To serve or arrange food on a plate or plates is a simplistic definition for the plating madness we have seen displayed on the internet and television in the last decade or so. From Christmas cookie bake offs, to cooking competitions – presentation is a major focal point. Plating, arranging, garnishing, – the embellishing of food is not new to the world, but it feels new because we see it all the time on just about every food related show. A lack of iPhone cameras in the Middle Ages does not mean that food, especially food for those of the privileged classes, was not bedazzled to entertain and impress guests on special occasions. Lavish banquet and plated dinner presentations have been a hallmark of celebratory events for a very long time.
For the Romans, a main course might be served to the tune of trumpets. In Medieval times, banquets featured a diverse, large number of meat dishes created to awe the guests. In the Victorian era, formal dinners lasted for hours and could have as many as 13 courses featuring fanciful “ices” meticulously crafted to please company. Throughout the ages, hosts and hostesses have displayed their wealth by not only the kinds of food served to their guests but also by abundance, contrasting colors, unique flavors and panache. A never-ending table scape is as much art as it is sustenance.
Whether by savory sauces, sprinkled seeds, flowery garnishes, sculpted butter molds, cleverly cut vegetables, or tall napoleon structures intricately stacked – the dinner plate has become an artist’s canvas. This didn’t happen overnight. Sushi, where art and food become one, has been around for centuries. We also cannot forget famous French chefs who have created fantastical plates to astound, like Escoffier for whom color meant so much. Many chefs of the past and present are not only skilled cooks, but visionaries of how beautiful food can be. Today, the enjoyment of food flair is no longer limited to chefs, and anyone can play with their food. The rise in popularity of the home charcuterie board is a prime example of an everyday cook testing their inner creativity for a few guests.
Like a three-piece suit, each piece tailored to perfection, their unison is a finished complimented look. So, too, with meals of many courses. Each course is tailored perfectly on a plate, and altogether the combination of dishes makes a complete gourmet experience, a symphony to the senses, a sensual experience. I concur, and an evening of fine food and wine thrills me, but I must admit there is a deep-rooted ambivalence I have to plating, which seems contradictory to the profession my husband and I are in. If you stop and think about plating and what it represents – all good things like the availability of food, the dance of sauces, the intricate garnishes and time allotted for this spirited endeavor, it rings of a sophistication that is limited to those with the means and time to participate in what is truly a superfluous act of creative expression and fanfare.
Plating can indeed express the pure joy and beauty of food – it elevates food to a pedestal. A thoughtful presentation pays homage to the ingredients on the plate if done well, but sometimes a display can detract from the essence of the food itself which is nourishment, a sustainer for life, an integral and necessary substance for our very survival. So, while I appreciate and enjoy the virtuosity of plating, I also appreciate the beauty of a flavorful bowl of lentils with no presentation whose satisfaction lies solely in the human that is sustained by its presence.
My draw to the craftsmanship of food presentation is also tempered when I read about local and global hunger and the people working so hard to feed other people – and these emotional stories are never about the presentation of food. It’s plainly about the preservation of the human race.
One of the most fascinating efforts on planet earth to feed the masses occurs daily at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the central religious place of the Sikh faith. Every day the golden temple feeds 50,000 to 100,000 people and even more on religious days. It is the largest free kitchen in the world. Built in 1577 around a holy pond, it is a place where all who seek spiritual solace and religious fulfillment are welcome. The four entrances of this shrine are from all four directions signifying that people belonging to every walk of life are welcome. Free meals are served to everyone regardless of cast, creed, religion, gender, or nationality. If you are human, you are welcome.
The temple is clean and very well organized. All who enter must have a head covering, wash their hands, remove shoes and wash their feet. Paid workers and volunteers by the hundreds work tirelessly 23 and a half hours a day to keep the food coming. Meals are always vegetarian and vary depending upon donations and availabilities of certain foods. Meals of seasoned kidney beans, lentils, potatoes and vegetables, aromatic rice pudding, and chapati bread lathered with ghee are served on stainless steel plates by ladle while men, women and children from all walks of life sit side by side on the floor in rows. In this case presentation is not important, but nourishment is.
Most days I really enjoy picking out the perfect piece of garnish from my garden to accent a plate. Most days, laboring over wild mushroom demi-glaze couldn’t be a more perfect addition to a thin sliced piece of beef tenderloin. However, some days satiety takes precedence over jazziness and humble, simple ingredients just feel good inside, like an old fuzzy well-loved blanket. There is elegance in elaborate dishes, but there is also the unassuming dignity of a simple, tasty modest meal. Sometimes culinary artillery seems unnecessary, frivolous, and downright pretentious. On those days, you will find me on the couch, in my faded blue jeans enjoying a bowl of warm homemade soup in a Corningware bowl. It is at these moments I remind myself – for those who are hungry, a full belly is more beautiful than anything extravagant anyone could ever conjure up.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
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The largest free kitchen in the world:
Plato said it best: “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.”