Santayana

Those who cannot remember the past are
condemned to repeat it

– George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason

 

This is probably the most famous quote from Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás (Americans call him “George”) and is often brought up when people critique political/historical turning points which have either turned out to be fortuitous or disastrous (e.g. Churchill and Austria, the Cuban missile crisis, the 1995 Yes/No Campaigns, foreign policy of any US president since Roosevelt vis-à-vis the Middle East, the 2011 Canadian federal election). Take your pick – it can be applied without too much difficulty.

I actually selected this quote to caption my fine, fine graduation photo for my high school yearbook, and in hindsight it was the better choice because I was originally going to go with Nietzsche – given what’s going on in the chez nous at present, connotations to überlegene Rasse are best avoided.

I watch a lot of food programming though at the moment there are very few series that actually show cooking – for that you need to have access to PBS’s specialty service Create TV or look to alternate delivery channels for overseas programming. Most of the North American stuff falls into either the travelogue or reality subgenres, and most of it isn’t particularly good. But think international and be rewarded.

I think even the ‘bots visiting this site know that I’ve been following My Kitchen Rules since Series 1 back in 2010. How much do I like this series? If I’ve had a bad day and need a pick-me-up there’s really nothing quite like watching the chez nous variant’s Marilyne and Dominick of Vaudreuil-Dorion to turn that frown upside-down. You can even visit them in person if that turns your crank because TVA/Casa gave out their family names in addition to their locales (way to go privacy policy!).

Series 5 (2014) of the Australian original got underway late last month and so far I’ve been thinking back to my high school yearbook as the first rounds of angst and misery progressed because Santayana’s quote is equally applicable to the mundane.

schadenfreude

Why the yearbook? Something that Seven started doing openly with Series 4 last year is really up-front-and-personal this go-around. I understand that Seven is a for-profit broadcaster and that what will draw viewership and the all-important advertising dollars are compelling characters people want to come back to.

Taking a page from professional wrestling, Seven has explicitly selected faces and heels to compete. What’s the confirmation that they’ve done a good job selecting the heels? Those teams get death threats (because death threats seem to be a normal part of the television industry in in Australia – it occurred in both 2011 and 2013, along with accusations of racism in 2013). So far no death threats and the non-pink competitors haven’t been doing too well, but then again, most of the competitors aren’t doing well. It’s that cooking talent or lack of it because whereas many can chat/quip/criticize, fundamental cooking ability seems to be severely lacking.

Duck confit is making that lack of skill blatantly evident.

Americans understand and are really good at reality competitions; they may not necessarily have invented the genre but they have refined and elevated it to its current form as an oeuvre d’art. On something like Top Chef, I have heard of competitors reviewing every minute of previous season broadcasts and webisodes, sifting through online comments and practicing like there’s no tomorrow blog posts to ensure they have some sort of edge for the best shot possible at winning. You don’t see anyone willing make risotto or use frozen scallops because everyone who has done so has crashed and burned.

Australian competitors however don’t seem to have grasped the concept, and I also suspect they don’t know who Santayana was either. MKR has been on air since 2010 and it’s presently showing its fifth season to massive numbers and the interest in the casting calls for new seasons is huge. For those who were selected from the various casting calls, I presume that you’ve watched a show to want to actually compete on it. Have you not paid attention? Have you not studied what worked and what didn’t work? Have you not practiced? Do you not possess taste buds?

Confit is MKR’s version of risotto and frozen scallops. The basic premise in the first half is you get 3 hours of mise-en-place before cooking a 3-course meal for 12. Duck confit is not something that lends itself to the timeframe. It’s outlined in every cookbook and yet no one seems to pay attention.

The French who developed confit as a technique for preserving meat have known this out for what, centuries? and have codified the method. While they used to confit all of the duck in the past because they couldn’t waste the meat, the best confit was already identified to be the legs because confit duck breast is tough, dry and effectively overcooked for the characteristics of this muscle.

André Daguin eventually invented the dish “magret de canard” in 1959 because what else would he do with a bunch of duck breasts that no one wanted to eat that he couldn’t sell in his restaurant? In a video interview with the BBC’s Mireille Johnson, he stated:

Il y a trente ans il n’y avait pas du magret de canard. On mangait les canards en confit. Et ce morceau là et ce morceau là c’est à dire la poitrine y est là, en confit c’est pas très bon, c’est pas très bon.

How much clearer do you need people to make it for you?

Apparently even clearer than this because confit keeps showing up and every attempt on this series has been disastrous. It comes down to “don’t do it”: confit the legs only and spend time to do it right. If one doesn’t find recipes for confit duck breast there’s probably a reason for it (tough, overcooked, horrible eating etc etc).

2010 competitors Marc and Natalie Ferron not only chose duck breast to confit, they demonstrated in painful extended detail how not to do it including a psychologic meltdown on camera. One could confit the legs in the timeframe offered, but unless you work very hard at it to get an average product you produce an insult to the duck as evidenced in 2011 by Kane Lillywhite and Lee Chan. My guess is that French judge/host Manu Feildel goes out of his way to talk about the technique because he’s secretly hoping that a future competitor listens to him and doesn’t attempt it.

Nope. He needs to hand out Q-tips because no one is listening to him. You’d think that new competitors would have prepared by watching those old episodes and prepping their pop-up menus to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, but no – there’s confit duck breast. Again!

What was the result? See the quote at the top of the page.

Lentil salad seasoned with confitAs for duck confit, I have played around with multiple preparation techniques and have settled on sous-vide primarily for the consistency batch after batch.

They’re very good for seasoning lentils.

Postscript:

Since I do like to cook, seem to be constantly glued to food programming, and scream at my screen with this “I can do better than that” attitude when watching things like MKR, people have asked why I don’t go try out for one of these shows.

It’s because I watch them for schadenfreude – if I wanted to have pleasure derived from my own misfortune, I’d be pulling on the gimp mask and strapping on those a$$less-leather chaps.

 

 

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