sauce: so much more than just ketchup.

in the bible of cooking, a.k.a. on food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen, harold mcgee writes:

sauces are liquids that accompany the primary ingredient in a dish.  their purpose is to enhance the flavor of that ingredient — a portion of meat or fish or grain or vegetable — either by deepening and broadening its own intrinsic flavor, or by providing a contrast or complement to it.  while the meat or grain or vegetable is always more or less itself, a sauce can be anything the cook wants it to be, and makes the dish a richer, more various, more satisfying composition.  sauce help the cook feed our perpetual hunger for stimulating, sensations, for the pleasure of taste and smell, touch and sight.  sauces are distillations of desire.

honestly, i’m not too sure about that last bit, mainly because the phrase “distillations of desire” sounds like a masterfully crafted chef-themed pickup line, but i think our friend harold is on to something.  sauces are too often used as a substitute for food, a sort of catch-all of flavor that will fix any food that was botched but still needs to be consumed. ketchup and ranch dressing are the first two atrocities that come to mind.  they seem to be used in our modern society as a sort of culinary cosmetic rather than a creation which deepens or broadens the intrinsic flavor.  but even they were not intended as such.  condiments are, after all, sauces. for me to attempt to provide a history of sauce for you to read would not only be impossible, but most likely an eyesore.  massive blocks of text, dates, roman names, and elaborate french terms distinguishing each sauce from the next are not fun, per se. so instead, i’ll give you five of the most interesting moments in the history of sauce (in my opinion). 1.  in 239 bce, a chinese chef named i yin wrote a passage about the synthesis of flavors and the production of soups/sauces in the spring and autumn annals of master lu.  to summarize, he states:

in the business of harmonious blending, one must make use of the sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty.  […] it is like the subtlety of archery and horsemanship, the transformation of yin and yang, or the revolution of the four seasons.  thus the food is long lasting yet does not spoil; thoroughly cooked yet not mushy; sweet yet not cloying; sour yet not corrosive; salty yet not deadening; pungent yet not acrid; mild yet not insipid; oily-smooth yet not greasy.

its like the art of war, only about sauce.  i feel skilled when i make sauces at home, but i evidently need to work a little harder at it.  horsemanship and archery?  i yin, you are my hero. 2.  a latin poem written in 25 ce describes a farmer making what is called moretum, a cheese and herb based sauce that is a predecessor to one of my best friends in the entire world, pesto genovese.  i’ve desperately been trying to find a picture of this farmer to hang on my wall. moretum is still made today in greece. 3.  many roman sauces implemented a fish sauce, called garum, as their base.  sauce, however, were changed forever during the 14th century as a result of the crusades.  as trade (and ethnocentric unadulterated religious warfare) began to flourish between distant regions of the world, many traditionally implemented european spices became replaced with more exotic asian substitutes.  cinnamon, ginger, and almonds became commonplace.  almonds became the new standard nut for the thickening of sauces. the most important advent of this era was the cloth sieve, which allowed sauces that were rife with spices and large pieces of flavorful meats or vegetables to be strained.  the result was a smoother sauce than ever before. 4.  around the 16th century, vinegar and grape-based acids were replaced by lemon juice, and almond or bread-based thickeners gave way to butter, flour, and eggs.  hence, emulsions were invented.  and god thanked whoever decided to make the shift, because if they hadn’t, hollandaise would have never existed.  and i would be crying in a corner instead of writing this blog. 5.  around 1750, france entered the scene and drove home the fact that everybody was bad at cooking.  which is to say, copious amounts of money and royal endorsements for chefs across france prior to the french revolution provided the perfect atmosphere for meat sauces to flourish.  meat, which most of the world didn’t have the money to eat (much less make into a sauce) was first turned into consomme and bouillion, which would become two of the single most important bases for modern soups, stews, and sauces. in my humble opinion, britain has very rarely gotten anything right in the history of its cuisine.  i always imagine that the final step of any british recipe states, “boil until no further chemical change occurs.”  domenico caracciolli is noted as having said at some point in the 18th century that, “england has sixty religions and only one sauce,” that being melted butter.  in 1950, alberto denti di pirajno wrote in his venice published educated gastronome:

even today, [the english], incapable of giving any flavor to their food, call on sauces to furnish their dishes that which their dishes do not have.  this explain the sauces, the jellies and prepared extract, the bottled sauces, the chutneys, the ketchups which populate the tables of this unfortunate people.

and while i am only one among a myriad of people who offer withering criticism about british food, around 1800, almost as a direct counter-culture movement to french consomme, the british pioneered gravy. french cooking, especially in the realm of sauces, was pioneered and refined by those with monetary means to do so (e.g. royal chefs, professional restaurant owners, and notable authors of gastronomic articles).  and in england, the cuisine of the land was defined by what the common people of the land grew and cooked.  the concept that ten whole hams could be reduced into a single vial of intense ham quintessence was a point of pride and a demonstration of skill for the french, and a point of disbelief and criticism from the english.  who would waste that much meat? gravy, which is at its core only the remains of browned meat combined with local vegetables such as carrots and onion, some water, a touch of flower as a thickener, was the historic foil to the consomme.  it required nothing more than the ingredients that any person, regardless of social standing, would have in their pantry.  to cook, it required only the ability to simmer on low heat for a prolonged period of time. and thus, in less than 100 years, france and britain gave birth to two of the most important, most influential, and most delicious sauces in the history of mankind as a result of disliking each other.