after.
Where to get it: Your local bakery, early in the morning. Also, some grocery stores sell frozen par-baked breads that are easy to finish in your oven.
Pit barbecue. There are very few places outside your backyard where you can eat pork or beef that has been exposed to low heat and soft smoke for a long, long time. (Restaurants tend to nuke baby back ribs in the microwave, or smoke them in a gas oven that has a twig or two in it somewhere, before slathering them in sweet, sticky sauce.) To do, say, smoked brisket right, to get it meltingly tender but also deeply smoky, you need to cook it for 15 hours — and then it only tastes really great for the first 20 minutes or so. It’s not fair, I know. But that makes it even more worth it.
Where to get it: Learn to make it yourself. I recommend using one of these (unless you can get one of these.)
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Raw milk cheese. Imagine that the only beers you had tasted were Coors Light, Bud Light, Old Milwaukee and Miller Genuine Draft. That’s roughly your situation as a cheese eater in America, where the cheeses we eat are all pasteurized, an unnecessary treatment that kills flavor along with germs. Blame the USDA. That’s what the dairies do, and they make a pretty compelling case.
Where to get it: There’s a black market. Get online and find it.
Georgia peaches, New Jersey corn, California melons, Oregon morels, New England blackberries. You get the point. You can get any of these types of foods in any supermarket, of course, but shipping them halfway across the country (or the world) renders them dead, shameful simulacra of what they used to be. You need to pluck these things off tree branches or out of the dirt they live in, and experience them in the full bloom of their distinct flavor. I know this sounds obvious, and yes, it’s been said a million times, but that doesn’t make it any less true — or any easier to experience.
Where to get it: Georgia, New Jersey, California …
Prime beef. As I pointed out in my steak-house column last week, few diners outside of New York City and the military get to eat real “prime” beef. (Grade inflation, it seems, isn’t just a problem in schools.) Prime steak doesn’t need to be drowned in butter or A.1. Steak Sauce, like lesser meats are; it tastes — and, more importantly, it feels — special. The abundant amounts of intramuscular fat, instantly recognizable to a USDA inspector, make it so. There’s nothing like it in the world — not in France, not in Argentina, not in Kobe. America’s singularly lush, sweet, copiously marbled beef has a mineral tinge to it like the taste of blood in your mouth. Accept no substitutes!
Where to get it: I can vouch for the quality of the steaks sold online by Lobel’s, one of the oldest New York City butchers.
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Great olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You hear so many cooks go on and on about olive oil, and there are so many brands of expensive, gorgeously packaged olive oil that it’s hard to believe how crappy almost all of it is. Half the time it’s adulterated with vegetable oil; the rest of the time it’s stale. Even among the few fresh oils, many are bitter and grassy when what you want is nutty and sweet. Likewise, balsamic vinegar is a “gourmet” ingredient that is generally dull and nearly always watery. The real item is amazing, acidic and as concentrated as pancake syrup.
Where to get them: California is making some of the best olive oil in the world right now; here is my favorite. The best balsamic I know is the one created by Italian superchef Massimo Bottura for export. It’s wildly expensive, but a drop changes a dish — and the way you think of balsamic vinegar.
Fresh mozzarella. I’ve written about this before. But I never tire of paying homage to good mutz. It’s irreplaceable, but so hard to find that it’s irresponsible of me to bring it up.
Where to get it: Sigh.
I don’t pretend that this is a complete list of everything you need to eat before you die. There is no such list; there are always more things worth eating. If you’ve eaten everything and don’t have anything else you want to try, don’t worry about any list: you’re basically dead already.