Capers and pesto and brains, oh my!


There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the research being done by the various casual-dining restaurants like Olive Garden and Appleby’s and Longhorn Steakhouse and TGI Friday’s.  



Naturally they are trying to figure out what people like, and what dishes are most popular, and what people like.



But they are also trying not to be bland.  So they try – or test-market – new things.



And their discoveries are startling.



Applebee’s tried putting okra on steaks.  People couldn’t figure it out.



Olive Garden tried pesto.  Pesto!  One of the glories of Italian cuisine!  The marriage of basil and olive oil and garlic!  And people found it “oily, bitter, and green.”  (And it’s gloopy-looking, don’t forget.)



Best of all, Olive Garden has stopped using capers.  People found them to be “unexpected.”



I love capers.  Before I go on, let me give you the simplest of all possible recipes, for something called a “Maltese sandwich”:



        Take two nice large slices of fresh bread (preferably French or Italian, but anything will do.)

        Pour some olive oil on a dinner plate.  Sprinkle the oil with salt and pepper.

        Take the bread and rub it on the oiled plate, so that the seasoned oil soaks into the bread.

        Now: pile sliced fresh tomatoes on the bread.

        Top with a healthy dose of capers.



I think you will find this as delicious as I do. 



And, from the other side of the fence, here’s a quote from Nora Ephron’s novel “Heartburn”:



“I was hired by the caper people to develop a lot of recipes using capers, and it was weeks of tossing capers into everything but milkshakes before I came to terms with the fact that nobody really likes capers no matter what you do with them.  Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it.”



I am one of those people who pretend to like capers.  I think they are very interesting; I keep them in the fridge.  I don’t put them in milkshakes, that’s for sure.  But they are salty and interesting, and they pop very slightly when you bite into them.  They are the anchovies of the plant kingdom, and god bless them.  I don’t put them in everything, but I think they complement spicy foods and highly-flavored foods very nicely.  And, as I demonstrated above, they are wonderful when married to fresh tomatoes and salt and pepper and olive oil.



So what’s the problem at Olive Garden?



Americans – the Great Unwashed, as they used to be called – are timid.  They like what they like: salt, and fat, and sugar.  They want their food to look normal.  They do not want to be challenged.  (I do not mean to sound snobbish or classist here.   I’ve seen this in real life, however.  I’ve seen otherwise intelligent people baffled by butterfly pasta and couscous and fennel and, yes, capers.  To quote Confucius on their behalf: “If I do not recognize it, I do not put it in my mouth.”)



But oh what they (and Confucius) are missing!




I was a very picky eater as a child.  I wouldn’t eat eggs or tomatoes.  (Some scientists are positing that picky eating in childhood is natural, a genetic defense against eating strange / unusual / dangerous food.  The problem is that some people take this pickiness with them into adulthood.)



As an adult, I’m far more adventurous gastronomically.  I’ve eaten deer, antelope, moose, elk, snake, camel, gazelle, kidneys, heart, liver, brains, testicles –



Okay.  Some are better than others.  I’ve only had testicles once, and I can live without them: they’re spongy and a little flavorless.  The others are interesting in their own ways.



But really.  Okra?  Capers?



Grow up, kids.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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