The words we use when we talk about food, and the attitudes they invoke, positive or negative, intrigue me. For example, “buttery” is a good word. It connotes flaky pastries, dense nut-filled cakes, rich bready desserts or breakfasts. However, “oily” is a bad word, and “greasy” is even worse. Why is that?
(This will seem like something of a non-sequitur, but I promise you’ll see where I’m going here in a paragraph or two.)
I recently saw the Meryl Streep/Amy Adams movie Julie&Julia. While I will leave the review to my friend S., who is good at that sort of thing, I will comment that the food cinematography in the movie is marvelous. I don’t know whether it is always real food they are using or not, but the colors were deep, the textures were luscious, and the sounds (mixing, slicing, carving) were pretty realistic. At one particular point in the movie, as Julie Powell and her husband are sitting down to a dinner of bright red and yellow rustic-looking bruschetta, all six of the women I saw the movie with (including me) said something between “ohhhhh,” “mmmmmmm,” and “yum.” Or maybe all three. So a few nights later, inspired by the bursts of orange from the sungold cherry tomato plant in my backyard, I decided to try out Julie and Eric Powell’s dinner.
Starting with my favorite basic bruschetta recipe, I chopped up one red early girl tomato, a few dozen cherry tomatoes, a peeled and seeded cucumber from the back garden, and a handful of red onion. Then I added julienned basil (backyard again!), salt, pepper, olive oil, and a tiny splash of red wine vinegar. Then I let it sit in the fridge for a few hours while we went about our business.
After watching a dear colleague successfully defend her dissertation and then celebrate accordingly, we picked up a loaf of sourdough bread on the way home and the magic really began. Generally when I make bruschetta, I toast the bread slices in the broiler. However, in her rendition in the movie, Julie Powell (or Amy Adams; I don’t know whether Julie Powell ever actually made this) fried her bread in olive oil. Wanting to stay as true to the beautiful food in the movie as I could, I opted to do the same.
Though some of my bread got a little dark, most of it turned out just fine.
We stacked up the vegetables on the bread, covering every square millimeter possible before biting in and, of course, losing half the tomatoes to the plates below. They squirted down our chins and slicked up our hands, but it was worth it, and here we return to my initial question. The tomatoes were good and juicy, the cucumber was crisp, the basil added the right zing, but the bread was really what made the dish excellent. It absorbed enough olive oil to be a beautiful golden brown color, and the crumbs of each slice became crisp; the perfect surface to stand up to the weight of the tomatoes, but still soak up a little of the juice the vegetables had created. Biting into a slice was a textural experience, because the inside of the bread was still soft, but the crust was crunchy and the outer surfaces were crispy, and the whole thing was deliciously… oily? Oiled? In our low/no-fat culture, obsessed with cleanliness and thinness and sleekness, the idea of oil seems objectively negative. But this was wonderful and delicious and silky and superb. What can I call it? Can we bring back, can we reclaim “oily” to mean what it should mean? That crispness with buttery rich moisture I experienced with our weeknight dinner? I think we should.