BAD TASTE, THY NAME IS EXCESS
by Ruth Minshull
Some folks are convinced that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
Take perfume. I think it’s best used as a subtle suggestion of femininity, a hint of mysterious depths. But there are women who slosh it on with a garden hose. It becomes a weapon of war. They cut through a room like juggernauts, leaving a trail of bodies writhing in olfactory agony.
And then there are young men who put those huge tires on the back of their cars, so the front is tipping downward while the hind end is up in the air–like a bitch in heat, presenting herself to prowling males. Darned if I can figure out why, but they seem to be trying to outdo each other. I saw one the other day that should be the winner. The back of the car sat so high that the slightest downhill slope could have sent that baby into a forward somersault. It seems to me that such vehicles have been modified to the point of uselessness—like those women who grow foot-long fingernails. (You have to wonder how they can do anything.)
And then there are the hombres who put bigger and bigger tires on a pickup truck—all four wheels in this case. I suppose the original purpose was to enable them to drive over ruts, small bushes, rough terrain, obnoxious neighbors. But with some, this overmuchness has become yet another “mine-is-bigger-than-yours” contest. Are they planning to cruise over a water tower? A high-rise? They indulge their lust for excess to the point where they risk altitude sickness. They must have to use a hook and ladder truck to mount those suckers. But then, of course, they could drive over a burning building without even getting singed.
We also have another strange breed among us who observe Christmas by going totally overboard with exterior decorations. They assemble outlandish collections of lighted holiday symbols. Their places are aswarm with Santas in sleighs (complete with reindeer), Santa climbing down chimney, Santa in front of fireplace. Then there are wreathes, evergreen ropes, carolers, wise men, jolly snow men, somber nativity scenes—and light-adorned trees, large ones, small ones, evergreens and deciduous. This teeming glitter is assembled with no particular design.
In recent times, I’ve noticed, these over-doers have upped the ante. In addition to their humongous assortments of holiday symbols, they have added more lights. And more and more lights. Some have gotten so carried away that their places can be seen from Mars. Their electric bills must look like down payments on the national debt.
The predominant characteristic of these loonies is that they never know when to quit. Each year they gleefully display new additions to their surplusage. What can you say about such a public flood of vulgarity?
The same excessiveness can be seen in clothing. If you’re on a few catalog mailing lists you can easily determine the least expensive goods by the fact that practically every outfit will have too much stuff on it–too much embroidery, too many ruffles, too much fringe, too much fake lace, too much floral print, too much gaudy color. So, the less you pay, the more you get. Conversely, in order to get unadorned simplicity and subdued colors, you have to pay more.
I was leafing through a catalog the other day when I saw a black dress with nice graceful lines. But the designers couldn’t leave it alone. They had to add a garish flower design cascading down the center, then a red lace overlay at the neckline. Now, just getting warmed up, they threw in a row of red crochet trim around the edge of the sleeves. For good measure, they added a hem ruffle with two rows of more red crochet trim. It looked like a costume for the Mardi Gras parade.
Why, I wondered, does “inexpensive” so often equate to cheap, chintzy, showy, flashy?
There are exceptions. Once in a while we see an costly designer outfit that is gaudily over the top. The people who can afford it call it a “fun piece” and wear it once or twice before discarding it.
I don’t know if any authority has ever defined taste. We tend to say someone has good taste when it agrees with our own And I doubt if there’s any way one can argue about the subject. People like something or they don’t.
When we hear the word “tasteful” however, it brings to mind conservative, understated, with subdued, harmonious colors.
If someone remarks that a room was tastefully decorated, I doubt if any of us would envision yellow and red striped carpeting, fake leopard-skin couches and a black velvet painting of Elvis.
Lastly, nowhere is excess more prevalent than in cooking.
I once knew a woman who was basically a good cook, but she went crazy with herbs and spices. I don’t know exactly how her thinking went. Either she didn’t believe a half-teaspoon of anything could be tasted at all—or else she figured that if a little is good, a lot is better. As a result many of her meals were unpalatable.
I’ve spent a lifetime modifying dishes that I thought were so over-seasoned that the original taste was lost. I created my own recipe for enchiladas after watching a friend make them. She used dozens of those little canned peppers that would burn a crater into your countertop if you dropped one. Her husband loved them and gobbled them down whole, by themselves. But then, he was an alcoholic, so I figure his insides were already embalmed and he couldn’t taste anything of lesser impact. My own version has only one cut-up pepper in the sauce. It’s just a bit nippy, but the original flavor of the ingredients is still intact—and so are my own internal organs.
I also modified my moussaka recipe. Cinnamon gives it an exotic, different flavor, but I don’t believe you should be able to identify the spice. By reducing the amount to about one-quarter of that specified in the original recipe, mine has a more subtle, illusive flavor.
Oregano is one of these herbs that I personally feel should have remained undiscovered—or simply served as punishment for wayward cooks. Too often it dominates the dish so thoroughly that it becomes the only discernible flavor. If I liked the stuff that much I’d just eat it right out of the jar with a teaspoon. But I automatically reduce it or eliminate it.
Following the same practice, I changed my chili recipe so that you can actually taste the celery, green peppers and tomatoes. Chili powder is used to supply only a slight peppery flavoring.
This is one dish that seems to demand overdoing. Chili cookoffs have become great pissin’ contests. In these events the typical entry is no longer an identifiable food product. It is a mushy red fireball that cauterizes the esophagus and dissolves the stomach lining. It may actually be a cure for something. However, I have another theory You’ve heard of those mysterious illnesses in which the immune system has broken down? Medical researchers are baffled as to the cause of these cases. Now, I ask, have they ever checked to see whether such patients have been exposed to Texas Chili—an incendiary that would blaze through the body killing everything in its way. Why not the immune system?
I’ve often wondered if all of these various excess-orizers have mottos on their walls. If so, they won’t be those gentle pastel needlepoint reminders about “Home Sweet Home” or “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”.
No. Theirs will be blinking, neon-lighted, prompters egging them on: “REMEMBER—OVER DOES IT!”
* * *
© 2011 by Ruth Minshull