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In Praise of Oddly-Shaped Food

by Jane Wangersky | February 27th, 2014 | Cooking Basics
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burgersI’ve written about why processed food often has better taste and color than home cooking, and a few natural ways to make your homemade food as tasty and colorful as the food industry’s products. There’s one more quality that sets processed food apart from homemade — but unlike taste and color, it’s one I don’t think we home cooks should try to imitate. I’m talking about perfect shaping.

You know what I mean: Perfectly round burgers, square slices of ham to go with the square slices of bread, cubes of vegetables. Yes, they look nice and neat. They also look machine-made, which of course they are.  Who can draw a perfect circle or square freehand, let alone shape food into one? The perfect shapes please the eye, but they also remind us we’ve once again relied on someone else — someone with a factory full of machinery — to do something we could’ve done ourselves.

Of course, lots of us don’t have time to handmake our everyday food, but when we do, something special happens. My husband, barbecuing one summer evening, was amused to see that the burgers were roughly the same shape as the homemade buns — the same lopsided, not really round shape.  It was simply because they’d been made by the same hands.  (And no, I don’t usually make my own hamburger buns — but they’re a good summer weekend project, especially with a bread machine.) See, I have nothing against portions all being the same shape — and if you have kids, they’d better be all the same size, too — it’s when the shape is too regular that the meal loses something.

Companies that make “artisanal” foods know this — some of them, anyway. So does at least one company that makes preformed frozen burgers; I’ve noticed that their “premium” kind are all such an irregular shape that it looks as if they hadn’t even tried to make them round. But it’s a little silly to buy food that’s carefully machine-made to look handmade. At least, it is if you have time to make the equivalent yourself.

So — shape your burgers and biscuits and sandwich meat the best you can, and if the shape isn’t something you learned the name of in geometry class, be glad. Everyone will know you made it yourself, for them, and if the taste and color are the best you can make them too, they can’t ask for more.

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